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 recent convention of the Council of the Laity of the Philippines that I attended in Antipolo (Oct.28-30,) I heard a very different notion from more than one of the speakers. What does the expression “lay empowerment” really mean?
Before we can understand the notion of lay empowerment, we must first understand very well the concept of lay or layman. This is important so that we understand in what way the laymen are supposed to be empowered. In order to do this, we have to first understand the fundamental equality of all the faithful; then we have to understand their diversity and the specific quality of the laity.
The Juridic Equality and diversity of all the Faithful
By baptism, all Christians possess a common juridic condition of radical equality within the ecclesial society, and thereby share an identical objective and end, which is that of extending the Kingdom of God until it reaches its fullness in the end of time (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n.9). By the baptismal character, and not by any posterior mandate of the Hierarchy, all the faithful are called with equal intensity to foster the common good of the Kingdom of God and to extend it.
This character constitutes all Christ’s faithful into a royal priesthood, making them participate in the priesthood of Christ, by which they are called to share in Christ’s threefold mission of teaching, sanctifying and leading all men, and indeed all creation, towards God.
Nevertheless, despite the radical equality of all Christ’s faithful by virtue of baptism, not all follow the same path (LG, 32). Among them, there exists diverse ways of life, which demonstrates a variety which enriches the Church. All this—unity and diversity—is a consequence of the action of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church in the way of all truth, and unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her; and he adorns her with his fruits (LG, 4).
Two Factors cause this diversity:
1) The action of grace and the charisms of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s faithful—i.e., personal vocation.
2) The individual response of every faithful—i.e., personal human freedom.
Three Principal Situations of Diversity arise:
1) The Cleric (or Sacred Minister). The condition of cleric includes all those who, on top of the fundamental character of Baptism, have received the character of Holy Orders (c.207).
This character marks an essential difference—not merely of degree—between the royal priesthood of all Christ’s faithful by virtue of Baptism, and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained cleric.
This character confers on the cleric a new mission (Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2), which consists in striving for the internal vitality of the ecclesial society, preaching the Word of God, administering the means of salvation (fundamentally the sacraments) and directing the course of the Church as a society in persona Christi capitis (c.1008). In short, to “serve” or “minister” to all Christ’s faithful, so that they may exercise with full vitality their royal priesthood. Hence the term: ministerial priesthood.
2) The Religious (or Consecrated Faithful). The religious is another type of faithful, whose status arises from the profession of the evangelical counsels—i.e., perfect continence, poverty and obedience—through a juridical bond of a sacred character. This constitutes a stable way of life (c.573), which even if it does not pertain to the hierarchical structure of the Church, pertains nevertheless to its life and sanctity (LG, 44; c.574, §1).
This way of life—the religious life—is characterized fundamentally by an intrinsic non-secularity, which traditionally had even been called a contemptus mundi or fuga mundi, whose theological root and purpose was to give an eschatological witness to the world—i.e., to give a stark reminder to all men that this world is not our permanent home.
3) The Christian Layman (or Lay Faithful). The lay faithful, in the strict sense of cc.224-231, refers to a constitutional situation different from the previous ones, which is specifically characterized by baptismal secularity. The layman is not just Christ’s faithful who has not been ordained, or has not embraced the evangelical counsels in an Institute of Consecrated Life. He is Christ’s faithful who has embraced the world, but without being worldy.
The specific vocation of the lay faithful is to be immersed in the world (to be secular). To the laity corresponds specifically the task—within the universal mission of the Church—to develop the baptismal charisms so as to make the Church present in those circumstances wherein it can act as salt of the earth only through them (LG, 33).
Understanding Lay Empowerment
The problem with words is that many times they are not univocal (having only one sense) but are rather equivocal (having more than one sense). This is what happens with the notion of the oft-quoted expression of lay empowerment or empowerment of the laity.
a. Loose Sense of Lay Empowerment in Daily Usage.
To my mind, this is the most unfortunate sense of the expression lay empowerment, which usually refers to those manifestations of cooperation of lay faithful in the ministry of clerics—more often than not in connection with the liturgy. This is the reason for the unreasonable exultation of the phenomenon of lay ministries as an icon or model of commitment of the lay faithful in the Church.
If I trained a fish to somehow move on muddy ground, I would not have really empowered it, because it is not proper for a fish to be terrestrial but aquatic. Likewise, if I trained a bird to walk instead of fly, again I wouldn’t have empowered it but denatured it somehow, because it could never really walk as well as it could fly, because that’s the way it was created.
While the so-called lay ministries are licit and laudable, what we cannot forget is that they are many times suppletory in nature—i.e., to supply for the lack of ordained ministers, whether temporarily or more stably (cf. c.230). They always constitute—to a greater or lesser extent—a denaturing of the lay character of being in the world.
b. Improper Sense of Lay Empowerment in the Code of Canon Law.
Improper means “not proper” or “not really pertaining to” or “not corresponding to”. This is the first sense of lay empowerment that we can find in the Code of Canon Law, referring to the manifestations of the cooperation of the lay faithful with the ordained ministers in the exercise of the sacra potestas or power of jurisdiction (or power of governance) which is really proper of the ordained ministers. This is the sacred power that Christ gave the Apostles (on Peter and the Apostolic College principally) and their successors, which they exercise with the other ordained ministers in persona Christi capitis (“in the person of Christ the Head”).
An attentive reading of c.129 of the Code throws a lot of light on this matter:
Can. 129 — §1. In accord with the prescriptions of law, those who have received sacred orders are capable of the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.
— §2. Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this power in accord with the norm of law.
Note the difference between §1 and §2: Clerics are capable of the power of governance, as something proper to them. Lay faithful can only cooperate in the exercise of that power, meaning that the principal subject who operates that power are the clerics, while the laymen may only co-operate it.
There are not a few instances of this cooperation of the lay faithful in the exercise of the power of jurisdiction provided for by the Code of Canon Law. For example, laymen can be appointed judges in ecclesiastical tribunals (c.1421, §2); laymen have a consultative vote in the different councils at the parochial and diocesan levels, and can even be consultors in the Holy See (c.228); laymen can dedicate themselves in an organic way in the apostolic work of a Personal Prelature (c.296).
Up to this point, we can make the following preliminary conclusions.
1) The ordinary notion of lay empowerment—which refers to the greater participation of laymen in the liturgical celebrations—is an unfortunate impoverishment of the concept and may even be qualified as a denaturing (more than empowering) of the laymen to assume roles that are not that secular.
2) Another notion of lay empowerment—which refers to the cooperation of laymen in the exercise of the power of governance in the Church—may be more canonical (in the sense that it is in the Code of Canon Law), but can still be classified as improper, since it still represents a mere cooperation in the exercise of the power of jurisdiction which Canon Law really invests on sacred ministers. We still need to arrive at a deeper meaning of lay empowerment—one which would really reflect an intensification of the nature and role of the layman in the Church community.