Autumn 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 197-208.

Elizabeth A. Dreyer:
      A Spirituality for the Laity: Yes or No?

Reasons for and against a distinctive spirituality for lay people reveal important common elements in all Christian ways of life.

Assistant professor of theology at the Washington Theological Union, Dr. Dreyer's doctoral research at Marquette University explored the spirituality of St. Bonaventure. She has published several articles on aspects of Christian spirituality.

IN 1959, Yves Congar began his long and careful work on the laity with the observation that the word laikos, whence our "lay," is not found anywhere in the Bible.(1) In the New Testament, the noun laos is, however, used frequently and often carries the meaning, "people." In the Hebrew Scriptures, the comparable term usually designates the people of God in opposition to the gentiles. For the Hebrew and early Christian communities, these terms embraced an aspect of sacredness -- those who were in relationship with God -- and stood in contradistinction to those outside this covenant.

However, another sense of the term "laity" emerges in parallel fashion. Laity is used in contrast to the leaders of this People of God, namely, in contrast to priests, levites, and prophets. The laity is that part of the church subject to the leadership and control of the church's hierarchy.(2) In the first half of the second century, in a letter to the community at Corinth (xl, 5), Clement of Rome distinguishes between the "special place" and "special ministries" of the priests and the lay people who are "bound by rules laid down for the laity." It is this later meaning that too frequently remains prominent today and presents an obstacle to many in the lay community.

It is important to note significant advances since Vatican II. The emphasis on openness and dialogue in all aspects of our human existence is bound to have a positive influence on lay spirituality. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World highlights Christian solidarity with all peoples and articulates an incarnational theology which closely links being religious with the fullness of our humanity.(3) But the image of the laity as "helper" perdures.(4) Happily, this image is no longer central in our documents, but I contend that it is still primary in the minds of most lay persons and in the unspoken atmosphere of our church. I would suggest further that this has been the case for most of our history a reality that makes change difficult and challenging indeed. But evidence of a fresh way of viewing sanctity is reflected in statements such as this one:

This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is maintained by the spiritual helps common to all the faithful, chiefly by active participation in the liturgy. Laymen [sic] should make such a use of these helps that, while meeting their human obligations in the ordinary conditions of life, they do not separate their union with Christ from their ordinary life: But through the very performance of their tasks, which are God's will for them, actually promote the growth of their union with him [sic]. (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, Ch. 1.4).

It is not my purpose here to present a detailed etymological or historical survey of the term "laity." But we do know that the term has been present in some form from the very beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and that it has remained in use until today. It is also my hunch that whatever our theoretical positions, practical experience, and gut feelings might be, the word will continue to be used in some way to designate that group of baptized persons who make up the overwhelming majority of the People of God -- the "person in the pew," the laity.(5) Therefore, it is appropriate to raise the question about the need to develop a specific theological spirituality of the laity.


It is not difficult to uncover statements that insult or denigrate the laity. An oft-quoted example is the statement of Cardinal Gasquet: "The lay person kneels before the altar, sits below the pulpit -- and puts his hand in his purse."(6) Then there is Monsignor Talbot's response to Newman's position on consulting the laity in doctrinal matters:

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical . . . Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.(7)

As recently as thirty years ago, in an article, "Is There A 'Lay Spirituality?,'" C.A. Bouman answers negatively. The reason for his answer rests on his assumption that the spirituality of religious life is normative for all and needs merely to be adapted to those living "in the world." He is certainly correct in identifying the primary elements of the spiritual life as common, namely the glorification of God and the imitation of Christ.(8) What is most revealing, though, is the decisive difference between laity and religious he discerns and attributes to the radical exercise of the means on the part of religious and priests, i.e., their "oblation" in the form of vows received by the church.(9)

What is so problematic in this typical interpretation is that the quality of radicality is determined by lifestyle, rather than defined in a way that makes it applicable to any lifestyle characterized by purity of heart and heroic love. The author further explains how the vows can be applied to persons outside the context of religious life, giving the impression of a second best, or diluted form of spirituality for the laity. The entire structure of meaning here -- that religious life is superior, and that living "in the world" is detrimental to the spiritual life -- leads Bouman into a series of false conclusions, narrowly defined spiritual aids, and patronizing judgments: "Laymen must remember what the spiritual masters have said about the sin of 'acedia,' spiritual sloth, a fault but rarely adverted to by most lay people."(10) Lay people appear lazy and ungenerous in their relationships with God, and "sacred" resources such as Lent, Sunday, feast days, retreats, and days of recollection seem the only means to save the laity from the evils of life in the world.

