WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Getting to know the lay of the land

The term ‘lay’ is one I am used to. I am a lay Catholic man. I am also officially regarded as being a ‘lay’ representative in my capacity as a member of a health-research ethics committee. I sit on that committee with a number of other ‘lay’ persons and an equal number of health professionals. And, as a full-time employee of the church who teaches theology and researches bioethics, I am often referred to as a ‘lay theologian’.

It strikes me that it is hard to escape the fact that the term ‘lay’ has pejorative overtones; he or she is ‘just’ a lay person. Consider also the following dictionary definitions: A lay-by is a portion of road widened to permit a vehicle to stop without interfering with the main flow of traffic; a lay shaft is a secondary shaft of a machine not forming part of the main system of power-transmission; a lay figure is “a jointed wooden figure for arranging drapery on etc; unimportant person, nonentity; unreal character in novel etc”. The same dictionary then defines a lay person as:

a. Non-clerical, not in orders; of, done by, lay man; non-professional, not expert.

Thinking about it, I would prefer NOT to be defined by what I am not. I bring particular knowledge and experience to the ethics committee that complements—but is not overshadowed by—the specialised medical training of the health professionals. Equally, my role as a teacher of theology and researcher in bioethics reflects particular gifts and qualifications I have been able to develop. I am a professional and an expert.

In the very early Church no clear distinction was made between clergy and laity. The emphasis was on all the faithful using their diverse gifts in the different ways needed to build up the faith community and the Reign of God. The distinction we are only too familiar with developed later. It was then exacerbated when education became the exclusive privilege of a small minority; the rich and powerful and those with ecclesiastical training­—the clergy. The distinction between clergy and laity created an emphasis on the former as if they alone were the real church.

An ecclesiological hangover

The documents of the Second Vatican Council provide lay people with a mandate to define themselves in a much more positive way. We are the faithful who are fully incorporated into the church by baptism, called to take on a wide responsibility in the life of the church and the world. But how convinced are we that this is the case? To what extent are we still suffering from what might be described as a pre-Vatican II ecclesiological hangover? Perhaps our continued use of the terms ‘lay’ and ‘ordained’ maintains a boundary that is preventing us from grasping the new ecclesiological vision, stifling the work of the Holy Spirit?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we were to come up with a new term to describe the call that comes with baptism; a term that helped us to think about the vocation to be a lay person as a positive choice rather than as a ‘lay-by’? Chances are, were we to truly change the way we think about ourselves as lay persons, we would also find ourselves acting differently. Perhaps, then, the church would find itself closer to the beautiful vision that Pope Paul VI had at the end of his ministry—a place where the only boundaries are those created by grace. Would we not then be freer to live out our call to discipleship in a way that reflects the full flowering of our baptismal vocation?

No mere backstop

If tomorrow there were a sudden upsurge in the number of ordained priests in New Zealand, would we want to abandon the many programmes we have for training and forming lay people as pastoral leaders and chaplains? I for one would hope not! To the extent that anyone might be inclined to answer ‘YES’ to that question, then I fear that he or she might still be infected with the old mindset that sees being lay as a place to be Catholic that is away from ‘the main flow of traffic’.

At the same time, to acknowledge the greater responsibility being taken by lay people in the New Zealand church does not mean we don’t regret there are fewer ordained ministers or that we value their wonderful contribution any less.

We who are ‘lay’ have to stop thinking of ourselves as non-expert, second-rate Christians. We also have to stop thinking of lay chaplains, lay ministers and lay pastoral workers as a backstop option brought about by an absence of priests.

Times are a-changing. We are being challenged anew to live out the Vatican II perspective on the lay of the land.

This article was first published in the July 2007 issue of Tui Motu-InterIslands, an independent, Catholic, monthly magazine. For more information about Tui Motu, email: tuimotu@earthlight.co.nz: website: www.tuimotu.org