Are the Faithful Laity the “Church,” or Not?

I continue to be surprised by view among some Catholic commentators that lay Catholics acting faithfully have some lesser claim to religious freedom than magisterial institutions.

The U.S. Bishops do not share this view. They rightly insist that not only magisterial institutions, but all the faithful laity in their spheres of life such as their workplaces, their families and their apostolates, be protected against the HHS Mandate.

The problem among some commentators seems to involve a misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. That document famously sets forth the “right of all men” to religious liberty, even if they might err. To prevent that right from causing lawlessness, the Council declares it subject to “due limits” of law.

But the first error some Catholics seem to be making is to assume that this limitation in section 2 of DH applies to coercion against faithful lay conscience. This overlooks the fact that section 1 of DH fully affirms freedom of the Church without subjecting it to “due limits” that could allow some government coercion thereof. By definition, when Christ’s faithful act faithfully no government can coerce their conscience.

The second error of some commentators is to assume that the freedom of the Church is something different than the freedom of faithful laity against coercion of their consciences. DH eliminates such an interpretation in section 13. There it declares that the faithful laity possess not the generic right of all men, but that same religious freedom of the Church, “for herself in her character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” “Live in society” means not just to volunteer at a diocesan soup kitchen. It means all aspects of life.

The reason that the faithful laity and the magisterium share the same religious freedom is because when the laity act in faithfulness within their own spheres of life, they are the Church, so Her religious freedom and theirs is one and the same. This teaching needs to be more fully accepted by Catholics. The last two Popes are trying to make that happen.

Blessed John Paul II explained that the Second Vatican Council “displayed a basic intention of asserting the full belonging of the lay faithful to the Church and to its mystery.” He quotes Pope Pius XII’s affirmation that the faithful laity “ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church.” When the laity conform their consciences and lives to the teaching of the magisterium, “these are the Church.”

Just this January, Pope Benedict instructed the U.S. Bishops to defend the religious freedom of Catholic “individuals” and institutions both. He expressed no subjugation of the former to the latter. On the contrary, the Pope said the bishops’ most important job is to enable the laity to witness to Church teaching not just by their own preaching but by living it in their spheres of life. The HHS Mandate directly penalizes such living witness. The U.S. bishops have taken the Pope’s words to heart and are now defending the lay faithful’s conscientious freedom in work and society, because as the Pope noted, “there is no realm of worldly affairs which can be withdrawn from the Creator and his dominion” (quoting, naturally, the Second Vatican Council).

This is why the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom affirms that a harmony exists between the religious freedom of the Church-including-the-faithful-laity and the right of all men. But DH never asserts, and instead contradicts, the mistaken view that the faithful laity’s right against government coercion of their consciences is something less than the Church’s own freedom, and is instead nothing more than the right of all men subject to “due limits.” Such a view would both diminish the Church’s own freedom and sever the body of Christ into two.

It is not possible, therefore, to claim that the Church’s rights do not belong to the faithful laity, leaving their freedom prioritized lower than that of magisterial institutions and allowed to be subjected to government coercion of their consciences as a “due limit.”

Ultimately the view that the faithful laity’s religious freedom takes a backseat to magisterial institutions is a failure to interiorize the Church’s teaching that the laity acting faithfully are, in true identity, the Church herself. Thankfully the U.S. bishops understand that all the Church including the faithful laity possess Her own religious freedom, and the bishops are acting on that belief despite receiving friendly fire for doing so.

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6 thoughts on “Are the Faithful Laity the “Church,” or Not?

  1. Sandy says:

    Suggesting that a person who chooses to follow the Catholic religion loses his or her self-identity as an individual by doing so is a denial of the inherent individuality of the person. No person is their chosen religion. Religions uphold a philosophical viewpoint that may or may not be accepted by an individual. If accepted, personal identity is not then given over to the religion but remains forever with the individual. Just as no person is his or her chosen profession, no person is their chosen religion. These choices are personal. The person-hood of an individual can never be claimed or taken away by any religion. Individuality is a birthright that existed long before religion ever existed. Religion only exists because we, as humans, invented it.

    1. Anna says:

      Sandy, are you suggesting that faithful, devout Catholics have no sense of individual identity? That is the absurd extreme end of your argument, whether you recognize it or not. Have you bothered to read the revised Nicene Creed; revised, mind you, to reflect the truer meaning of a nearly 1700 year old cornerstone of the Catholic faith?

      You may be confusing policy and doctrine, which I admit is difficult to discern. Many devout Catholics chafe under non-religious policy sometimes undertaken by the religious (the head of CHS comes to mind), but none of us consider it a burden on our individuality when we look into the heart of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. It is, in truth, very liberating because so many paths lead to the central and most Sacred Heart.

      As for your ‘humans invented religion’ remark, nothing could be further from the truth. We didn’t invent it, we discovered it and knew it by it’s enduring truth…HUGE difference. And once we opened our hearts to the Sacred Heart of God, He made Himself known to us.

      1. Sandy says:

        Anna, how does one discover that which doesn’t exist? And what is your definition of religion, if I may ask?

  2. Sandy says:

    Suggesting that a person who chooses to follow the Catholic religion looses his or her self-identity as an individual by doing so is a denial of the inherent individuality of the person. No person is their chosen religion. Religions uphold a philosophical viewpoint that may or may not be accepted by the individual. If accepted, personal identity is not then given over to the religion but remains forever with the individual. Just as no person is his or her chosen profession, no person is their chosen religion. These choices are personal. The person-hood of an individual can never be claimed or taken away by any religion. Individuality is a birthright that existed long before religion ever existed. This post presumes the opposite and is therefore in error.

    1. Joe M says:

      Sandy. I don’t believe that Matt was making any kind of statement regarding a persons individuality. He was referring to the concept that Catholics are asked to carry out the mission of the Church outside of the literal Church building.

  3. Joe M says:

    For our beliefs, Christians have faced death by lions and gunshot. But, Michael Sean Winters thinks we should stand down to Kathleen Sebelius.

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