Word on Fire: What are the laity supposed to be?
February 2, 2022
Back in the 1950s, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, began to articulate a vision that was largely ratified at the Second Vatican Council. She said that the prevailing notion of a “commandments spirituality” for the laity and a “counsels spirituality” for the clergy was dysfunctional. She was referencing the standard view of the period that the laity were called to a kind of least common denominator life of obeying the 10 commandments – that is to say, avoiding the most fundamental violations of love and justice – whereas priests and religious were called to a heroic life of following the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Lay people were ordinary players, and the clergy were spiritual athletes. To all of this, Dorothy Day said a rather emphatic no. Every baptized person, she insisted, was summoned to heroic sanctity – which is to say, the practice of both the commandments and the counsels.
As I say, Vatican II, in its doctrine on the universal call to holiness, endorsed this notion. Though the Council Fathers taught that there is a substantial difference between the manner in which clergy and laity incorporate poverty, chastity and obedience, they clearly instructed all followers of Christ to seek real sanctity by incorporating those ideals. So, what would this look like? Let us take poverty first. Though the laity are not, at least typically, summoned to the sort of radical poverty adopted by, say, a Trappist monk, they are indeed supposed to practice a real detachment from the goods of the world, precisely for the sake of their mission on behalf of the world.
Unless a lay person has interior freedom from an addiction to wealth, power, pleasure, rank, honor, etc., she cannot follow the will of God as she ought. Only when the woman at the well put down her water jug, only when she stopped seeking to quench her thirst from the water of the world’s pleasures, was she able to evangelize (John 4). Similarly, only when a baptized person today liberates himself from an addiction to money, authority or good feelings is he ready to become the saint God wants him to be. So, poverty, in the sense of detachment, is essential to the holiness of the laity.
Chastity, the second of the evangelical counsels, is also crucial to lay spirituality. To be sure, though, the way that the clergy and religious practice chastity – namely, as celibates – is unique to them, the virtue itself is just as applicable to the laity. For chastity simply means sexual uprightness or a rightly ordered sexuality. And this implies bringing one’s sexual life under the aegis of love. As Thomas Aquinas taught, love is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will, more precisely, willing the good of the other. It is the ecstatic act by which we break free from the ego, whose gravitational pull wants to draw everything to itself.
Like the drive to eat and to drink, sex is a passion related to life itself, which is why it is so powerful and thus so spiritually dangerous, so liable to draw everything and everybody under its control. Notice how the Church’s teaching that sex belongs within the context of marriage is meant to hold off this negative tendency. In saying that our sexuality should be subordinated to unity (the radical devotion to one’s spouse) and procreation (the equally radical devotion to one’s children), the Church is endeavoring to bring our sex lives completely under the umbrella of love. A disordered sexuality is a deeply destabilizing force within a person, which, in time, brings him off-kilter to love.
Finally, the laity are meant to practice obedience, again not in the manner of religious, but in a manner distinctive to the lay state. This is a willingness to follow, not the voice of one’s own ego, but the higher voice of God, to listen (obedire in Latin) to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I have spoken often before of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s distinction between the ego-drama (written, produced, directed by and starring oneself) and the theo-drama (written, produced and directed by God). We might say that the entire point of the spiritual life is to break free of the former so as to embrace the latter. Most of us sinners, most of the time, are preoccupied with our own wealth, success, career plans and personal pleasure. To obey God is to break out of those soul-killing preoccupations and hear the voice of the Shepherd.
Catholics make up around twenty-five percent of our country. Imagine what would happen if, overnight, every Catholic commenced to live in radical detachment from the goods of the world. How dramatically politics, economics and the culture would change for the better. Imagine what our country would be like if, today, every Catholic resolved to live chastely. We would make an enormous dent in the pornography business; human trafficking would be dramatically reduced; families would be significantly strengthened; abortions would appreciably decrease. And picture what our country would be like if, right now, every Catholic decided to live in obedience to the voice of God. How much of the suffering caused by self-preoccupation would be diminished!
What I am describing in this article is, once again, part of the great Vatican II teaching on the universal call to holiness. Priests and bishops are meant, the Council Fathers taught, to teach and to sanctify the laity who, in turn, are to sanctify the secular order, bringing Christ into politics, finance, entertainment, business, teaching, journalism, etc. And they do so precisely by embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Bishop Robert Barron is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry. See wordonfire.org.