Rights of the Laity and their Limitations

– Fr. S.J. George Nedungatt

“The third millennium will be of the laypeople,” has said Pope John Paul II. That is an implicit admission that the second millennium has not been. Of course the Pope did not mean to state that there will be no pope or bishops or priests in the Church of the third millennium but only laypeople. Rather the laity have yet to come to their own in the Church, and the clergy has to make room for it. This is a burning issue in the Church at the beginning of the third millennium.

In discussing this topic it is not our purpose to present even summarily a full theology of the laity. Nor shall we outline the canonical figure of the laity with a detailed account of all their rights and obligations. We shall only sketch the teaching of the Catholic Church on the laity highlighting certain points of the doctrine as it is expounded in the documents of the Second Vatican Council: Lumen Gentium (Constitution on the Church chapter four, “On the Laity”) and Apostolicam Actuositatem (decree On the Laity). The theological and canonical status of the laity was studied more closely in the years following the Council. The positive results of these studies were collated in the Roan Synod of Bishops “On the Laity” (1987) and systematically expressed in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II Christifideles Laici of 30 December 1988, in which the Holy Father states prophetically that the third millennium is of the lay – people. Drawing on these sources we shall focus more narrowly on the question if there is a theological link between the laity and the administration of the temporal goods of the Church. Given their specific “secular” vocation, have not the laity a special call or charism to administer the temporal goods of the Church?

1. Theological Status of the Laity

At the very outset, it is remarkable how even some professional theologians have slipped on the true meaning of the term “Laity.” Here is n example: “The concept of the ‘laity’ is itself theologically untenable…… Any positive definition given to the term laity or lay person would also have to include the clergy in so far as they are also baptized and chrismated members of the Laos of God.” This writer like many others, including the earlier Yves Congar, has linked the Greek adjective LAIKOS (laico’s) directly to laos tou theou (People of God) and concluded that all members of the Church are laypeople, so that there is no warrant for any distinction between the clergy and the laity. Research into Greek philology has, however, shown that this is too simplistic and wrong. Since even in recent theological and canonical writings philology is often neglected causing confusion and error, we have to linger in a somewhat detailed manner on terminology.

Terminology. The meaning of the English words “laity” and “lay” cannot be properly understood without studying their etymology and semantics. The terms “laity” and “lay” are not found in the New Testament, just as the terms “clergy” and “clerical” are not in it either. But as is well known , a reality may be present without a proper term to express it precisely. Thus, for example, the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, yet as we know, the Bible is full of the reality of the Trinity. So are the terms laity and clergy or clerics, which are extra-biblical terms. The dictionary meaning of “laity” may still sound discriminatory, but it points to history:

1. “The body of religious worshippers, as distinguished from the clergy.

2. The people outside of a particular profession, as distinguished from those belonging to it; those lacking professional knowledge of a specific subject.”

These words “laity” and “lay” are derived ultimately from Greek through Latin “laicus” and Middle French “lai.” The original Greek word is laiko’s which is and adjective, meaning “popular,” or “common,” or “not sacred,” or “secular,” from lao’s (noun, “people”). As an adjectival substantive or noun laiko’s refers to a person who does not belong to the specific category of those who govern but is a member of the common people.

The particular nuance of “subordination” present in the Greek laiko’s is, however, lost in translation into other languages like Latin (“laicus”) and Syriac (almaya, “secular”, “of the world”). From the Latin “laicus” come the English “lay” and “laity”, French “laic”, Italian and Spanish “laico”, Portuguese “leigo” German “Laie”, and other such words in European languages. Lack of due attention to Greek philology and semantics has led several writers into error. Following a superficial and popular etymology some have thought that the Greek word laiko’s must refer to all the members of the People of God in the inclusive sense. From wrong premise, it is, but a step to the inference, that laiko’s implies a democratic leveling down of all the members of the Church. The truth is that in the original Greek “laypeople” designates a category which is distinct from those in authority, whether political or religious, whether kings or priests.

Theology. Theology introduces the category of ecclesiastical hierarchy, following again a Greek mode of thinking, which was systematized by a sixth century writer called Pseudo-Dionysius. The Second Vatican Council sums up the doctrine of the Church by adopting the distinction between a common priesthood and a ministerial priesthood in the Church.

“The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house a holy priesthood. … Though this common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood differ essentially and not only in degree, they are nonetheless ordered to each other, each in its own way, sharing the one priesthood of Christ” (LG 10).

All those who are baptised into the one body of Christ and are anointed with the Spirit have access to God the Father and address him as Abba, Father, and obtained forgiveness of sins in the New Temple, which is the Risen Christ, the only mediator and High Priest. All the members of his body have a share in this priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. This is the common priesthood, or the priesthood of the faithful. The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood has its basis in another sacrament, namely the sacrament of order by which some are deputed to a share in the sacred power of Christ to shepherd his flock and exercise the threefold function of teaching, sanctifying and governing. This sacred power, however, does not raise those in sacred orders (the “clergy”: from kleros, the lot used in elections to public offices in ancient Greek society) to a higher dignity, though there is an objective difference between the clergy and the laity by reason of the sacrament of order. This distinction, however, is not to be hardened into separation, much less antagonism. Lay people have equal dignity with the clergy in the Church (LG 32) but not equal powers since the sacrament of order has not been conferred on them. But by reason of baptism and the common priesthood all have a share in the mission of Christ and are called to the building up, of the body of Christ. Hence not only the clergy, but the laity, too, have a specifically distinct ecclesial mission and sphere of competence, which is not confined to cooperating with the clergy. Secularly as a specific sphere of life and competence, however, does not mean an exclusive competence on the part of the laity. The Council states: “To the laity belong properly, though not exclusively, secular offices and activities… The laity have indeed the duty to participate actively in the entire life of the Church. It is their duty not only to imbue the world with the Christian spirit but it is their vocation to be the witnesses of Christ in all circumstances but in the very midst of the human community” (GS 43). An indication that secularity is not exclusive to the laity is the traditional appellation “secular priest.” Saint Paul was a tent maker by secular occupation (Acts 18:3) and was proud of earning his living by such manual work (Acts 20: 34) and not burdening his congregations (1Cor 4: 12), though he also affirmed the divine right of the ministers of the gospel to earn their living by the gospel (1 Cor 9:14). To this right of the ministers corresponds a duty of those who are ministered to, according to the adage that to every right corresponds a duty. This is the basis of the canonical obligation of the Christian faithful to provide for the worthy support of the ministers of the Church (CCEO c. 25 § 1; CIC c. 221 § 1).

