Clarifying the roles of the faithful

Substantial confusion surrounds the appropriate role the laity should hold in the life of the Church. Given this, it is important to recall the nature of the laity, and their relationship with the rest of the Church.

The secular character is what distinguishes the vocation of the laity. Lay people live an ordinary life in the world in which they direct their daily lives towards the sanctification of the temporal order by living out the Gospel. Their study, work, and relationships are able to be transformed through Christ. It is through the laity that the Church is made present and active in various sectors of the world. For example, the professional, social, cultural, and political worlds are brought into the Kingdom of God by the laity. Pope Paul VI’s “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” says, “The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world especially by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 13).

It is also worth noting how the laity is incorporated into the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. This mission finds its source in Baptism, its development in Confirmation, and its realization in “the dynamic sustenance in the Holy Eucharist.” (Christifideles Laici, 14). The laity shares in the priestly mission of Christ by uniting themselves to His sacrifice on the cross in the sacrifices they make in their daily lives. They share in the prophetic mission of Christ by proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. Finally, they exercise the kingship of Christ through spiritual battle to overcome sin and through serving their neighbor, especially the poor and the marginalized.

The ministry of priests is different in degree and essence from the participation given to the laity. Priests hold an irreplaceable and primary position in the Church in which they hold “authority and sacred power to serve the Church, acting in persona Christi Capitis” (in the person of Christ, the Head) (Christifideles Laici 22). The essentiality of the ministerial priesthood does not at all detract from or overshadow the extraordinary value of the vocation of the laity. In fact, the priesthood is fundamentally ordered towards serving the entire people of God.

In recent weeks, greater attention has been paid to the confusion surrounding the role of the laity. This attention been present through calls for a greater lay role in episcopal accountability and wide condemnations of clericalism.

There have been heightened calls for an increased role of the laity in Church governance in response to abuse and its cover-up by high-ranking members of the clergy. For example, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, recommended the Church adopt “a structure of accountability and responsibility and ways of collaboration” between the bishops and the laity. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed a similar sentiment when he called for “substantial involvement of the laity” in response to the crisis.

The Church might indeed greatly benefit from expanded lay participation in governance. Lay people possess professional competency, knowledge, and experience which would guide the Church on a human and material level. In addition, the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood are meant to complement and sustain one another, and this mutual relationship would be empowered and enabled through greater lay participation in Church governance. The recently revealed failures on the part of many bishops certainly seem to call for such reforms. These reforms would expand upon changes in canon law developed under the pontificate of St. John Paul II, which established the laity should hold an active role in Church governance.

Another issue that has been raised recently with regard to the laity is the issue of clericalism. This occurs when priests act, or are treated by others, as if they hold a position of moral superiority by virtue of their ordination. Pope Francis has underscored the issue of clericalism throughout his pontificate. Most recently, he has placed significant blame on clericalism for the clergy sex abuse crisis, saying, “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” Many have agreed with Pope Francis’ assessment, including Cardinals Joseph Tobin and Blase Cupich.

The issue of clericalism is addressed when members of the Church live out the proper roles and relationships required by their vocations—and when the dignity and nature of each role is made clear to all. When the laity and the clergy live out these proper roles and relationships, there will be a stronger communion in the Church. We hope for this ecclesial communion when we participate in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:  “That they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Ellie Gardey is a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy. She is fond of coffee shops and thunderstorms. Contact her at