Can lay people rescue this Church in crisis? In preparation for a forthcoming Conference on Vatican II to be held in Sydney next month, Dr Andrew Kania has been studying the insights of Dr Yves Congar – one of the theologians who had great influence at the Council. Dr Kania will be one of the keynote speakers at the Conference. In this commentary today the focus is on not just Yves Congar's appreciation of the importance and role of the laity in the Church but it draws on insights of Cardinal Newman and some of the history of Andrew's own heritage in the Ruthenian/Ukrainian Church on the critical role the laity have played in saving the Church at various points in history. This essay as well as being educative for us Latins of some of the history of our Eastern cousins in Catholicism provides commentary on the present challenge facing the institution. Might history repeat itself and again it might be lay people who end up pulling the institution out of the present bog it seems to be immersed in?
The unfinished challenge of Vatican II...
Despite the many diplomatic and ecclesiastical attempts that have taken place since the Schism of 1054, including a public apology exchanged between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1965 to close Vatican II; to this day, numerically the largest group from the Eastern Orthodox Churches to reconcile with the See of Peter, has been the Ruthenian/Ukrainian Church that formally ratified the articles of the Union of Brest in 1595. Underpinning this ecumenical 'success' story is a considerable degree of irony; for although the clergy signed the official document, the Union of 1595 would never have come to fruition had it not been for the laity, who if truth be told, were the catalyst of inspiration for the Catholic Church's greatest chapter of East-West ecclesiastical reconciliation.
Borys Gudziak in his seminal study of the Union of Brest, titled, Crisis and Reform , notes:
"In the 1570s and 1580s the Ruthenian hierarchy played virtually no role in initiatives for reform in Ruthenian Orthodox cultural and religious life. The stimulus came from the laity, either the burghers, particularly in L'viv, or from a few individual magnates of exceptional means, such as Hryhorii Oleksandovych Khodkevych, who sponsored the printshop and editions produced in Zabludow. Another Orthodox magnate, who had even greater material resources at his disposal, was Prince Konstantyn Ostroz'kyi …". [Gudziak, 2001, p. 119]
Such laymen as Ostroz'kyi, sponsored the Church in a variety of initiatives, including the publication of the largest book in Cyrillic characters — the Ostrih Bible. The printing presses created a revival of Ruthenian Church spirituality. As Gudziak writes, the publication of the Ostrih Bible "was motivated both by a desire for ecclesiastical revival and by the need for defense against the adversaries of the Eastern Church." [Gudziak, 2001, p. 125] Gudziak continued on to highlight that:
"The scope of the publishing and literary activity at Ostrih responded to the immediate needs of the Ruthenian faithful. In addition to Scripture, later Ostrih editions included works on ecclesiastical discipline and polemical defenses of Ruthenian religious traditions and customs. The publications and manuscripts stemming from the Ostrih circle, the Bible and various primers, pamphlets and patristic works, and polemical treatises — twenty eight known publications over the period between 1578 and 1612 — are the most important and in many cases the unique source of information on the members of the Ostrih intellectual community and their activities." [Gudziak, 2001, p. 127]
Thus, at a time when the Ruthenian Church was beginning to crumble to its knees, with the clergy impotent at best, the Ruthenian laymen created a climate of intellectual energy that set an eventual course for dialogue between Rome and Kyiv. Had it not been for their endeavours, the Ruthenian Church would have quite possibly disintegrated, to be shared out, eventually piece-meal, between Roman Rite Catholic Poland, the Protestant Reformers and Muscovy.
Yves Congar in his collection of essays, Priest and Layman , spoke at length about the need for the laity to become more actively involved in the life of the church. Congar's analysis of the laity (in the West of Christianity at least), being ostracized from important Church matters, is based on the etymological differences found between the words, 'cleric' and 'layman'. Congar writes:
"From the late Middle Ages down to the Renaissance, literatus ('one who knows letters', that is, Latin), was synonomous with 'cleric', whereas the synonym for 'layman' was illiteratus or idiota (a simple person, one who cannot explain things)." [Congar, 1962, p. 243]
As Congar's thesis is developed, his insights become more and more penetrating. Congar quotes Cardinal Newman who wrote in 1873: "As far as I can see, there are ecclesiastics all over Europe, whose policy is to keep the laity at a distance, with the result that the laity are disgusted and have lost the faith." [Congar, 1962, p. 246] Moreover in Congar's assessment of Vatican II, the famed ecumenist notes that the Council that was called in order to let the Church breathe in a modern world, failed in one vital area — the empowerment of the lay person. Note Congar's pointed remarks:
"The laity, in so far as they assisted at the Councils, played their part by advice, witness, consent and publication of the conclusions adopted. But before the Council there was its preparation: that was the work of the professionals and experts, most of whom were not bishops. There was nothing to prevent laymen having a place among these experts, at least in the capacity of consultors. Now practically nothing of this sort happened: once again, the exception only serves to prove the rule. Is not this, again a sign of the existence in many churchmen of certain attitudes or views, which imply an inadequate appreciation of the action of the laity? Attitudes of caste, esprit de corps, habits of wielding a sacred authority." [Congar, 1962, p. 248]
Returning to the beginning of this essay...
So let us now return to the beginning of this essay. In the Eastern Church, as Congar attested in another text on the subject, Lay People in the Church , it was often the laity who were the theologians who were called on to prevent the Church from falling into error. In the West, the feudal system and the rise of the ecclesiastical elite positioned the laity as more or less a mute underclass. The danger inherent in such a lack of empowerment for the vast majority of Catholics of the West, was that at some stage, the need to speak out would occur no longer as a request, but through vociferous protest. This protest of course developed in the West, in what has been called the Protestant Reformation. Yet as a result of the Reformation, an imbalance occurred, an over-compensation, a stripping away of the sacred nature of the priesthood, and by so doing, an eventual disintegration of the Sacraments in Protestant Theology.
Today we live within a Church that is vastly different from that of the Middle Ages, of the literate, and the idiot. In fact many of our lay men and women, are far more well-educated than the clergy in matters theological. This has its problems. For as the parent oftentimes struggles with the maturing ideas of their adolescent child, so too the Church is now confronted, the Magisterium at least, with lay people, who have ideas as to where the Church should reform — ideas not based on pure whim, but based on considered, thoughtful, and knowledgeable speculation. On both sides, parent and child, adjustments are necessary, in order for the relationship between the two to develop with love. But there must always be respect and charity. Congar is strikingly clear, that the Magisterium must always be obeyed, with regard Its sacred teaching authority. If the Magisterium is not respected, then there is no Church, for Truth cannot be defined. Once Truth cannot be defined and accepted, there exists no foundation for Faith. Yet this respect for the teaching authority of the Magisterium does not mean that the Magisterium should not listen to the voice of the people — for the Holy Spirit speaks to all the baptized; and the Wisdom of the Spirit, is not confined to a head that has at its base a clerical collar.
Congar's writings on the laity always emphasize the relationship between the priest and the people — the sacramental perfection the priest offers in the Church, as well as the enormous potential that lay men and women offer — a resource so obviously untapped throughout the vast majority of Catholic Church history. What is vital is that the Church realizes that the laity require a mature place in the life of the Church, one that does not see the authority of the Magisterium displaced or questioned; nor the nature of the sacred priesthood, supplanted, but that gives the lay man and woman, a constructive voice, in order to help reform the Church, so as for Her to fully engage with the modern world. If the laity are not encouraged to speak their minds charitably, and be encouraged to be active in the Church - then perhaps Cardinal Newman's warning will indeed be the result — a loss of faith.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania, submitted to Catholica on 8 May 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012Dr Andrew Thomas Kania