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The Liberation of the Laity

By Paul Lakeland, Continuum, New York, 2003 - Review By: Lynn Bagley

In 2003, Paul Lakeland's The Liberation of the Laity won the Catholic Press Association's prestigious Best Book on Theology award. Lakeland, who is a theologian and professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, bemoans the Catholic Church's lack of a theology of the laity. He gives a history of the laity in the Church leading up to Vatican II, stressing the need for theological reflection on what it means to be lay and what the role is today. With a few significant exceptions, such as the Catholic Action movement in France, the laity simply existed and had no real function. They were to be ministered to, not have a ministry of their own. He dedicates an entire chapter to theologian Ives Congar's writings about church, laity and ministry.

The second half of the book addresses post Vatican II developments about the role of the laity in the secular world. Previously we were taught that our home is in heaven, the world is not for us. Lakeland argues that the secular world is our home. It's a gift, created by God and by us. Everything God makes is holy therefore the secular world is holy. The laity's ministry is the whole world. Our role is to fully humanize the world so it can be all it can be. The life of the lay person is a calling, a vocation to life in the world, a ministry. Lay people are called to work against what's anti-human in the world. Solidarity with all people is one step in recognizing the dignity of all creation. The role of the priests, bishops and pope is to encourage the laity, strengthen them to do battle for humanity and justice in the world. The real ministry of the Church is to humanize the world.

Lakeland writes that Catholic lay people need to be liberated from oppression [in the church] even if they don't see the need to be liberated: 'The low level of lay protest at the lack of role of lay people in the church is a product of the systemic or structural oppression of the laity.' The lay/priest dichotomy in the church automatically subordinates and undervalues lay lifestyle, talents, intelligence, experience and spirituality. The people in the pew have gotten so used to being treated as children that they live as children. It's easier to be told what to do and what to think. They are passive, taken care of, immature and not likely to step out of that comfort zone easily. Lakeland recommends using the praxis used by Liberation Theology in Latin America, study, reflect, and act. It's time for people to grow up.

The church will always be an institution, but what changes can the institution make or should make? The pope and bishops must look for consent and cooperation from the laity. They need to listen. Parish councils should help set policy and not be only consultative. Why should lay people waste their time on a consultative council that no one listens to? Laity must be consulted on matters of leadership and doctrine. The Sensus fidelium [Spirit-inspired sense of the faithful] works from the ground up, and makes consensus more probable. The Pope, Bishops and priests must be accountable
to the members because any organization that polices itself, is suspect at worst,
inadequate at best.

Will the church survive? That depends on if it is willing to change. Will the institutional church model that liberation and freedom that the laity are called to bring forth in the world? The church cannot preach justice if it doesn't live it. Just as lay people are called to be holy, so is the institutional church.

Lynn Bagley hails from Tucson, AZ, and describes herself as a 'professional volunteer with social justice as my guiding force.' She has two children, two grandchildren and serves as an 'anchor' for our Women in Church Leadership project.

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The Liberation of the Laity book review


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