If on the one hand, like all the Christian faithful, the laity have a share in the threefold ecclesial function of teaching, sanctifying and governing, the clergy on the other hand is not extraneous to the temporal sphere. Some have argued that, given their secularity, it is the proper, specific and exclusive competence of the laity to administer the temporal goods of the Church. But this is not the way Second Vatican Council views the matter nor the way the postconciliar twin codes of the Catholic Church have legislated. But then are the Codes at loggerheads with the theology of the laity, as some allege? The Codes follow the Council. Hence the question has to be rephrased: Is the Council at loggerheads with the theology of the laity? Once the question is rephrased this way, one will have to be rather wary. We shall return to it later in chapter six.

The insistence on the specific difference of secularity should not however, make us lose sight of what is common to all Christ’s faithful. “To each one is given a particular manifestation of the Spirit for the common benefit” (1 Cor 12: 7). The laypeople play out their different roles not only in the secular field but in various ministries and services: as extraordinary ministers of the Holy Communion, as acolytes or Mass servers, as ministers of the word, as readers, as singers, as catechists and as teachers of religion in schools, as missionaries, as officials of associations of the faithful, as animators of prayer groups, as members of charitable organizations, as administrators of the temporalities of the Church, as directors of charitable organizations and of the works of apostolate. The laity’s call is, in a word, to evangelize a specific domain of creation, as has been beautifully expressed by Pope Paul VI: “Their proper field of evangelization is that vast and complex domain of politics, society and economy as well as the region of the cultivation of culture, of arts and sciences, of mutual relations between nations, mass media.” The only area that is not accessible to the laypeople in the Church is where the reception of the sacrament of the holy orders is a prior condition.

We need not deal here with the vexed question about the theological moment when a member of the Church becomes a layperson. The question when a person becomes a cleric is clear enough. A Christian faithful becomes a cleric ordinarily through the sacrament of order, though for minor clerics the minor orders will be enough, or even tonsure as was the case in the Latin Church according to the former Latin Code (CIC – 1917, c. 108 § 1). As for religious, a Christian faithful becomes a religious through religious profession. Now, as regards the laity, when and how does a Christian faithful become a layperson? Some have seen the sacrament of confirmation or Chrismation as the sacrament of the laity. This theory runs into several difficulties. First, before the reception of this sacrament not only children but also adults are regarded as laypeople. Secondly, this is a gratuitous assumption onaccount of the fact that this sacrament is administered in the Eastern Churches often together with baptism as its complement. In any case, the liturgical texts do not warrant this interpretation. Hence some see the sacrament of baptism as the sacrament of the laity. At the moment of baptism one becomes ipso facto a layperson, a status which is lost through the sacrament of order or through religious profession. All the baptized are thereby lay Christian faithful and are so treated in canon law. But then how is it that persons who have a divine vocation from the very beginning to priesthood or religious life are held to have a vocation at the same time to secularity as laypeople till their ordination or religious profession? This seems to be antithetical. The answer is that this is but a legal presumption and disposition, which is valid till the contrary is verified. This can be illustrated with reference to a priest who is laicized, that is, he loses his clerical state and belongs to the lay state without losing his priestly “character.” He continues to be a priest, but in the lay state and without becoming a layman. Anlogously and conversely, at baptism persons are per se regarded as laypersons canonically, though potentially some of them may be priests or religious. The secularity of such persons with a priestly or religious vocation is that of the Church a whole, which is not identical with the secularity of the laity. The secularity proper to the laity is entered into by the Christian faithful by an express choice to be a layperson, which however can be implicit in a resolution not to choose the clerical or religious state. This entry does not take place through the reception of any sacrament. It is deviant to bring in the sacrament of the chrismation with the holy Myron (confirmation) in this context, as some have tried to do. Nor is marriage, the sacrament of the laity, as there are non married laity on the one hand and there are married clergy on the other not only among protestants and the Orthodox but also in some Eastern catholic Churches.

The Second Vatican Council has taught: “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood differ essentially and not only in degree; yet they are interrelated” (LG 10). Much has been written about this conciliar teaching, though not always shedding further light on it but often only confounding confusion. Let us set the record straight.

First of all, the conciliar distinction is not between clergy on the one hand and the laity on the other.

Secondly, the common priesthood of the faithful is not lost but endures in those who receive the ministerial priesthood.

Thirdly, the former is obtained through the sacrament of baptism and the latter through the sacrament of holy orders; hence two distinct sacraments are at the basis of the distinction between the common priesthood and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood.

Fourthly, the hierarchy of orders consists of episcopate, presbyterate, and the diaconate, which are the three degrees of the sacrament of order. These differ among themselves in degree only, but not in essence or essentially as do baptism and orders. The sacrament of orders is the basis of the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood. The function of this priesthood is, as the Council teaches, “to form and govern with sacred power the priestly people,” that is the faithful with common priesthood.

People often talk loosely of ministry without distinguishing between ordained ministry and non-ordained ministry, and sometimes also overlooking the fact that ordained ministry itself can be sacramental or non-sacramental. In short, the difference between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, as taught by the Second Vatican Council, is rooted in the difference between the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of orders. If this latter difference is not a matter of degrees but of essence – obviously baptism and orders are two sacraments that are essentially different: the latter is not a higher degree baptism – then there must be an essential difference between the common priesthood and the ministerial (hierarchical) priesthood as well.