In citing this article, I do not wish to imply that all positions on this question have been so negatively presented, and issues have certainly shifted dramatically since Vatican II. But I do think it reveals an underlying attitude present in the church that ignores lay persons' experience of God and so can only be detrimental to their spiritual growth. Certainly it can be instructive to reflect on one's own conscious attitudes toward the term "laity" and even to delve into surfacing unconscious attitudes. Most of us would probably discover that remnants of a negative attitude remain. And one need only talk with lay persons functioning in official ministerial positions in the church to be assured that old, harmful attitudes are not dead.

This is not to say that the laity have never been well regarded in the history of the church. Although in the minority, there have been statements throughout the tradition that point to and extol the variety of roles in the church.(11) The twelfth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is by far the most familiar. Two other examples come from bishops whose office seems to have allowed them to be in touch with the broad and diverse dimensions of church. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) refers to Acts 6 and the need for the diversity of functions in the church. He observes that although the apostles leave off table service to engage in prayer and listen to the Word, it is Stephen, chosen to serve at table, who is filled with the Holy Spirit.(12) And Gregory the Great (d. 604), commenting on the story of Mary and Martha, sees Martha's service as a necessity on the path toward Mary's repose. He emphasizes that moments of contemplation are brief and must lead back to a life of service.(13) And today, in a review of two books on the laity from Britain, one can read:

Our age should bring to the Church Mr. and Mrs. Saints,"Saints William and Mary' or 'Henry and Alice,' lawyer saints, etc. Lay saints will not be the result of ill-fitting or 'trickle down clerical spirituality.(14)
Likewise, although there are many elements that need updating in his book, Congar says: ". . . if the Church, secure on her foundations, boldly throws herself open to lay activity, she will experience such a springtime as we cannot imagine."(15)

Attempts at change are needed at all of these levels. Joint effort from a variety of perspectives can do much to move toward a more helpful idea of the laity. It is clear, moreover, that the Spirit is moving in a distinctive way today in the lay community. The search for a more meaningful spirituality presses forward with intensity at this juncture in history. But we need to go beyond language to underlying issues in our question about whether or not there should be a spirituality that is distinctive to the laity. My answer to the question is both No and Yes.


In discussions about the need for a lay spirituality with laity, religious, and priests, members of all three groups present several serious reasons why a specifically lay spirituality would not be helpful. But the intensity with which the arguments are presented differs. Religious and priests speak with great conviction about the predominance of commonalities between themselves and the lay persons they encounter, e.g., in parochial ministry. However, lay persons, along with their emphasis on the common elements, also express concern about past abuses and want to see attention paid to their particular experiences in the context of the spiritual life.

The reasons for this difference in emphasis are somewhat elusive, but I would raise the possibility that religious and priests, who have been a central part of the church's religious history and are acknowledged by all to be seriously engaged in the spiritual life by their choice of vocation, are more ready and willing to be identified with the laity rather than set apart against them. The spiritual "turf" of the laity, on the other hand, has been precarious at best, and so there may be a need to move to solid ground -- to seek an understanding of spirituality in terms of the specificity of lay experience.


One argument against acknowledging and developing a lay spirituality centers on the fear of continuing harmful divisions we have known in the past. Having separate spiritualities can emphasize differences at the cost of commonalities, and give play to the human penchant to label one better than the other. The attribution of intrinsic superiority to any group is seen as harmful, as is the tendency to exclusivism. If a major effect of having a lay spirituality is that others feel excluded, it should be avoided -- even if spiritualities in the past have excluded lay persons. The Gospel message is inclusive and is not served by exchanging one kind of exclusivism for another.

