Jordan Aumann, O.P.

Toward a Definition of 'Laity'

Time and time again in the synod on the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world, attempts were made by various speakers to define the term "laity." As one would expect, the definitions or descriptions were as various as the speakers. After all that was said about the laity in the documents of Vatican Council II -- Gaudium et Spes, Apostolicam Actuositatem, Ad Gentes, and especially Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium -- one would think that by this time everyone knew what is meant by "laity."

Actually, most of the statements about the laity in the council documents and much of the talk about the laity in Synod '87 concentrated on what the laity do and not what the laity are.

Essential elements

Nevertheless, there are two sources to which we can turn in order to work out a definition of the laity: Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium and Part I, Book II of the Revised Code of Canon Law.

Although the Council Fathers did not provide a systematic definition of the laity, we do find in Lumen Gentium the essential elements for formulating an accurate definition, namely the genus and the specific difference. After describing the priestly and prophetic functions of the People of God, which is the Church, Lumen Gentium discusses the hierarchy of the Church in Chapter III and then the laity in Chapter IV.

Everything that has been said of the People of God is addressed equally to laity, Religious and clergy. . . 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, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world. Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity. . . 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.(1)

As we have said, an accurate definition requires that one specify the genus and the specific difference of that which is defined. The genus refers to the generic element that the defined object has in common with others similar or analogous to itself. As regards the laity, it would be that which the laity have in common with all other members of the Church, the People of God.

Hence, the genus of the term "laity" comprises "all the faithful who by baptism are incorporated into Christ" and share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ. On this level, therefore, everything "is addressed equally to laity, Religious and clergy."

The basis of this equality is the Sacrament of Baptism, by which all the members of the Mystical Body are incorporated in Christ the Head. It is helpful a this point to quote again from Lumen Gentium:

In Christ and in the Church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex, for "there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female. For you are all 'one' in Christ Jesus."(2)

There is, likewise, a basic unity and equality as regards the notes that characterize all the members of the Church, the People of God. Each and every one -- priests, Religious and laity -- is incorporated in Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism and shares in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ; each and every one has an apostolic mission in the Church and in the world.

But to say specifically what a lay person is leads to a search for the specific

difference, that note or characteristic which separates or distinguishes the laity from clergy and Religious. Lumen Gentium recognizes that not all the members of the Church have the same gifts or particular mission and that, therefore, there will be a "wonderful diversity" in the Church. As St. Paul had said:

"For just as in one body we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, so we the many, are one body in Christ, but severally members of one another."(3)

The distinguishing note that identifies the clergy is the reception of Holy Orders and, according to the document Ministeria Quaedam, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1972, this occurs first at the conferral of the diaconate. The distinguishing note of the Religious and all who live the consecrated life is the public profession to observe the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Special vocation

There is a bit of overlapping here, however, because those who live the consecrated life are drawn from the clergy or the laity.(4) What, then, is the specific distinction of the lay person?

If we return to Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium we find that "their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity.... 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."(5)

Later, we read in Lumen Gentium that the laity have as their special vocation "to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth."(6) Thus, the distinguishing note the laity is their secularity or, as stated in the Revised Code of Canon Law, "to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel. (7)

This same teaching can be found in Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 2, and in Ad Gentes, n. 15. Hence, the principal characteristic of the laity is that they live in the midst of the world and try to renew the temporal order in such a way that "while its own principles are respected, it is brought into harmony with the principles of the Christian life and adapted to the various conditions of times, places and peoples."(8)

Ecclesiological sense

So much for the definition: A lay person in the Church is a baptized Christian who is deputed to renew the temporal and secular order according to Christian principles. (In the days of Pope Pius XII and Catholic Action one used the expression "consecratio mundi.") It is especially incumbent on the laity to renew family life and civil society as well as the various secular professions.

