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Body of the faithful, outside of the ranks of the clergy

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Laity (Gr. laos, “the people”; whence laikos, “one of the people”) means the body of the faithful, outside of the ranks of the clergy. This article treats the subject under three heads: (I) General Idea; (2) Duties and Rights of the Laity; (3) Privileges and Restrictions of the Laity.

GENERAL IDEA.—Whereas the word faithful is opposed to infidel, unbaptized, one outside the pale of Christian society, the word laity is opposed to clergy. The laity and clergy, or clerics, belong to the same society, but do not occupy the same rank. The laity are the members of this society who remain where they were placed by baptism, while the clergy, even if only tonsured, have been raised by ordination to a higher class, and placed in the sacred hierarchy. The Church is a perfect society, though all therein are not equal; it is composed of two kinds of members (see can. “Duo sunt”, vii, Caus. 12, Q. i, of uncertain origin): in the first place, those who are the depositaries of sacred or spiritual authority under its triple aspect, government, teaching, and worship, i.e. the clergy, the sacred hierarchy established by Divine law (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXIII, can. vi); in the second place, those over whom this power is exercised, who are governed, taught, and sanctified, the Christian people, the laity; though for that matter clerics also, considered as individuals, are governed, taught, and sanctified. But the laity are not the depositaries of spiritual power; they are the flock confided to the care of the shepherds, the disciples who are instructed in the Word of God, the subjects who are guided by the successors of the Apostles towards their last end, which is eternal life. Such is the constitution which Our Savior has given to His Church.

This is not the place for a detailed demonstration of this assertion, the proof of which may be reduced to the following points more fully developed under Church : on the one hand, a distinction between the governed and those governing is necessary in every organized society; now Jesus Christ established His Church as a real society, endowed with all the authority requisite for the attaining of its object. On the other hand, in the Church, government has always been in the hands of those who were entrusted exclusively with the teaching of doctrine and the care of Divine worship. If one studies without prejudice the New Testament and the beginnings of Christianity, some doubt may arise on certain matters of detail; but the conclusion will certainly be that every Christian community had its superiors, these superiors had a stable spiritual authority, and this authority had as its end the exclusive care of religious functions (including teaching) as well as the government of the community. There have been differences of opinion concerning the origin of the monarchical episcopacy, which soon became the sole form of ecclesiastical organization; but no one holds that the monarchical episcopacy succeeded a period of anarchy or of government by a community where all had equal authority. The organization of all Christian Churches under the authority of the bishops and clergy, as early as the third century, is so evident as to place beyond all doubt the existence at that time of two distinct classes, the clergy and the laity. Moreover, in all societies among which Christianity had spread, religious service had already its special ministers, and the Christian organization would have retrograded if its worship and its sacrifice had not been entrusted exclusively to a special class.

Christ selected the Apostles from among His disciples, and among the Apostles He selected Peter to be their head. He entrusted them with the furtherance of His work; to them he confided the power of the keys, i.e. spiritual authority, for they are the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt., xvi, 19); He gave them the mission to teach and baptize all nations (Matt., xxviii, 18); to them also He addressed those words at the Last Supper: “Do this in commemoration of me” (Luke, xxii, 19). As soon as the Church begins to live, the Apostles appear as its leaders; they are distinct from the “multitude of believers it is into their ranks that they bring Matthias (Acts, i, 15), and later, by the command of the Holy Ghost, Saul and Barnabas, whom they receive with the imposition of hands (Acts, xiii, 2). Wherever St. Paul founds Churches he gives them leaders “placed by the Holy Spirit to govern the Church of God” (Acts, xx, 28); the Pastoral Epistles reveal to us a directing body composed of the bishops, or priests, and deacons (I Clement., xliii, 4); and they it is, especially the bishops, who perform exclusively the liturgical services (Ep. Ignat., “ad. Smyrn.”, 8). If at times the Christian people participate in the Divine service or the government, they never appear acting independently nor even on an equal footing with the heads of the community (cf. Batiffol, “L’Eglise naissante et le catholicisme”, Paris, 1909). This distinction between the two classes in the Christian society refers to social rank, not to individual moral perfection. It is true that the clergy, being dedicated to the service of the altar, are thereby bound to strive after perfection; yet neither their virtues nor their failings influence in any way their powers. On the other hand, the laity, besides their right to aspire freely to admission into the ranks of the clergy, on complying with the requisite conditions, are exhorted to practice every virtue, even in the highest degree. They can also bind themselves to observe the evangelical counsels, under the guidance of the Church, either in the world, as did the ancient ascetics, or by withdrawing from the world into one of the many religious houses. But ascetics, nuns, and unordained members of religious associations of men were not originally in the ranks of the clergy, and, strictly speaking, are not so even today, though, on account of their closer and more special dependence on ecclesiastical authority, they have long been included under the title clergy in its wider sense (see Religious). The juridical condition of the laity in the Christian society is therefore determined by two considerations: their separation from the clergy, which excludes them from the performance of acts reserved to the latter; and second, their subjection to the spiritual authority of the clergy, which imposes certain obligations on them, while at the same time it confers on them certain rights.