Others hold that it is impossible to have one lay spirituality. Interestingly, though, the difficulty is not entirely resolved by shifting to the plural mode, since the lay community cannot point to a defining charism or founding figure as can Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, Basilians, Jesuits, etc. This position suggests that there are special difficulties in dealing with the diversity of the lay community. However, the focus is on the one spirituality common to all as Christians which is expressed concretely in a variety of ways.

We can also mention a recent change in those factors which were seen to be major distinctions between religious/ cleric and lay. Chief among these is the lay persons position "in the world." In addition to a new-found positive regard for "the world," it is increasingly difficult to understand how priests and religious are not "in the world." In some cases, members of these groups are "in the world" up to their eyeballs -- one thinks of soup kitchens and involvements in Central America -- and even the small number in cloistered contemplative situations that are often intimately linked up with "the world." Thomas Merton is an obvious example. It is valid to note differences between being a shoe salesperson or a computer programmer, and a preacher or a religious education teacher. But we have yet to work out a satisfactory understanding of how different ways of being "in the world" contribute to one's spiritual life. Is this where the primary focus should lie?

Another alternative would be to re-define the meaning of terms such as "priest" and "laity" based on an earlier tradition. In the biblical understanding of people, the priest is "taken from among the people" -- not in the sense of being separated from them, but of being closely akin to them. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus' priesthood indicates how closely he is united with us and therefore able to understand our plight. In this way, we could say that the lay state underlies every status in the church, and that clerics and religious are both lay persons but who have different functions in the church. In this case, all spirituality would be primarily lay spirituality.

A related approach also points to the universality of the lay vocation. Everyone spends at least a quarter of her or his life as a lay person, and even if a religious or clerical vocation is chosen later, the roots of one's spirituality and value system go back to a lay milieu in the family. This perspective sees lay spirituality as the primary foundation for everyone.

A final argument against a specifically lay spirituality emphasizes those basic elements applicable to all persons, regardless of state in life, sex, or even denominational affiliation. These elements are almost universal in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and appear consistently in records of the spiritual life throughout history. They have to do with the fundamental human-divine relationship and are therefore indifferent to categories such as lay, cleric, religious.

Examples of such elements include the need for self-knowledge as an important starting point for the spiritual life, desire for God, nurturing one's relationship with God through prayer, awareness of sin, practice of virtue, love of neighbor. The list could go on. Few would deny that anyone undertaking a journey toward holiness must attend to these issues, thus eliminating the need for a specifically lay (clerical, religious) spirituality. In his letter to the Galatians (3:27-29), Paul gives us a glimpse of the life of those baptized and clothed in Christ. Distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female recede before the vision of unity in Christ Jesus.

Having established some ground for a negative answer to the question whether we should have a spirituality of the laity, let us move in the opposite direction. On what basis might one answer Yes to this question?


Most of the supporting arguments have to do with historical considerations. It is not difficult to establish that in the history of Christian spirituality, the meaning and use of the term "laity" have often had pejorative connotations. The term "laity" has not always been used just to distinguish a specific group in the church, but has often carried with it meanings of less, inferior, second-class, etc. The laity have been thought to be incapable of attaining the fullness of the spiritual life, or by simple omission have not figured at all in discussions of spirituality. The rise of monasticism, the lack of education in the larger community, and the emphasis in the church on hierarchical structures all contributed to a situation in which those writing about the spiritual life were almost exclusively religious and clerics, giving the impression that theirs was the primary forum for discussions about the spiritual journey.(17)

Given these historical realities -- the neglect and derogation of laity -- one might argue that today a lay spirituality would serve as a corrective to past abuses and is therefore urgently needed. One proposed solution involves the adaptation for the laity of spiritualities originally intended for monks or nuns,(18) but much more needs to be done, not the least of which is a re-thinking of the very anthropological and theological foundations upon which spirituality rests.

