The trouble with post-Vatican II Catholicism is that it doesn't leave many free evenings.
Oscar Wilde first made this remark about socialism and Richard John Neuhaus has wisely applied it our current situation. And upon reflection, the observation is certainly true. The contemporary active Catholic has parish council on Monday evening, Bible study on Tuesday night, liturgy committee on Wednesday, a prayer meeting on Thursday, adoration on Friday, Marriage Encounter or Renew or Promise Keepers on Saturday, and youth group or CCD on Sunday.
A generation that makes much of the liberation of the laity ironically confines the Catholic laity to a religious life totally absorbed with church enterprises. The same is true of some prominent organizations within the Catholic Church today. Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, Woman's Ordination Conference, FutureChurch - these associations are entirely concerned with church structure and church business. Even the motto of Voice of the Faithful ("Keep the faith; change the church") betrays a pre-occupation with the institutional church. In actuality, these organizations mislead the faithful about their primary mission as Catholic lay Christians.
The primary focus of the Catholic laity should be the world not the church. How sad it is that neighboring Massachusetts, the home of Voice of the Faithful which spends so much energy re-shaping the church, is also the home of legalized same-sex marriage. The faithful there should be changing their laws, not changing their church. How even sadder for Rhode Islanders that our state which claims to be two/thirds Roman Catholic is also a state that sends two pro-abortion senators to Washington year after year. Never mind the election of bishops. It's the election of responsible legislators who will respect life and family that should be occupying our state's laity. And the time wasted on promoting women for holy orders should be spent on renewing the social order instead. Such is the primary mission of the lay faithful.
For all the talk about the spirit of Vatican II over the past 40 years, one of the most ignored aspects of that Council's deliberations is precisely its teaching on the true role of the laity in God's plan of salvation. The council clearly teaches in Lumen Gentium: "But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God." As the list of extraordinary ministers of Communion and lay readers and church group facilitators grows longer, the secular world is lacking in powerful Christian witnesses intent on renewing the social order. The priesthood and religious life are not the only church institutions facing a vocation crisis. The true vocation of the laity has not been revealed to them yet even though church teaching is very clear: "Since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs, it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer (LG31)."
The Scripture readings at Mass this Sunday focus clearly on the reality of vocation. Isaiah is summoned to be the Lord's prophet as he ministers at the altar in the temple. St. Paul writes of his own miraculous call to be a preacher of the very Gospel he had persecuted. Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee hear their invitation to be fishers of men as they work their boats along the Sea of Galilee. Similarly today's laity are called to transform the secular order in which they find themselves with the same vigor and energy with which Isaiah celebrated the Jews' return from exile and St. Paul evangelized the Mediterranean world and Saints Peter, James and John guided the early church. These ancients well understood their vocation; today's laity must also grasp their particular role in salvation history. The systemic change needed to guarantee honesty in business, justice in government and truth in culture is the special province of the laity. Such is their divine commission.
American lay Catholics must not be timid about introducing eternal truths into temporal situations. This is precisely the lay vocation. It is God's intention that his kingdom should embrace the whole world. And it is the laity to whom this challenge is especially entrusted.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)