DUTIES AND RIGHTS OF THE LAITY.—Having come through Baptism to the supernatural life, being members of the Christian society and adopted children of God, the laity belong to the “chosen race”, the “royal priesthood” (I Peter, ii, 9) formed of all those who are born again in Christ. They have therefore a right to share in the common spiritual goods of the Christian society, which implies a corresponding obligation on the part of the clergy to bestow on them these goods, in as far as this bestowal requires the intervention of the ministers of religion and of the spiritual authority But if the laity are to share in these common goods they must employ more or less frequently the means of sanctification instituted by Jesus Christ in His Church, and of which the clergy have been put in charge. Further, the laity, being subject to ecclesiastical authority, must obey and respect it; but in return they have the right to obtain from it direction, protection, and service. Thus, for the laity rights and duties are, as always, correlative. The first duty of a Christian is to believe; the first obligation imparted to the laity is, therefore, to learn the truths of faith and of religion, at first by means of the catechism and religious instruction, and later by being present at sermons, missions, or retreats. If they are thus obliged to learn, they have the right to be instructed and consequently to require their priests to give them and their children Christian teaching in the ordinary way. Second, a Christian‘s moral conduct should be in keeping with his faith; he must, therefore, preserve his spiritual life by the means which Jesus has established in His Church: the Divine service, especially the Mass, the Sacraments, and other sacred rites.

This necessity of having recourse to the pastoral ministry gives rise to a right in the laity as regards the clergy, the right of obtaining from them the administration of the sacraments, especially Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and others according to circumstances; also all the other acts of Christian worship, especially the Mass, the sacramentals and other rites, and lastly Christian burial. These are the spiritual goods destined for the sanctification of souls; if the clergy are appointed to administer them, they are not free dispensers, and they are bound to give their services to the faithful, as long, at least, as the latter have not by their own fault placed themselves in a condition that deprives them of the right to demand these services. Considered from the standpoint of the laity, this recourse to the ministry of the clergy is sometimes obligatory and sometimes optional, according to circumstances. It may be an obligation imposed by a command of the Church, or necessitated by personal reasons; in other cases, it may be a matter of counsel and left to the devotion of each one. This is a subject which exhibits most clearly the difference between a precept and a counsel with regard to our outward Christian life. Assistance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, annual confession, Easter communion, the reception of the Viaticum (q.v.) and the last services of religion, the celebration of marriage in the prescribed form, the baptism and religious instruction of children, and, finally, the rites of Christian burial—all these suppose a recourse to the ministry of the clergy which is of obligation for the laity, abstracting from individual cases when there may be a legitimate excuse. On the other hand, more or less frequent confessions and communions, hearing of daily Mass, frequenting the Divine Office, asking for special ceremonies (for instance, churching) celebration of Masses, obtaining services and prayers for the dead or for other intentions, are things that are perfectly legitimate and are counseled, but are optional. We may also mention the obligatory or free acts intended for the personal sanctification of the laity, but which do not require the help of the clergy: private prayer, fasting and abstinence, avoidance of servile work on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and, lastly, in general all that relates to the moral life and the observance of the commandments of God.