From what has been said thus far it should be evident that we are using the term "laity" in a theological or, better, an ecclesiological sense, and not as the sociologist would use it. We can use the word, of course, to designate a person who is not a member of a given profession or is not expert in a certain area.

Thus, a patient is a lay person in relation to the doctor and a client is a lay person in relation to the lawyer or judge; yet the doctor and the lawyer will be lay persons in relation to the clergy. There is no basis for taking the word "laity" in a pejorative sense in either case.

When we turn to the canonical legislation of the Church we find little that is new in the introductory canons that deal with membership in the Church. Both the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the 1983 code state that by divine institution the clergy are distinct from the laity and that both clerics and lay persons may be Religious.

What is new in the 1983 code is the term "Christifideles," which may be translated as "Christ's faithful" or the "faithful of Christ." This concept applies to all the members of the Church -- clergy, Religious and laity -- and can, therefore, be used as the genus in the definition of the laity.

There is a vast difference, however, when we compare the 1917 teaching with the 1983 legislation touching the role of the laity in the Church proper. Canon 948 of the previous code stated: "By the institution of Christ, [holy] orders distinguishes clerics from laity in the Church for governing the faithful and for the ministry of divine worship." Basically the same idea was expressed in Apostolicam Actuositatem:

In the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ; they have, therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God.... The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world.(9)

Pope Paul VI greatly expanded the role and function of the laity when, in his apostolic letter Ministeria Quaedam (1772), he reduced the number of what were formerly called "minor orders" and gave them the name "ministries." He then stated: "Ministries may be committed to lay Christians. They are thus no longer to be regarded as reserved to candidates for the Sacrament of Orders." The ministries of lector and acolyte are still reserved to men, however, if received on a permanent basis; both men and women can function as lectors on a temporary basis.

It is helpful at this point to quote the entire Canon 230 of the Revised Code of Canon Law:

Lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by decree of the Episcopal Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte, through the prescribed liturgical rite. This conferral of ministry does not, however, give them a right to sustenance or remuneration from the Church.

Lay people can receive a temporary assignment to the role of lector in liturgical actions. Likewise, all lay people can exercise the roles of commentator, cantor or other such, in accordance with the law.

Where the needs of the Church require and ministers are not available, lay people, even though they are not lectors or acolytes, can supply certain of their functions, that is, exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism and distribute Holy Communion, in accordance with the provisions of the law.(10)

Of all the canons of the laity, this is the only one that makes a distinction between men and women. Only men can be installed as permanent lectors and acolytes; those who are assigned to function as lectors on a temporary basis may be either men or women; but in cases where qualified ministers are not available, either men or women may be assigned to perform certain specified functions that properly belong to lectors or acolytes.

Right of office

In all cases it is left to the National Conferences of Bishops to stipulate the conditions and requirements. An important distinction should be kept in mind as regards the assignment of ordained ministries to the laity, where the law provides for this. Those who have been installed as permanent lectors or acolytes and those who have been ordained to the diaconate or priesthood have the right to perform the liturgical functions that pertain to their office.

As for all other lay persons in the Church, while they are said to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ, they do not have any right to perform the ministries proper to the ordained; they may be assigned to certain public liturgical functions when the needs of the faithful warrant it and if they are competent to perform the function in question. A reason for this is that the power and the right to perform liturgical functions publicly does not flow from the Sacrament of Baptism but from the Sacrament of Orders.

Nevertheless, there are certain inconsistencies in this particular Canon 230.

First, if entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate, as stated in Ministeria Quaedam, and if the former "minor orders" are now reduced to "ministries," then there doesn't seem to be any reason why these ministries should not be open to all the laity, both men and women. They are no longer, in a strict sense, ordained ministries proper to the clergy; they could just as properly be called "lay ministries."

In the second place, there are also some problems with two of the functions that may be deputed to the laity -- both men and women -- when the needs of the Church require and no official minister is available: the distribution of Holy Communion and the ministry of the Word.