Both the common priesthood and the hierarchical priesthood are, however, participations in the one priesthood of Christ with its triple functions (tria munera): prophetic, sacerdotal and royal. Both priesthoods have a share in these functions, but in different manner. This sharing does not annul the difference. This difference is not between primary and secondary, not between higher and lower. To overlook this difference is, ultimately, as good as holding that there was no difference between the twelve apostles chosen, trained, and empowered by Christ and the rest of Christ’s disciples. The call to discipleship is universal, the call to apostleship (apostleship is different from apostolate) is not. Saint Paul was keenly and gratefully aware of this distinction. While duly stressing the common, universal call, the equal dignity, share in mission and functions, and interrelationship, we may not neglect the difference implied in the symbolism of the shepherd and the flock. To level down the difference may look democratic and even fashionable today, but it can be achieved only by leveling down the difference between shepherds and sheep.

Many charisms cut across distinctions of persons and can be common to pastors and the flock. A special grace is conferred on a select few like Timothy whom St. Paul reminded “to rekindle the grace of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1: 6) and of the elders (1 Timothy 4:14). It is through this special grace, handed down through apostolic succession, that some disciples are empowered to forgive sins and preside over the Eucharistic assembly and offer the sacramental oblation. Some of the Reformers devalued the sacrament of orders and kept only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. The Council of Trent upheld the sacrament of orders, and as a corollary affirmed the existence of ecclesiastical hierarchy in the Church. The Second Vatican Council has continued the same Magisterium, but completes it by its teaching on the People of God and on the common priesthood of all the baptised members of the Church. (LG, chapter 2). The hierarchy is not set over the People of God but is a service within it based on a specific gift which is given to a select few according to the biblical theology of vocation and election (LG, chapter 3). In the same way, the laity also have their specific vocation and mission in the church and in the world (LG, chapter 4). Here is a key text of the Council.

“The term ‘laity’ is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful who by baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” (LG 31).

This special vocation and mission of the laity is explained by the Council in the following terms.

“By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. … It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer” (LG 31 § 2).

Like all the Christian faithful laypeople are entrusted with a mission and apostolate by virtue of their very baptism and anointing with holy Myron or confirmation. They have the right and the duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be made known to all and freely accepted (LG 33). Through their Christian witness every sphere of human life and activity is evangelized. Their mission requires and authorizes them further to “proclaim Christ by word both to those who do not yet believe … and to believing faithful” (AA 6 § 3).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church proposes anew in synthesis the same conciliar doctrine and explains the participation of laypeople in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices. In particular, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, it states: “To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer” The teaching function was still reserved to the priest by Yves Congar, although his groundbreaking work in the theology of the laity has been helpful to the Second Vatican Council to situate laypeople in their rightful place in the Church.

“The priest is not the sole agent in the Church’s activities, though he alone has authority. … It is he who celebrates, but the whole body offers; it is he, who teaches, but all bear witness and are active in the knowledge of the faith; it is he, who has the care of souls, but all have the mission to the apostolate.”

History. The theology of the laity will not be complete without the history of the laity, however brief. In ancient times most of the population was illiterate, and literacy was the privilege of the rich few. For higher education young Basil and Gregory had to go to the university of Athens all the way from Asia Minor, just as Cicero had done after his lower studies in Rome. The literate had an edge over the illiterate in society to become leaders as in the case of Basil and Gregory themselves elected bishops of Caesarea and Nazianz. Offices in the Church were conferred through election, in which the laity had at least a vote to confirm or reject the choice made by the higher clergy. The laity were forbidden to preach in the West by Pope Leo I, and to teach in the East by the Council in Trullo, which shows that not all laypeople were illiterate. For Example, Cassiodorus (died 575) in the West and Photius 9820-891) in the East were the most learned men of their times. But they were the exceptions. As a rule, the clergy represented the educated elite.

The English word “clerk,” which is divided from the Latin clericus (through the Middle and Old English “cleric” or “Cleric”), once meant “a person who is able to read, or to read and write .” It tells at once the ancient history of the literate clergy and the illiterate laity. Constantine and other Christian emperors naturally preferred to appoint clerics to the chanceries and other such civil offices of the Roman and the Byzantine Empire. The same pattern was followed by the Barbarian invaders of Europe and by the Frankish emperors and kings. Education was available in monastic or cathedral schools only. The higher clergy belonged to the “teaching Church” (Ecclesia docens) and the laypeople belonged to the “learning Church” (Ecclesia discens). The pulpit dominated the benches. An illiterate society is led by the oral word, not the written word. The priest told the laity what was to be believed, what was to be performed, what was to be paid. The priest was “the sole agent in the Church,” the sole celebrant (the laity heard the Mass or saw it), the sole teacher. “Layman” became synonymous with “non-professional,” or “inexperienced.”

The excesses of clericalism in the Western Church boomeranged in caesaropapism. The clerical claim to the superiority of the clerical power (soul over body, spirit over matter or flesh, light over darkness, etc) was countered by the claim to the divine right of kings. The Christian kings of Europe (the First Layman of the realm) asserted their right to appoint and depose bishops. With a different concept of the relationship between Church and State, the Byzantine emperors filled or emptied the see of Constantinople at will. While in the West sacerdotium (priesthood) and imperium (kingship) tried to elbow each other out, in the East they established a sort of “symphony,” at least in theory. The Western feudal system favoured ambitious and licentious layman to complete for and occupy even the highest ecclesiastical office. Thus the laity became the father of a corrupt clergy. With the emergence of universities in the twelfth century a minority of educated laity also emerged. The laity asserted their autonomy and freed themselves from clerical tutelage through humanism and illuminism and secularism. Intransigent Magisterium engendered recusant laymen like Voltaire in France and Shakespeare in England. They do not, however, steal the whole show. There have been also laymen like Thomas More, Pascal and Chateaubriand, who stood for the traditional values. France in particular has continued to produce up to our own day eminent on the extremes of the spectrum, like Andre Gide and Jean Paul Sartre on the left and Paul Claudel, Jacques Maritan, and Jean Guiton on the right. These latter have been loyal and obedient sons of the Church, even though they knew the weakness of churchmen. It was to win over through the laity a laicist world that had taken its distance from the Church that Pius XI promoted the Catholic Action, regarded primarily as collaboration of the laity with the apostolate of the hierarchy. The Second Vatican Council amplified it into lay apostolate, recognizing the autonomy of the secular sphere.