A second reason for an affirmative answer to our question lies in the historical-cultural realm. It is evidenced in the phrase "age of the laity" used to describe the present era inaugurated by Vatican II. It is important that spirituality be in tune with culture and peoples lived experience. If one's understanding of the spiritual quest is significantly divorced from the daily round of life's activities, it is unlikely that a vital spirituality will perdure. The result of this split can be a kind of schizophrenia, or at least an artificiality about the spiritual life. It can become a pseudo-life or something added on to "real life."

Whenever a church as an institution becomes significantly removed from the culture of which it is a part, it atrophies, takes on an air of unreality, and eventually is unable to speak in a meaningful way to its people. When this happens, lay movements emerge which attempt to re-connect religious experience to the larger society. In the fourteenth century, partly in reaction to scholasticism and the exclusive use of Latin, there began a movement to write in the vernacular and to translate spiritual works to make them accessible to the lay community. Resistance to this democratization culminated in the Inquisition and in prohibitions which tried to keep the Bible and spiritual works out of the hands of "idiots" and emotional women.(19)

In his recent book, Unquiet Souls, Richard Kieckhefer suggests that some of the shortcomings in the life and writings of Margery Kempe may have been due to the difficulties of trying to live a saintly life without the support of a monastic structure. The medieval movement devotio moderna comes to mind as another example. The bias toward linking holiness too exclusively with monasticism dies hard:

The more religious the urban laity became, and the more it imitated monastic piety, the more difficult it would be to distinguish lay from clerical or religious mentality. The dilemma was how to reconcile monastic ideals with lay existence.(20)
A lack of creative imagination on the one hand, and resistance by some in authority on the other, have prevented a full flowering of spirituality for the laity. Today, wherever ecclesial decisions and statements about the meaning of holiness do not include full representation, voice, and vote of the lay community, we continue to undercut the universal call to holiness.

A third reason for a Yes answer -- and perhaps the most fundamental consideration -- is the essential historical character of Christianity. The God of the Hebrew scriptures and of the New Testament is a God who chooses history as the forum for self-revelation. If, as Rahner and others counsel, we are to be on the lookout for the Word of God, we need to pay attention to the specifics of the historical milieu. One hears the oft-repeated adage that a Christian should have the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. The world is the forum for God's action. Edward Schillebeeckx speaks about a God who desires to save us in our totality, through the very historical, existential reality of our lives. It follows that our concrete, human experiences are an essential ingredient in our understanding of the spiritual life. If this be so, then the specifics of one's lifestyle (and therefore of one's daily experience) are critical elements in the way we talk about spirituality.

From this perspective, lifestyle becomes important indeed. The God I discover, the images that I use, and the language with which I choose to describe the experience are dependent on the specific circumstances of my life. It becomes quite significant whether I am single, married, celibate, whether I have children, whether I live alone or in community. While growth in virtue is an ingredient in all journeys to God, the historic specificity of how this growth is experienced will vary from person to person, depending on the concrete realities of her or his life. The Christian story is differently appropriated by various individuals and groups and it can only be to the church's advantage to include all of them in her understanding of the spiritual life.

The hierarchical structure of the church can also create the need for a lay spirituality. To the extent that hierarchical organization is used to exclude or to suggest the inferiority of any group in the church, that group has need of a specific articulation of its spiritual way in order to maintain its identity and affirm its significance, guarding against the danger of reverse discrimination. Instances of an artificial clericalization of the laity (or a similar laicization of the clergy) manifest our confusion.

Finally, the laity often do not have access to opportunities for education and development in the spiritual life. Most seminaries and formation programs for religious include many diverse opportunities to grow in the journey toward God. As more laity identify such a need and seek for ways to become knowledgeable in the ways of the spiritual life, we will see a continuation of the growth that has already begun -- bible study, theology courses, prayer groups, parochial programs of all kinds, retreats, etc. What is often discovered in these settings is that the lay community has indeed always had a distinctive spirituality, that the graces of heroic love and virtue are manifest in the lay community, and that God offers the invitation to the heights of a loving relationship to all. The problem has been our lack of awareness of these realities.