If a lay woman can, under specified conditions, distribute Holy Communion, it seems odd that a girl cannot function as an acolyte at Mass. If a woman can be assigned certain functions of the ministry of acolyte "where the needs of the Church require and ministers are not available," and if that condition is a relatively permanent one then it would seem logical to install the lay woman as a permanent acolyte.

The stable ministries of lector and acolyte are no longer reserved to the clergy but according to present law they are reserved to men.

Even before the 1983 code was promulgated, women were serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion on a permanent basis and perhaps this fact should have been recognized by the framers of the law.

The ministry of the Word is treated at length in Book III of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "The Teaching Office of the Church." The particular canons that apply to the laity are Canons 759 and 766:

The lay members of Christ's faithful, by reason of their baptism and confirmation, are witnesses to the good news of the Gospel, by their words and by the example of their Christian life. They can also be called upon to cooperate with bishops and priests to help in proclaiming the Gospel.

The laity may be allowed to preach in a church or oratory if in certain circumstances it is necessary, or in particular cases it would be advantageous, according to the provisions of the Episcopal Conference and without prejudice to Canon 767 1.

The right to preach the Word of God belongs to bishops, priests and deacons but the laity may also be allowed or invited to preach. There are certain restrictions, however.

The preaching of the homily at Mass is strictly reserved to priests and deacons.

Second, if the laity are to preach in a church or oratory, that is, in a public liturgical service, they may do so only with the permission of competent ecclesiastical authority and in accordance with the regulations drawn up by the National Conference of Bishops.

Apart from those circumstances, there are numerous occasions when the laity on their own initiative can preach the Gospel. It is envisaged by the code, however, that the Conference of Bishops will issue the norms that regulate preaching by the laity.

From our cursory examination of the pertinent council documents and the 1983 Code of Canon Law we have seen that the primary area of the apostolate of the laity is the temporal order.

We have likewise seen, however, that the laity are being introduced more and more into the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church as well as the ministry of the Word, formerly the domain of the clergy. No doubt the dramatic decrease in vocations and the projected shortage of clergy have made it necessary to introduce the laity into some of the functions previously reserved to the clergy.

The danger is that in assigning competent lay persons to liturgical ministries, we may be drawing them away from their primary mission: the renewal of the temporal order.

What is needed, perhaps, is a universal effort to promote vocations to the priesthood and, at the same time, a serious commitment to improve the image of the priest in contemporary society.

Before the Second Vatican Council, the well-known author Jacques Leclerq made an observation that is still pertinent:

The laity, formed to the divine life of the Church, have to transform the world. And they will transform it, if they are genuinely Christian. One of the fundamental tragedies of Christianity as it has developed in history is that the laity have not carried out their task. And perhaps this tragedy simply follows from another, equally fundamental, namely, that the clergy have not fulfilled theirs The clergy were to form the laity, and they have not done so to a sufficient degree. Then, for lack of properly formed laymen, they have tried to take the place of the laity and have done so badly.(11)

JORDAN AUMANN O.P., is former editor of The Priest, and one time professor of spiritual theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy and Catechetics. He is also the author of Spiritual Theology (Sheed & Ward, London) and Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (Sheed & Ward, London). His taped lectures on spiritual topics are available from Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame, Ind.


(1) All quotations from the documents of Vatican Council II are taken from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documenis, edited by Austin Flannery, O.P Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1975.

(2) Gal. 3:28; cf. Col 3:11; n. 32.

(3) Rom. 12:4-5.

(4) Canon 207.

(5) Ibid. n. 31.

(6) Ibid. n. 35.

(7) Canon 225.

(8) Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 7.

(9) Ibid. n. 2.

(10) All quotations from the Revised Code of Canon Law are taken from the English translation published by Collins Liturgical Publications, London, 1983.

(11) Jacques Leclerq, Christians in the World, Geofffey Chapman, London, 1961, p. 71.

© Copyright Jordan Aumann 1988