The benefits of education have been slow to percolate society. Even as late as the nineteenth century in order to read the Bible in its original languages Greek and Hebrew, St. Therese of Lisieux, now Doctor of the Church, wished she were a priest. The dictionary meaning of the word “laymen” as “those lacking professional knowledge of a specific subject” arose in such a past socio-cultural context. This dictionary meaning today applies only in literature, not in ecclesiology. Not all those who criticize the pre-Vatican clericalism and pyramidal ecclesiology, known for its sharp clergy-laity divide, advert to this socio-cultural context, outside of which the clergy are all too unfairly made to appear in the garb of the villain. Today, in a world within sight of universal literacy, the laity are not debarred in theory or in practice from any of the sacred sciences. And it is not rare for laypeople as well as religious sisters to teach Scripture or dogma to priests and candidates to priesthood in ecclesiastical faculties and major seminaries. Thus the Catholic laity have caught up with the Orthodox and Protestant laity, among whom eminent theologians and canonists were never wanting.

Given today’s specializations, in areas where laypeople have their specific sphere or apostolate like politics, and in subjects like economics, commerce and business management (where the laypeople are normally the competent experts), priests and bishops are but ‘laymen”. This implies per se a healthy system in which “checks and balances” constitute an operating principle, which requires mutual submission of the clergy and the laity, according to the Pauline directive, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

Pastoral. Being members of Christ’s body, neither clerics nor laypeople are to exercise their apostolate in isolation but in co-operation with one another. No one in the Church, whether bishop, patriarch or pope, is an island; no one can exercise his or her apostolate in isolation. Concretely, this means that while the laity are not to seek a concurrent sphere of apostolate, the clergy are not to see the laity simply as the object of pastoral care. There are true lay ministries in the Church. As Pope Paul VI has stated,

“The laity can also feel called, or be in fact called, to co-operate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community, for the sake of its growth and life. This can be done through the exercise of different kinds of ministries according to the grace and charisms which the Lord has been pleased to bestow on them.”

These lay ministries vary according to the needs of the times and places. They include first of all the ministry of the word: reading the prescribed liturgical readings, preaching excepting the homily (CIC c. 767 § 1; CCEO c. 614 § 4), catechesis, counseling, spiritual direction, retreat guidance, etc. Under the ministry of the sacraments comes the extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, conferring baptism in special circumstances, serving as patrons or godparents at baptism, assisting at marriages as qualified witness with delegated faculty (in the Latin Church), etc. Under the ministry of charity and witness comes a variety of social and charitable services performed neither individually or linked with some institution like hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centres, social institutes, homes for the aged or orphans, etc. In the apostolic and sub-apostolic age, many believers or laypeople sold their belongings and, according to the testimony of Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea, travelled from place to place preaching the gospel and doing genuine missionary work. Short of that the laity can still ‘co-operate in the Church’s work of evangelization” in several ways. These and other such ministries instituted according to the need of times and places are true ministries and deserve to be recognized as such whether done by the laity or religious or clergy. The restoration of the ministry of the deaconess, once a common institution in all the Churches of the East and of the West, is being delayed in the Catholic Church chiefly owing to theological debate over the question whether the deaconess was ordained sacramentally or not, or in other words, whether she belonged under the laity or the clergy. One wonders why a ministry has necessarily to be tagged as either clerical or lay, sacramental or non-sacramental, and cannot be simply ecclesial. After all, the ministry of the deaconess was instituted without resolving or even raising that question. However once moved, theological debates have a singular power of impeding even necessary ecclesial reforms. According to current terminology, only clerics can be “sacred ministers.” Perhaps with greater appreciation of lay ministers this qualification of “sacred ministers” will need to be shed in the future even as all the Congregations of the Roman Curia have dropped their former qualification “Sacred.”

The co-operation between the ministers of the Church, lay and clerical, can extend to the exercise of the power of governance (CIC c. 129 § 2; CCEO c. 979 § 2), which is therefore not exclusive to clerics. This is particularly so in the administration of the temporal goods of the Church but is not confined to it. Regarding the overall co-operation of the laypeople in the exercise of the power of governance the Catechism of the Catholic Church (911) states: “The Church provides for their presence at particular councils, diocesan synods, pastoral councils, the exercise in solidum of the pastoral care of a parish, for collaboration in finance committees, and participation in ecclesiastical tribunals, etc.” Obviously this is not a passive presence. How active their role is a matter that is to be regulated by law. This is done by the two codes of the Catholic Church as well as by particular codes.