From these obligatory and optional relations existing between the laity and the clergy there arise certain duties of the former towards the latter. In the first place, respect and deference should be shown to the clergy, especially in the exercise of their function, on account of their sacred character and the Divine authority with which they are invested (Cone. Trid., Sess. XXV, c. xx). This respect should be shown in daily intercourse, and laymen inspired with a truly Christian spirit do homage to God in the person of His ministers, even when the conduct of the latter is not in keeping with the sanctity of their state. In the second place the laity are obliged, in proportion to their means and the circumstances of the case, to contribute towards the expenses of Divine service and the fitting support of the clergy; this is an obligation incumbent on them in return for the right which they have to the services of their priests with regard to the Mass and other spiritual exercises. These contributions fall under two distinct classes: certain gifts and offerings of the faithful are intended in general for the Divine services and the support of the clergy; others, on the contrary, are connected with various acts of the sacred ministry which are freely asked for, such as the stipends for Masses, the dues for funeral services, marriages, etc. There is no fixed sum for the former class, the matter being left to the generosity of the faithful; in many countries they have taken the place of the fixed incomes that the various churches and the clergy were possessed of, arising especially from landed property; they have likewise replaced the tithes, no longer recognized by the secular governments. The latter class, however, are fixed by ecclesiastical authority or custom and may be demanded in justice; not that this is paying for sacred things, which would be simony, but they are offerings for the Divine service and the clergy on the occasion of certain definite acts (see Offerings; Tithes).

There remains to speak of the duties and rights of the laity towards the ecclesiastical authority as such, in matters foreign to the sacred ministry. The duties, which affect both laity and clergy, consist in submission and obedience to legitimate hierarchical authority: the pope, the bishops, and, in a proportionate degree, the parish priests and other acting ecclesiastics. The decisions, judgments, orders, and directions of our lawful pastors, in matters of doctrine, morals, discipline, and even administration, must be accepted and obeyed by all members of the Christian society, at least in as far as they are subject to that authority. That is a condition requisite to the wellbeing of any society whatsoever. However, in the case of the Christian society, authoritative decisions and directions, in as far as they are concerned with faith and morals, bind not merely to exterior acts and formal obedience; they are, moreover, a matter of conscience and demand loyal interior acceptance. On the other hand, seeing that in the Church the superiors have been established for the welfare of the subjects, so that the pope himself glories in the title “servant of the servants of God“, the faithful have the right to expect the care, vigilance, and protection of their pastors; in particular they have the right to refer their disputes to the ecclesiastical authorities for decision, to consult them in case of doubt or difficulty, and to ask for suitable guidance for their religious or moral conduct.

PRIVILEGES AND RESTRICTIONS OF THE LAITY.—Since the laity is distinct from the clergy, and since Divine worship, doctrinal teaching, and ecclesiastical government are reserved, at least in essentials, to the latter, it follows that the former may not interfere in purely clerical offices; they can participate only in a secondary and accessory manner, and that in virtue of a more or less explicit authorization. Any other interference would be an unlawful and guilty usurpation, punishable at times with censures and penalties. We will apply this principle now to matters of worship, teaching, and government or administration.

(I) As to the Liturgy.—As to Divine service, the liturgy and especially the essential act of the Christian worship, the Holy Sacrifice, the active ministers are the clergy alone. But the laity really join in it. Not only do they assist at the Sacrifice and receive its spiritual effects, but they offer it through the ministry of the priest. Formerly they could, and even were obliged to, bring and offer at the altar the matter of the sacrifice, i.e. the bread and wine; that is what they really do today by their offerings and their stipends for Masses. At several parts of the Mass, the prayers mention them as offering the sacrifice together with the clergy, especially in the passage immediately after the consecration: “Uncle et memores, nos servi tui (the clergy) sed et plebs tua sancta (the laity)… offerimus praeclarw Majestati tune, de tuis donis ac datis”, etc. The laity reply to the salutations and invitations of the celebrant, thus joining in the solemn prayer; especially do they share in the Holy Victim by Holy Communion (confined for them in the Latin Liturgy to the species of bread), which they can receive also outside of the time of Mass and at home in case of illness. Such is the participation of the laity in the Liturgy, and strictly they are limited to that; all the active portion is performed by the clergy.

