Time and again, I have heard the expression “lay empowerment” in the lips of priests and our parish lay leaders. More often than not, they would be referring to the faculties now granted to some of our parishioners to act as lay ministers—to have a more active participation in the liturgical ceremonies and to be extraordinary ministers for Holy Communion—or to form part of the Parish Pastoral Council. In contrast, in a convention of the Council of the Laity of the Philippines that I attended in Antipolo (Oct.28-30, 2004) I heard a very different notion from more than one of the speakers. What does the expression “lay empowerment” really mean?
The proper sense of empowerment of the laity in Canon Law is enshrined in a set of canons contained in Book II: The People of God, Title II: The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful, covering cc.224-231. These canons, in fact, positivized and formalize a set of rights and duties which are really proper and specific to the lay faithful—not something they have in common with clerics and religious as lay faithful, as covered by Title I: The Obligations and Rights of all the Christian Faithful, cc.208-223—and therefore constitute a proper empowerment of the laity as laity.
Rights of Lay Christian Faithful.
The Code enumerates two rights and a capacity of lay faithful:
1) Freedom in temporal affairs: Can.227. Lay Christian faithful have the right to have recognized that freedom in the affairs of the earthly city which belongs to all citizens; when they exercise such freedom, however, they are to take care that their actions are imbued with the spirit of the gospel and take into account the doctrine set forth by the magisterium of the Church; but they are to avoid proposing their own opinion as the teaching of the Church in questions which are open to various opinions.
2) Right to decent remuneration for special service to the Church: Can. 231, §2: [Except for the stable ministries of lector and acolyte] they have a right to a decent remuneration suited to their condition; by such remuneration they should be able to provide decently for their own needs and for those of their family with due regard for the prescriptions of civil law; they likewise have a right that their pension, social security and health benefits be duly provided.
3) Capacity to cooperate in the governance of the Church: Can.228 — §1. Qualified lay persons are capable of assuming from their sacred pastors those ecclesiastical offices and functions which they are able to exercise in accord with the prescriptions of law.
— §2. Lay persons who excel in the necessary knowledge, prudence, and uprightness are capable of assisting the pastors of the Church as experts or advisors; they can do so even in councils, in accord with the norm of law. N.B. This is not a right, but just a capacity.
In these cases, the Code properly empowers the lay faithful in three ways:
1) By acknowledging such rights of the lay faithful—the Code empowers them to exercise those rights effectively.
2) By giving the lay faithful the right to action—i.e., the right to demand from the competent Church authority the redress of any violation of those rights by any party.
3) By obliging the hierarchy to guarantee the effective exercise of those rights of the lay faithful—through proper formation, coordination and supervision. This is a great field of actuation by the hierarchy: e.g., more serious doctrinal formation of the laity as to their obligations to imbue temporal realities with the Gospel, more constant spiritual direction so as to open horizons of sanctity and apostolic zeal, more intense delivery of the means of salvation (the Word of God and the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist).
Duties of Lay Christian Faithful.
The Code enumerates the following duties:
1) To sanctify marriage and family: Can.226, §1. Lay persons who live in the married state in accord with their own vocation are bound by a special duty to work for the upbuilding of the people of God through their marriage and their family.
2) To acquire appropriate formation for ecclesial tasks: Can.231 — §1. Lay persons who devote themselves permanently or temporarily to some special service of the Church are obliged to acquire the appropriate formation which is required to fulfill their function properly and to carry it out conscientiously, zealously, and diligently.
In these cases, the Code properly empowers the lay faithful in two ways:
1) By establishing such obligations on the part of the lay faithful, the Code empowers them for those acts which the fulfillment of such obligations entails.
2) By establishing such obligation on the part of the lay faithful, the Code also indirectly obliges the hierarchy to make the fulfillment of such obligations feasible.
Right-Duties of Lay Christian Faithful.
In some cases, what the Code establishes are rights which are at the same time duties. In these cases, the mode of empowerment is even more encompassing:
1) To do apostolate in the world: Can. 225 — §1. Since the laity like all the Christian faithful, are deputed by God to the apostolate through their baptism and confirmation, they are therefore bound by the general obligation and enjoy the general right to work as individuals or in associations so that the divine message of salvation becomes known and accepted by all persons throughout the world; this obligation has a greater impelling force in those circumstances in which people can hear the gospel and know Christ only through lay persons.
§2. Each lay person in accord with his or her condition is bound by a special duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel; they thus give witness to Christ in a special way in carrying out those affairs and in exercising secular duties.
2) To access and teach Christian doctrine and sacred sciences: Can.229 — §1. Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine, announce it, defend it when necessary, and be enabled to assume their role in exercising the apostolate.
§2. Lay persons also possess the right to acquire that deeper knowledge of the sacred sciences which are taught in ecclesiastical universities or faculties or in institutes of religious sciences by attending classes and obtaining academic degrees.
§3. Likewise, the prescriptions as to the required suitability having been observed, lay persons are capable of receiving from legitimate ecclesiastical authority a mandate to teach the sacred sciences.
3) To educate one’s children: Can.226, §2. Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them; therefore Christian parents are especially to care for the Christian education of their children according to the teaching handed on by the Church.
From the foregoing, it becomes clear that the juridic notion of empowerment of the laity goes much farther than the participation of lay faithful in properly ministerial functions (much less merely liturgical ones), or even in the pastoral work of the Church. Even in this latter case, the Law only gives the faithful the capacity to cooperate in the governance of the Church, but not a right to such power of governance.
The proper sphere of lay empowerment has to do more with the mission of the lay faithful to be leaven in the world, ordering temporal affairs according to the Gospel.
To the extent that the lay faithful are given the adequate doctrinal and spiritual formation, support of an intense sacramental life, and a healthy autonomy to fulfill their role in the world responsibly, they are by that same measure empowered to be what they are: Christian lay men and women, and not lay ministers or brothers, and much less secularized versions of religious men and women.
Paraphrasing the Apostle to the Gentiles, the world is groaning for the revelation of the sons of God! Christian lay men and women need to be empowered to be themselves: to be Christ in the middle of the world!