2. Laity in the Law of the Church

The rights and obligations proper to persons in the Church should correspond to their respective theological or ecclesiological status. To ensure this is the proper task of canon law. Both the Code of Canons of the Eastern churches (CCEO) and The Code of Canon Law (CIC) have attempted to translate the conciliar vision into juridical language. Thus the tow Codes have determined the rights and duties of clerics, of religious, and of the laity. Under the title “The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Members of Christ’s faithful” the Latin Code has grouped together eight canons (CIC cc. 224-231). Corresponding to them in the Eastern Code there are eleven canons (CCEO cc. 399-409) placed under the simple title De Laicis, (“Lay People” or “lay Persons”). Each Code follows the structural logic proper to it in dealing with the three states of Christ’s faithful in the Church: laity, clergy and religious, in this order in the Latin Code; and clergy, laity, and religious, in this order in the Eastern Code. Most of the lay rights and obligations articulated in the Codes are mentioned in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

The rights and obligations of the laypeople are of two kinds: those that are common to all the Christian faithful, and those are specific to the laypeople. The former are codified in the two Codes almost in identical terms (CIC cc. 208-223; CCEO cc.7-26) and constitute a veritable chapter of human and Christian rights and obligations. These are comparable to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India as well as certain other modern constitutions. Though they were originally conceived and drafted as fundamental rights and obligations of Christians (Lex Ecclesia Fundamentalis), They are not formally presented as such in the Codes, and so they are not juridically fundamental rights, though substantially they are, especially those flowing directly from baptism. This chapter of rights and duties is headed in the Eastern Code by the obligation to preserve, profess and fructify faith (CCEO c. 10). Then follow other obligations to preserve communion with the universal and particular Church, to lead a life of holiness, to obey Pastors; the right of expressing one’s own needs and views, to receive spiritual assistance, to worship in one’s own rite and to pursue a spirituality of one’s choice, the right of association and assembly, the right to apostolate, to Christian education, and to self-expression, to freedom in the choice of a state of life; the right to one’s good reputation, to privacy, to legal defence of one’s rights, to due process, to freedom from canonical penalties except in accordance with law; obligation to provide for the needs of the Church (“worship, apostolate, charitable works, support of ministers”), to promote social justice and to help the poor, to mind the common good. “In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate the exercise of the rights that are proper to the Christian faithful” (CIC c. 223 § 2 CCEO c. 26 § 2). Both the Codes point out expressly (CIC c. 224, CCEO c. 400) that this list of Christian rights and duties, as well as others determined in other canons, are to be added to the chapter of rights and duties of the laity (CIC cc. 224-231; CCEO cc. 399-409). Not all these last are specifically and exclusively lay rights and obligations in as much as some of them are common to all Christian faithful. They are mostly condensed from Lumen Gentium, chapter four on the laity.

But to start with, who are laypeople? What is the canonical notion of the laity? The Eastern Code gives a positive definition of the laity, which is lacking in the Latin Code, which is content with a negative definition of the laypeople as non-clerics: “By divine institution, among Christ’s faithful there are in the Church sacred ministers, who in lay are also called clerics; others are called lay people” (CIC c. 07 § 1). And sacred ministers of clerics are those who have receive the sacrament of order (c. 1008) in any one of its three degrees, episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate (c. 1009 § 1). Therefore, all non-clerics are, by elimination, laypeople. For a positive notion of laypeople the Latin Code relies on the conciliar documents.

The Eastern Code, instead, defines the laity following the same documents, especially LG 31, as follows. “In this Code by the term laypeople are meant those Christian faithful for whom secularity is proper and specific and who, living in the world, participate in the mission of the Church without being in holy order or enrolled in the religious state.”

According to this canon secularity is the proper characteristic of the laity but is not their exclusive trait. This is implicit in the definition of the laity itself, which after mentioning secularity as the characteristic of the laity mentions also clerics and religious if only to exclude them. In fact the secular clergy and some “lay” (non clerical) religious keep something of secularity, though not as a characteristic. This is most evident in the case of married priests whether Catholic or Orthodox. In fact in the Greek Orthodox Church there is no distinct term corresponding to “secular clergy,” which is routinely rendered as “married clergy.” In short, secularity and spirituality are not mutually opposed and exclusive. The laity share in the salvific mission of the Church as is affirmed by the Council (LG 31) and is recognized in both the Codes (CCEO, cc. 399, 401; CIC c. 225). Canon 401 of CCEO affirms further:

“It is for lay people to seek the kingdom of God above all by dealing with temporal matters and regulating them according to God’s plan, as part of their own vocation. And therefore in their private, family, and politico-social life it is for them to bear witness to Christ and to manifest him to others, to stand up for just legislation in society, and radiating faith, hope and charity, to act like leaven for the sanctification of the world.”

This canon enunciates both a right and a duty of the laity. To regulate temporal matters as a means of seeking the kingdom of God is not only a duty of the laity but a lay right. This is the force of the Latin laicorum est in the present canon. In the Latin Code on the other hand there is only question of the laity’s “obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the gospel” CIC c. 225 § 2). This is a significant difference between the two Codes, which are often said to be identical by superficial observers.

“To seek the kingdom of God” comes in the first place (“imprimis,” CCEO). The vocation of the laity is not to engage in temporal matters but to seek the kingdom of God (LG 31 § 2) by engaging in temporal matters. Hence the “proper vocation” of the laity is not to be identified with temporal involvement, which is only a means for the realization of their own vocation (“ex propria vocatione,” CCEO). It is in this sense that in the conciliar theology of the laity “secularity” is said to be the specific element of the lay vocation. Secularity is not therefore a mere sociological description but a theological qualification. Hence the Council affirms, “secularity is proper and specific to the laity” (LG 31).

We shall now list the remaining rights and obligations of laypeople following the order of canons in CCEO and indicating the corresponding ones in CIC. Laypeople preserve in the Church all their civil rights and freedoms. In their exercise, however, laypeople are to be guided by the spirit of the gospel (CCEO c. 402; CIC c. 227). While retaining their own rite they have the right to take part in the liturgical services of other Churches sui iuris (c. 403 § 1). According to c. 403 § 2 (CIC c. 230 § 3) laypeople may supply for the lack of sacred ministers in determined areas, as per norms, for example, to preach (c. 610 § 4; CIC c. 766), preside over the Liturgy of the Word (c. 607), baptize (c.677 § 2), distribute Holy Communion (c. 709 § 2). Laypersons are not to be content with the minimum catechetical formation they received, but have the right and the duty to a higher formation (c. 404 § 1, CIC c. 230 § 1). They have the right to attend courses and obtain degrees from ecclesiastical universities and faculties (ibid. §§ 2). If qualified, they are eligible to teach theology and other such sacred disciplines (ibid §§ 3). Laypeople are to acquire a better knowledge of their ritual heritage avoiding all ritual rivalry (c. 405). There is no corresponding canon in the Latin Code. The laity have the right and duty to spread the good news of salvation, particularly where only through them this can be achieved (c. 406, CIC c. 225 § 1). Married laity are reminded of their conjugal obligation to build up the People of God (c. 407, CIC c. 226). In the Latin Church, laypeople may be delegated by the diocesan bishop to assist at marriage, not in the Eastern Churches.