Regularly, no layman may sit within the presbyterium, or sanctuary, nor may he read any part of the Liturgy, much less pray publicly, or serve the priest at the altar, or, above all, offer the Sacrifice. However, owing to the almost complete disappearance of the inferior clergy, there has gradually arisen the custom of appointing lay persons to perform certain minor clerical duties. In most of our churches, the choir-boys, schoolboys, sacristans, and chanters, serve low Masses and Missae cantatae, occupy places in the sanctuary, and act as acolytes, thurifers, masters of ceremonies, and even as lectors. On such occasions they are given, at least in solemn services, a clerical costume, the cassock and surplice, as if to admit them temporarily to the ranks of the clergy and thus recognize and safeguard the principle of excluding the laity. These remarks apply not only to the celebration of Mass, but to all liturgical services: the laity are separated from the clergy. In processions especially, confraternities and other bodies of the laity precede the clergy; the women being first, then the men, next regular clergy, and lastly the secular clergy.

In the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, and other like liturgical offices, the same principle applies, and ordinarily everything is reserved to the clergy. But it should be mentioned that the laity may administer Concordat (q.v.) in cases of necessity, and though not of practical importance with regard to adults, this frequently occurs when children are in danger of death. In the early ages, the faithful carried away the Blessed Eucharist to their homes and gave themselves the Holy Communion (cf. Tertullian, “Ad uxorem”, ii, 5). That was a purely material administration of the sacrament, and hardly differed from the communion ceremony in the church, where the consecrated host was placed in the hand of each communicant. We should mention also the use of the blessed oil by those who were sick, if that be considered an administration of extreme unction (cf. the Decretal of Innocent I to Decentius of Eugubium, n. 8; serm. cclxv and cclxxix; append. of the works of St. Augustine, really the work of St. Csarius of Arles). But those practices have long since disappeared. As to matrimony, if the sacrament itself, which is none other than the contract, has as its authors the lay persons contracting, the liturgical administration is reserved today, as formerly, to the clergy. With these exceptions, there is nothing to prevent the laity from using the liturgical prayers in their private devotions, from reciting the Divine Office, or the various Little Offices drawn up particularly for them, or from joining in associations or confraternities to practice together and according to rule certain pious exercises, the confraternities having been formed lawfully in virtue of episcopal approbation.

(2) As to Doctrine.—The body of the faithful is strictly speaking the Ecclesia docta (the Church taught), in contrast with the Ecclesia docens (the teaching Church), which consists of the pope and the bishops. When there is question, therefore, of the official teaching of religious doctrine, the laity is neither competent nor authorized to speak in the name of God and the Church (cap. xii et sq., lib. V, tit. vii, “De hwreticis”). Consequently they are not allowed to preach in church, or to undertake to defend the Catholic doctrine in public discussions with heretics. But in their private capacity, they may most lawfully defend and teach their religion by word and writing, while submitting themselves to the control and guidance of ecclesiastical authority. Moreover, they may be appointed to give doctrinal instruction more or less officially, or may even become the defenders of Catholic truth. Thus they give excellent help to the clergy in teaching catechism, the lay masters in our schools give religious instruction, and some laymen have received a missio canonica, or due ecclesiastical authorization, to teach the religious sciences in universities and seminaries; the important point in this, as in other matters, is for them to be submissive to the legitimate teaching authority.

