Take Owership of Universal Church, Theologian Tells Laity

By Odell, Catherine M. | National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2010 | Go to article overview

Take Owership of Universal Church, Theologian Tells Laity


Odell, Catherine M., National Catholic Reporter


Forty-five years down the road from the Second Vatican Council, do most Catholics even know there is a theology of the laity?

Clearly, a theology of the laity and lay ministry in the church hasn't been high on the hot-topic list for the majority of American Catholics. Paul Lakeland, chair of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, is dead sure about that, and he's thought about it a great deal. In fact, he can easily pinpoint when it came to mean a great deal more to him as a scholar and as a Catholic.

"I had a sabbatical leave in 2001, and had begun to formulate this book on the theology of the laity," as Lakeland tells it. He had realized some years earlier that although Vatican II said a great deal about the laity, there was very little theological reflection on "what it is to be a layperson." The exception to this theological oversight' was the brilliant and groundbreaking work of French Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar. Congar's book, Lay People and the Church, was published in French in the early 1950s, and later in English.

Aside from Congar, however, theologians had either sidestepped the important task of constructing a theological vision of the laity or hadn't found it worth their time and attention. In. fact, in 2001, Lakeland himself had a few self-conscious concerns about getting into the topic. A historical and theological discussion of the laity? It "actually sounded so God-awful dull," he confesses.

In 2002, however, the clergy sex abuse scandal began to rock the American church. Within a few short months, Paul Lakeland was a solid source for Catholic and secular media reporting on the crisis. Though the sex abuse crisis was a serious tragedy for the church, it brought a certain professional serendipity for Lakeland.

"Suddenly, I was getting cell phone calls in the middle of Home Depot while I was buying nails." Before that, he quips, he was certainly not in demand for interviews; The audience for his books was pretty much limited to "my 100 best friends."

Becoming a "go-to guy" for media trying to provide context for the disintegration of lay confidence in the church didn't mean that this former Jesuit from Lancashire, England, was the ultimate expert on the U.S. church. "I just happened to be one of the few people who had written about the place of laypeople in the church and had been saying some things about episcopal leadership."

A robust speaking schedule began for Lakeland shortly after the crisis began. And he carved out time to complete his book. The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church (Continuum, 2004), which later earned the Catholic Press Association award in the theology category In a few short years, the theology of the laity had become painfully relevant. It was easy to see that it would never again be overlooked.

Another Lakeland book, Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church, followed quickly. It had many of the same themes and was also published by Continuum, but with discussion questions for each chapter. That book continues to be a popular small-group resource for Catholics trying to understand what's happening in their church.

Today, Lakeland often looks back to the beginning of the sex abuse crisis and even further back to Vatican II. Con-gar's groundbreaking work still helps illuminate both events, Lakeland says.

"Congar had a lot of influence at the Second Vatican Council, of course. But toward the end of the council, he went through a sort of intellectual conversion, away from the distinction he had been making--even in his great book--between clergy and laity." Congar, Lakeland says, "decided to shift away from thinking of the church as clergy and laity and [began] thinking of the church simply in terms of different ministries."

Congar's insight ratified Lakeland's own sense of what was going on in the 21st-century church. …

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