“Laypeople who excel in the necessary knowledge, experience and good standing are eligible to be heard as experts and consultors by ecclesiastical authorities, whether individually or as members of various councils and assemblies, whether parochial, eparchial or patriarchal” (408 § 1; cf. CIC c. 228 § 2). In most of these council and assemblies the members have only a consultative voice, but in those dealing with the temporalities the case is different, as we shall see in chapter seven. It may be noted that the current CCEO version of this canon 408 § 1 is not accurate. “Habiles sunt laici … ut audiantur” (CCEO) does not mean “lay persons … should be heard” (CCEO) but that they have legally the required qualification. Thus for example, person who has a Ph.D degree is qualified to teach in college, but cannot claim any right to be employed as a teacher in any given college. So too, not all qualified lay-people can or need be heard except as actual members of the above councils. Laypeople are also eligible for all ecclesiastical offices for which the reception of the sacrament of order is not a precondition and which are not excluded by common law or the particular law of their own Church sui iuris (408 § 2; CIC c. 228§ 1). Eligibility does not mean a personal right but aptitude (habilitas): hence no particular law may exclude the laity as a category from filling these posts.

According to common law laypeople may be appointed to the following ecclesiastical offices. In the diocesan curia of the Latin Church laity may be appointed as the chancellor or vice-chancellor (CIC c. 482) but not in the eparchial curia of an Eastern Church, where they have to be a presbyter or deacon (CCEO c. 252). Similarly, in the diocesan curia of the Latin Church the notary may be appointed from among the laity (CIC c. 483), not in the eparchial curia of an Eastern Church, where the notary must be a presbyter (CCEO c. 253 § 2). With these two restrictions the Eastern Code appears to be less “liberal” than the Latin Code; in any case they are difficult to harmonise with the general principle that the laity are eligible to all ecclesiastical offices that do not per se require the prior reception of holy order. This is an ecclesiological principle based on the unity and equality of all Christian faithful in the Church; but it has been received only partially in the Eastern Code, which leaves its application to “competent authority” (CCEO c. 408 § 2); and it has not been received at all in the Latin Code (CIC c. 228 § 1), which, therefore, appears in this respect less “liberal.”

Filling the following offices laypeople exercise or participate in the exercise of judicial power: judge of an eparchial tribunal (c. 1087 § 2; CIC c. 1421 § 2), advocate (c. 1089; CIC c. 1424), auditor of an eparchial tribunal (c. 1093 §§ 1-2; CIC c. 1424 § 2), promoter of justice and defender of bond (c. 1099 § 2; CIC c. 1435), notary (c. 1101; CIC 1437). It is to be noted that a lay judge exercise true judicial power of governance by virtue of his or her office, not by delegated power.

“In the matter of the exercise of an ecclesiastical office, laypeople are fully subject to ecclesiastical authority” (408 § 3). This is per se so obvious that in the Latin Code there is no corresponding clause. Yet CCEO deemed it fit to make the matter explicit beyond all doubt. The autonomy of the temporal sphere does not mean independence of the laypeople in the exercise of an ecclesiastical office they are holding, whether for example, as ambassador or as sacristan. Hence, laypeople in charge of the temporalities of a parish (like kaikkars) have to exercise their office in full submission to the eparchial or diocesan bishop.

Moreover, according to CCEO c. 409 § 1, “Lay people who are appointed permanently or temporarily to some special service of the Church are obliged to acquire a suitable formation which is required to acquire a suitable formation which is required to fulfill their function duly; they are obliged to discharge it conscientiously, diligently and with dedication” (CIC c. 231 § 1) And according to CCEO c. 409 § 2, “They have the right to a just remuneration suited to their condition by which they can, with due regard for the prescriptions of civil law, provide decently for their own needs and those of their family. They have likewise the right that provisions be made for insurance, social security and health welfare in their own regard and that of their family” (CIC c. 231 § 2). This is but the faithful application of the social doctrine of the Church.

From the CCEO version of CCEO c. 409, which is inaccurate, unfounded expectations could arise. Hence a word of caution may be added here. In the Latin original of the present canon the word “addicere” (CCEO) is crucial. It means “to appoint (a person to an office)”. CCEO renders it instead with “to devote oneself to” and thus speaks of “lay persons who devote themselves permanently or temporarily to some special service of the Church.” Obviously, lay persons may “devote themselves” voluntarily for some special service, like Church decoration, without having to acquire any formation (§ 1) or without acquiring any claim to payment (§ 2). But if a person is officially appointed to the same service, she or he has the right to payment, although she or he may forgo it on his or her own.

In fine, the two Codes of the Catholic Church mark clear progress in the matter of the legislation on the laity over the previous pre-Vatican law. That law, which contained no positive definition of the laity, had disposed of the laity with just three canons: 1) that the laity had the right to receive spiritual goods fom the clerics (CS c. 527); 2) on Catholic Action, that the laity had to defend the social doctrine of the Church (CS c. 528); that the laity were forbidden to wear the ecclesiastical habit or dress (CS c. 529). For the old law laity was no issue. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council the new law has come a long way. But is that long enough?

