The Liberation of the Laity:
In Search of an Accountable Church

By Paul Lakeland
National Catholic Reporter
November 28, 2003

British mystery writer P.D. James says that a reviewer should read the entirety of a book before venturing an opinion. Good advice not only for reviewers but, in the case of The Liberation of the Laity, for readers as well. I say this despite Paul Lakeland's suggestion that one can dip into whatever section of his book particularly appeals to one's particular interests. To follow the Lakeland method (rather than James') would deprive the reader of a thorough and valuable tour of the laity's developing place in the Catholic church. And historical perspective can make all the difference in one's understanding of critical issues.

Lakeland is a superb guide along the road to the Second Vatican Council. Like Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, Lakeland gives us insightful and pithy portraits of the theological pilgrims who brought their ideas, their questions and their scholarship to the council's deliberations. Yves Congar led the way with his masterful Lay People in the Church in which he emphasized that by virtue of a common baptism all share in a common priesthood. Lay People in the Church contributed to Congar's being silenced by the Vatican. And silent he remained until Pope John XXIII called him in 1959 to participate in the preparations for the council. Happily, Congar's influence can be seen in many of the council documents and decrees, notably in the chapter on the laity in Lumen Gentium and in The Decree on the Laity. In 1964, at the height of the council, Congar wrote: “The starting point now is the idea of the people of God, the whole of it active, the whole of it consecrated.” Lakeland identifies Congar's work as foundational for the phenomenon of lay ministry that has flourished since the council.

We meet other influential theologians of the period: Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jean Danielou -- all of whom wrote in a popular genre, which made their work accessible outside the academy, and all of which contributed to a theologically aware laity.

And then there are the portraits of Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner to further enhance the journey to the council, and Cardinal Leon Suenens, one of the more fascinating portraits.

As Lakeland points out, Suenens was not himself an academic theologian, but his personal talents and dispositions made him the perfect choice to open doors to the “new theology.” Moreover, like the good Pope John, Suenens believed deeply in the power of the Holy Spirit to effect genuine conversion, and many, to this day, hold that the council was truly the work of the Holy Spirit. How else could minds and hearts be so changed? How else could a pastoral agenda break through the unyielding Vatican bureaucracy that had already drawn up its conclusions? Suenens' courageous presence, unafraid of difference and diversity, was felt in the years following the council, a counterpoint to the more cautious Paul VI. Notable is Suenens' Pentecost Letter of 1970, in which he holds up collegiality as desirable for all levels of church life, including bishops within the local church and priests within the faith community. Furthermore, Suenens never wavered -- and he lived to age 92 -- in his conviction that the Holy Spirit was active in the church. All that was needed was for all the people of God, lay and ordained, to pay attention.

This early section of the book is a superb, concise rendering of the theological giants who cultivated the ground for new thinking regarding the role of the laity, the 99 percent. Dear readers: Do not pass over this early section.

Part Two is a retrospective on theological developments regarding the laity since the Second Vatican Council. And here the author seems to depend more on journalists -- Peter Hebblethwaite, for example -- than on contemporary theology. Nevertheless, he provides a useful summary of the major events that frame the post-conciliar period. The Roman Synod on the Laity is one. Unfortunately, Lakeland dismisses the 1987 synod a bit too readily, calling the event “disappointing,” asking what the American bishops could possibly say to 200,000 lay people who had participated in the national consultation before the synod, and basically categorizing the consultation as ineffectual. What's left out is the fact that the American bishops -- the elected delegates, at least -- chose their topics from the priorities gleaned during the consultation, and then published a jointly authored article in America saying in advance what they would be raising at the synod. That kind of openness was not only new, it was noticed in Rome, and frowned upon. When the papal exhortation Christifideles Laici was issued in 1989, the American concerns were evident. Check out the section on the parish and on women. It is true that synods can be frustrating. To appreciate them, with all their idiosyncrasies, one has to have a high tolerance for “nuance” and a large portion of patience.

However, this second part of The Liberation of the Laity is an original contribution to what one can only hope will be a continuing conversation by the laity about the laity. The author invites readers to think about laity/clergy in terms of different ministries rather than in hierarchical positions. The context for this way of rethinking is the mission of the church, the mission as articulated in the council, namely, the pastoral care of the world. Or, in Lakeland's words, “a consistent struggle against the anti-human pressures of global capitalism.” His discussion of secularity is worth the price of the book.

Lakeland's language is challenging. He asserts, "The laity are in chains," and, moreover, they don't realize it. Not only that, they would deny their oppressed state if presented with the evidence. Well! This does have the ingredients of a good argument. And that's one of the strengths of this book: It is an invitation to dialogue (argue?) in an energetic manner. It might even stir one to abandon passivity in favor of active engagement.

In the final chapter, Lakeland brings together his various strands by playing around with "the vision thing," as one of our past presidents might phrase it. It is an interesting vision insofar as he posits how the polity of the Catholic church might be radically changed without compromising anything essential to the tradition. Isn't that one of the more pressing questions of our time?

The Liberation of the Laity is clearly the work of one who deeply respects the theological wisdom of the past, but is courageous enough to exercise religious imagination. Together these qualities offer a rich resource for all who care about the current state of the church.

Dolores R. Leckey is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and was an adviser to the American bishops at the 1987 Roman Synod.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.