(3) As to Jurisdiction and Administration.—The principle is that the laity as such have no share in the spiritual jurisdiction and government of the Church; but they may be commissioned or delegated by ecclesiastical authority to exercise certain rights, especially when there is no question of strictly spiritual jurisdiction, for instance, in the administration of property. The laity are incapable, if not by Divine law at least by canon law, of real jurisdiction in the Church, according to chap. x, “De constit.” (lib. I, tit. ii): “Attendentes quod laicis etiam religiosis super ecclesiis et personis ecclesiasticis nulla sit attributa facultas, quos obsequendi manet necessitas non auctoritas imperandi”, i.e., the laity have no authority over things or persons ecclesiastical; it is their duty to obey not to command. Therefore no official acts requiring real ecclesiastical jurisdiction can be properly performed by the laity; if performed by them, they are null and void. A layman therefore cannot be at the head of a Church or any Christian community, nor can he legislate in spiritual matters, nor act as judge in essentially ecclesiastical cases. In particular, the laity (and by this word we here include the secular authority) cannot bestow ecclesiastical jurisdiction on clerics under the form of an election properly so called, conferring the right to an episcopal or other benefice. An election by the laity alone, or one in which the laity took part, would be absolutely null and void (c. lvi, “De elect.”) (see Election). But this refers to canonical election strictly so called, conferring jurisdiction or the right to receive it; if it is merely a question, on the other hand, of selecting an individual, either by way of presentation or a similar process, the laity are not excluded, for the canonical institution, the source of spiritual jurisdiction, is exclusively reserved to the ecclesiastical authority. That is why no objection can be raised against the principle we have laid down from the fact that the people took part in the episcopal elections in the first ages of the Church; to speak more accurately, the people manifested their wish rather than took part in the election; the real electors were the clerics; and lastly, the bishops who were present were the judges of the election, so that in reality the final decision rested in the hands of the ecclesiastical authority. It cannot be denied that in the course of time the secular power encroached on the ground of spiritual jurisdiction, especially in the case of episcopal elections; but the Church always asserted her claim to independence where spiritual jurisdiction was involved, as may be clearly seen in the history of the famous dispute about investitures (q.v.).

When jurisdiction properly so called is duly protected, and there is question of administering temporal goods, the laity may and do enjoy as a fact real rights recognized by the Church. The most important is that of presentation or election in the wide sense of the term, now known as nomination, by which certain laymen select for the ecclesiastical authorities the person whom they wish to see invested with certain benefices or offices. The best known example is that of nomination to sees and other benefices by temporal princes, who have obtained that privilege by Concordat (q.v.). Another case recognized and carefully provided for in canon law is the right of patronage. This right is granted to those who from their own resources have established a benefice or who have at least amply endowed it (contributing more than one-third of the revenue). The patrons can, from the moment of foundation, reserve to themselves and their descend.. ants, the right of active and passive patronage, not to mention other privileges rather honorary in their nature; in exchange for these rights, they undertake to protect and maintain their foundation. The right of active patronage consists principally in the presentation of the cleric to be invested with the benefice by the ecclesiastical authorities, provided he fulfils the requisite conditions. The right of passive patronage consists in the fact that the candidates for the benefice are to be selected from the descendants or the family of the founder. The patrons enjoy by right a certain precedence, among other things the right to a more prominent seat in the churches founded or supported by them; sometimes, also, they enjoy other honors; they can reserve to themselves a part in the administration of the property of the benefice; finally, if they fall upon evil days, the Church is obliged to help them from the property that was acquired through the generosity of their ancestors. All these rights, it is clear, and particularly that of presentation, are concessions made by the Church, and not privileges which the laity have of their own right.

It is but equitable that those who furnish the resources required by the Church should not be excluded from their administration. For that reason the participation of the laity in the administration of church property, especially parish property, is justified. Under the different names such as, “building councils”, “parish councils”, “trustees”, etc., and with rules carefully drawn up or approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, and often even recognized by the civil law, there exist almost everywhere administrative organizations charged with the care of the temporal goods of churches and other ecclesiastical establishments; most of the members are laymen; they are selected in various ways, generally cooption, subject to the approval of the bishop. But this honorable office does not belong to the laity in their own right; it is a privilege granted to them by the Church, which alone has the right to administer her own property (Conc. Plen. Baltim. III, n. 284 sq.); they must conform to the regulations and act under the control of the ordinary, with whom ultimately the final decision rests; lastly and above all, they must confine their energies to temporal administration and never encroach on the reserved domain of spiritual things (Conc. Plen. Baltim. II, n. 201; see Ecclesiastical Buildings). Lastly, there are many educational and charitable institutions, founded and directed by laymen, and which are not strictly church property, though they are regularly subject to the control of the ordinary (Conc. Trid., Sess. VII, c. xv; Sess. XXII, c. viii); the material side of these works is not the most important, and to attain their end, the laity who govern there will above all be guided and directed by the advice of their pastors, whose loyal and respectful auxiliaries they will prove themselves to be.


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