3. Secularity and Temporalities

We have seen that the notion of laypeople involves secularity. This needs to be ecclesiologically rooted. The Church as a whole lives in the World and is necessarily related to the world (Jn 17:11, 1 Cor 5: 10; GS passim), but secularity is not the specific characteristic of the Church as a whole. But when within the Church the various states of life are distinguished – clergy, religious and laity – it is in the laity that the secularity of the Church comes to the fore. Being a constitutive element of the Church, it is evident that this secularity is different from “worldliness,” which is ignorance of God (Jn 17:25) and is enmity to God (Jn 16:33; 17:14; 1 Jn 2:15).

What this secularity implies is well explained by Pope John Paul II in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici: “Being and acting in the world is not for the laity something merely anthropological and sociological but also specifically theological and ecclesial. For in their in-worldly situation God manifests to them his plan and manifests to each of them their vocation ‘to seek the kingdom of God dealing with temporal matters and regulating them according to the divine plan’ (LG 31).”

The specific competence of the laity in the secular sphere does not so relegate the clergy and the religious into the spiritual or supernatural sphere as to take them out of the secular: such is the relationship between the Church and the World as taught by the same Second Vatican Council in its pastoral constitution on the Church in the World (Gaudium et Spes). Hence, just as laypeople have a share in the spiritual ministries of the Church (like teaching catechism), so conversely, there is no theological objection to clerics being involved in the family life or politics. Such in fact is the situation of the married clergy, or priests allowed to be senators or ministers in certain countries under special circumstances. The same holds goods of the matter of having charge of the temporal goods of the Church. In short, just as clerics have no monopoly of the spiritual sphere, the laity have no monopoly of the temporal sphere. For all Christ’s faithful have a “proper share in the mission of the whole People of God in the Church and in the world” (LG 31). Hence from the conciliar premise that “secularity is proper and peculiar to the laity” (LG 31) it does not follow that the administration competence or prerogative. In its Decree on the Ministry and Life of Presbyters the Council has given the following general directive to priests who are to administer ecclesiastical property:

“Priests are to manage ecclesiastical property, properly so called, according to the nature of the case and the norm of ecclesiastical laws and with the help, as far as possible, of skilled laymen. They are to apply this property always to those purposes for the achievement of which the Church is allowed to own temporal goods. There are: the organization of divine worship, the provision of decent support for the clergy, and the exercise of works of the apostolate and of charity, especially for the benefit of those in needs” (PO 17).

And in its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Council takes up the same issue of “the help of skilled laymen,” but now looking at it from the side of the laity: “By their expert assistance they increase the efficacy of the care of souls as well as of the administration of the goods of the Church” (AA 10). In its decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests the Council has further sketched briefly the relationship that should exist between priests and laypeople. Though as ordained ministers “they exercise the function of fathers and teachers,” they remain “brothers among brothers” as baptized members of the Body of Christ (PO 9). Occupying the position of leaders, priests should “unite their efforts with those of the lay faithful” in the spirit of service. “They should sincerely recognize and promote the dignity of the laity and their share in the mission of the Church.” Moreover, “they should recognize the experience and competence of the laity in the different fields of human activity.” Using discernment o spirits “they are to bring to the light and foster the various charisms of the laity” (ibid). The Eastern code has resumed all this in a dense and significant canon as follows.

“Clerics are to acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity and the specific role they have in the mission of the Church, especially by recognizing the multiform charisms of the laypeople and by turning to the good of the Church their competence and experience especially in ways foreseen by the law” (381 § 3).

This canon is doubly significant as it is the only canon in either of the two Codes that mentions the word charism, and that too with reference to the laypeople. This word charism had been used several times in the draft of CIC but was removed during the final revision before promulgation. The word charism was removed on juridical grounds or rather due to canonical scruples, not for dogmatic reasons, since the same legislator has retained it in CCEO. All charisms need testing (this rule is presupposed in the Code), but not all clerics are called upon by law to test the charisms of the laity, which would be presumptuous clericalism. Now, the charisms of religious and especially their founders are recognized officially when their constitutions are approved by the competent ecclesiastical authorities; so, too, the charisms of clerics (e.g. celibacy) are commonly recognized. Not so, in practice, regarding the charisms of the laity. The present canon asks clerics to recognize that the Holy Spirit endows laypeople with manifold charisms and to see to it that these charisms contribute to the good of the Church. This is needed if laypeople are to take their due place in the Church, and if the third millennium is to be that of the laity.

It might seem strange that in spite of such positive statements about the dignity and charisms of the laity, and even after the emphasis placed on secularity as the specific trait of the laity, neither the Council nor the Codes accord to the laity any right to administer the temporal goods of the Church. No such right is said to be inherent in the lay status nor is it conceived as a specifically lay prerogative or vocation. This may strike one as paradoxical. The solution is to be looked for in the theology of the temporal goods in the Church. Though they are called temporal goods, as we saw, they have essentially a spiritual scope as spelled out by the Council: “the organization of divine worship, the provision of decent support for the clergy, and the exercise of works of the apostolate and of charity, especially for the benefit of those in need” (PO 17). These functions belong in the first place to the bishops and their ordained collaborators. Hence the canonical tradition established by the ecumenical councils, as we shall see in chapter four, has placed the administration of the temporal goods of the diocese or eparchy under the authority of the bishops. However, the same councils have also prescribed that bishops are not to administer them personally but through an administrator called the economus or diocesan financial office, whether clerical or lay. Indeed the Church has always obtained the co-operation of expert lay people as administrator of temporalities. Some were honest, some others were cheats. Here are two examples, one for each category.