In significant ways this lack of awareness has been due to narrow or grossly inadequate concepts of the spiritual life. While there is much to be gained from the tradition, there is also need for creative theologizing that will incorporate the lay experience into the larger arena of the church's spiritual life. How do we understand prayer, contemplation, virtue, work? What is our attitude toward the body, toward sexuality, toward the material world? How do these things figure in the spiritual journey? Our most valuable resource in this area is the experience of lay persons who re paying attention to the ways in which God is present in their daily lives. We need to ask where and how this reservoir is being tapped: at the parish level in its decisions about worship and ministry; at the levels of diocesan, national, and global church in drawing up pastoral statements on issues ranging from nuclear war to the economy to the position of women; at meetings of all kinds from parish to ecumenical councils. What is called for is not brief, ad hoc consultation, but genuine, on-going mutual collaboration.


We have seen that for various reasons, both No and Yes are legitimate responses to the question about whether there should be a distinctive spirituality for the laity. A third response would be that we need a lay spirituality for the present time, but that we look forward to the time when this would no longer be necessary. Whatever route is taken, the goal remains clear: to reverence every member of the ecclesial body in his or her unique dignity as a creature of God and to affirm the universal invitation to participate in 'the fullness of the divine mystery. We need to find out from each other how God works in our lives, and to shape our language and concepts about the spiritual life in response to open, respectful, mutual communication. God will call whom God wills and the Spirit will blow freely if we but allow it. Holiness is judged, not by office, sex, or prosperity, but by its fruits. Love, justice, peace, joy, patience -- fruits that are present in many people of all lifestyles and all occupations.

  1. 1 Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of Laity (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1959), p. 1.
  2. Edward Schillebeeckx, The Layman in the Church (New York: St. Paul Publications, 1963), pp. 35-36.
  3. Preface, 1; Introduction, 11.
  4. Cf. Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, Chapter II.6.
  5. A survey of ecclesial documents reveals that the term is very much in place and therefore unlikely to disappear in the usage of the larger community in the Roman Catholic tradition. See Leonard Doohan, The Lay-Centered Church (Minneapolis, 1984), and lohn Paul 11 and the Laity (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).
  6. Cited in the introduction by John Coulson, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine by John Henry Newman (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961), p. 17.
  7. Ibid., p. 41.
  8. Worship 27 (1952-53): 279.
  9. Ibid., p. 280.
  10. Ibid., p. 282.
  11. I would draw an analogy here to the feminist movement today. One can document movements toward equality for women throughout history, but never have they worked their way into the fabric of society in such a way that equality becomes the rule and oppression the exception. It is such long standing and deeply rooted mores that are so difficult to turn around.
  12. Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, VII, 86. Sources chrétiennes 52, 1958, p. 37.
  13. Homilies on Ezechiel, I, 3, 9.
  14. The Layman in the Church by Michael de la Bedoyère (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1955) and We Are Men by John M. Todd (London: Sheed & Ward, 1955), reviewed by D.J.G., Worship 10 (November 1955): 591.
  15. Lay People in the Church, p. xxx.
  16. I am indebted in this and the following section to the graduate students at Catholic University and the Washington Theological Union, whose lively and profound discussions in courses on lay spirituality contributed significantly to the ideas presented here.
  17. Another clear example of the natural self-interest guiding these matters is the list of canonized saints. There is a strong correlation between the lifestyles of those making final decisions about sainthood and of those actually chosen as extraordinary for their holiness. Male, clerical celibates dominate both categories in a way that is in sharp contrast to the composition of the larger community.
  18. One of the more successful attempts at this is Dolores Lecky's book, The Ordinary Way (New York, 1982), in which she adapts elements from the Benedictine rule to family life.
  19. Ciriaco Moron-Arroyo, "'I Will Give You A Living Book': Spiritual Currents At Work At the Time of St. Teresa of Jesus," Carmelite Studies: Centenary of St. Teresa, John Sullivan, ed. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1984), p. 97.
  20. Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 195.