Callixtus is a well-known example of a capable and honest finance administrator, who merited to be promted to the highest ecclesiastical office. Born in Rome about 155, Callixtus was a slave of a Christian freedom Carpophorus, who put him in charge of his bank and finances. The business failed, probably because of his excessive kindness that was abused by someone he trusted. We do not know the circumstances, but this is a hypothesis that rings true to his later known character and the confidence he earned from Pope Zephyrinus. Unable to defend himself, Callixtus panicked and fled, with serious losses to Christian depositors. He was caught as he was trying to board a ship and brought back to his master, who put him to tread a mill as punishment. Through the intervention of his creditors who hoped to recover their money he was released. But he was arrested again in a synagogue on charge of disturbing the Sabbath liturgy of the word, and was ordered to be scourged by the Perfect of the City and to be deported to Sardinia to work in the mines. Freed later along with other Christian mine workers, he came back to Rome. Pope Victor I sent him to Anzio to live on a monthly pension, but Victor’s successor Zephyrinus recalled him and used his expertise in financial matters. He was ordained deacon and was appointed archdeacon in charge of the clergy and of the administration of the cemetery on the Via Appia. This was the first cemetery the Church of Rome officially possessed. Callixtus administered and cared for it so well that it is known even today by his name, the Catacomb of Callixtus, the most famous and the most visited catacomb of Rome. On the death of Zephyrinus, Callixtus was elected bishop of Rome in 217.

He enlarged the necropolis, which became the official burial place of the bishops of Rome, starting with Zephyrinus. But he himself was not buried there as he was killed in 222 in a local antichristian riot. In fact his papcy had always been harassed by conservative clerics, who elected their leader Hippolytus as antipope. This latter wrote a scurrilous pamphlet denouncing Callixtus, who neither returned the compliment nor condemned his enemies, so that our main source for knowledge about him is their denunciation. In their view, he was too soft with sinners granting them repeated chances for repentance and reconciliation, too lax towards priests who married, and too liberal with the ordination of men who had married twice or thrice, and too progressive in recognizing as Christian marriage the union of upper-class women with men of lower social status, which was forbidden according to Roman law. Callixtus was too Christlike in character both in life and in death. He is venerated as a martyr.

But not all administrators of Church temporalities were of the caliber of Callixtus. Big money can be a big temptation for many. A case in point is mentioned in the correspondence between Pope Cornelius (251-253) and Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. We are told of a certain Nicostratus who was charged with the administration church property in Rome. The Pope wants to inform all co-bishops of the decided to quite Rome and return of his native Carthage together with some other offenders expelled from Rome. “That Nicostratus,” writers Pope Cornelius, “is guilty of several offences: he has defrauded and robbed his patroness, whose temporal administrator he was; but what is deserving of perpetual punishment, he has made away with considerable deposits of the Church.” Cyprian’s reply refers to the sequel and completes the picture:

“We have learnt … that Nicostratus has lost his office of sacred administration, has sacrilegiously pilfered the funds belonging to the Church, and has refused to return the deposits of the windows and the orphans. He did not so much as want to come to Africa as to flee from Rome, appalled by his rapine and by his infamous crimes. And now having left the Church a traitor, as if to change place were to change person, he boasts publicity of being a confessor, whereas one who has denied the Church is not and cannot be called a confessor of Christ.”

Callixtus and Nicostratus are a study in contrast of honest and dishonest administrators in charge of the temporalities of the Church. Unlike the State the church does not have adequate coercive means at its disposal to deal with the dishonest administrator. The darnel grows side by side with good grain and is often undistinguishable. What the Church can do and has tried to do with its discipline is to try to check that the darnel does not gain control and overpower the grain. “All persons, whether clerics or laity, who take part in the administration of ecclesiastical goods, are bound to fulfill their duties in the name of the Church, in accordance with the law,” so runs canon 1282 of The code of Canon Law (1983). The Eastern Code has no corresponding canon, but it too envisages both clerics and laity as administrators of ecclesiastical goods (cc 122 §1, 262 § 1). And there is the Council’s warning to the clergy not to elbow the laity out of their rightful share of apostolate:

“Bishops, parish priests and other priests of the secular and regular clergy will remember that the right and duty of exercising the apostolate are common to all the faithful, whether clerics or lay; and that in the building up of the Church the laity too have parts of their own to play” (AA 25).

It is to be noted that neither in the 54 propositions submitted by the Roman Synod of Bishops (1987) nor in the post-synodal apostolic exhortations of Pope John Paul II, which is the most authoritative commentary on the teaching of the Second Vatican Councils on the laity, do we find the secularity of the laity linked to any right to manage the temporalities of the Church. Why? As the pastoral constitution on the Church in the World (the conciliar document par excellence that is attentive to temporal values and the autonomy of the secular) recognizes, “The role of moderating the Church of God is entrusted to the bishops” (GS 43).

Some might feel that this is still not fully satisfactory answer. Are we not here still in the hold of an ecclesiology that overrates the “unequal society” (societas inaequalis) and the “hierarchy” (LG chapter 3) and the Episcopal monarchy to the detriment of the basis equality and fraternity of the People of God (LG chapter two)? Are not the laity in the Church still at the losing end? This question becomes acute in particular with reference to the Thomaschristian tradition in India regarding the administration of the temporalities of the Church.

4. Summary

The discussion of the notion, status, and role of the laity in the Church is often fuddled from the start by uniformed philology. The terms “laity” and “lay” are derived ultimately from the Greek word laikos, an adjective of the substantive laos (people) used in an exclusive sense. The theology of the laity presupposes the equal dignity of all believers who have been baptized into Jesus Christ and share variously in his priestly, prophetic and royal function. This common priesthood does not deny, rather calls for the ministerial priesthood. The laity, too, have their ministries, though this was not always recognized after the early period in the history of the Church. Both the clergy and the laity are to exercise their proper ministries in union and collaboration. The laity have their own specific rights and duties in addition to those that are common to all christian faithful. The law of the Church provides not only for various ministries of the laity, but throws open various ecclesiastical offices that do not require holy order. Paradoxical as it may sound, the secularity, which is the characteristic mark of lay apostolate, does not however postulate an inherent right of the laity to administer the temporal goods of the Church. Law provides, however, that qualified laypeople may administer them.