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Catholic laity

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Catholic laity

The Laity in St Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

There are estimated to be over one billion Roman Catholics in the world.[1] The majority of these are lay Catholics, otherwise known as the laity. The Catholic Church is overseen by the Pope, two hundred cardinals and just over 31,000 bishops. The Pope, cardinals, and bishops are known collectively as the Catholic Hierarchy and are responsible for the supervision, management, and pastoral care of all members the Catholic Church, including clergy, religious, and the laity.[2]


  • The Pontifical Council for the Laity 1
  • The Rights of the Laity 2
    • Obligations/rights of all Christian faithful 2.1
    • Obligations/rights of the lay Christian faithful 2.2
    • Obligations/rights of financial administration 2.3
  • Lay ministries 3
  • Lay councils 4
    • Powers and influence of the Laity 4.1
    • National Council for Lay Associations (England & Wales) 4.2
    • The National Council of the Laity (Venezuela) 4.3
    • The Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea 4.4
  • Lay Congresses 5
    • The National Pastoral Congress (England & Wales) 5.1
  • Lay associations 6
  • Personal prelatures 7
  • Lay pressure groups 8
  • Lay media 9
    • Lay blogs and websites 9.1
    • Lay newspapers 9.2
    • Lay spokespeople 9.3
  • Clericalism 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

The Pontifical Council for the Laity

The Pontifical Council for the Laity is a dicastery of the Roman Curia. It is based in Vatican City.

The council "...assists the Pope in all matters concerning the contribution the lay faithful make to the life and mission of the Church, whether as individuals or through the various forms of association that have arisen and constantly arise within the Church."[3]

This dicastery emerged from the Decree on the Lay Apostolate of the Second Vatican Council - Apostolicam Actuositatem.[4] It was officially created by Pope Paul VI, on 6 January 1967, with the motu proprio Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam.[5]

The Rights of the Laity

This article is part of the series:
Legislation and Legal System of the Catholic Church

Within the Catholic Church, the rights of the Catholic laity are found within the Code of Canon Law.[6] The new Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983. The Code was revised mainly as a result of documents that came out the Second Vatican Council.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law included a new section: BOOK II: THE PEOPLE OF GOD (Canons 204-746). This book contains the majority of the rights assigned to the Laity.

Obligations/rights of all Christian faithful

The first set of rights are found within Canons 208 – 223: The Obligations & Rights of All the Christian Faithful. These rights do not only apply to the Laity but all members of the Church. In summary they are:

Can. 211 All the Christian Faithful (i.e. the Laity [which includes Religious] and the Clergy) have a right and a duty to spreading the Good News to the whole world.

Can. 212
§2. The Christian Faithful have the right to make known their needs and desires to the "pastors of the Church". For Clergy "pastors" could be their Dean, Bishop/Archbishop, etc. For Laity this could be their Parish Priest or Dean or Bishop, etc.
§3. The Christian Faithful have the right "…and even at times the duty" to give "…the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful".

Can. 213 The Christian Faithful have the right to receive assistance from the "sacred pastors" "…especially the word of God and the sacraments."

Can. 214 The Christian Faithful have the right to worship according to approved rites and to "…follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church."

Can. 215 The Christian Faithful are free to "…found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes."

It is of note these do not have to be approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. However, cf. Canon 216 below about using the name Catholic.

Can. 216 The Christian Faithful have the right to "…promote or sustain apostolic action even by their own undertakings". However, "…no undertaking is to claim the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority."

Can. 217 The Christian Faithful have the right to a Christian education "…by which they are to be instructed properly".

Can. 218 The Christian Faithful who are involved in "the sacred disciplines" have the right to inquire and express opinions in their area of expertise as long as they are in accordance with the magisterium of the Church.

Can. 219 The Christian Faithful have the right not to be forced into a particular "state of life."

Can. 220 Nobody is permitted to "illegitimately" harm another person’s reputation or to "injure" a person’s right of privacy.

Can. 221
§1. The Christian Faithful have the right to "vindicate" and defend the rights they possess in Canon Law within a "competent ecclesiastical forum". This is most often going to be the Diocesan Tribunal which mainly oversees marriage annulment applications.
§2.The Christian Faithful have the right to a fair trial by any "competent authority". This extends to civil and criminal trials as well as within ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
§3. The Christian Faithful can only be punished with "canonical penalties" (such as ex-communication) "according to the norm of law", that is they cannot be bestowed arbitrarily. Any ecclesiastical charges against an individual must be fully proven.

Obligations/rights of the lay Christian faithful

The second set of rights are found within Canons 225 – 231: The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful.

These rights are specific to the Laity. In summary they are:

Can. 226
§2 Parents have the right to educate their children.

Can. 227 The Laity should have the same freedoms as their fellow citizens. However, these freedoms should be enjoyed and lived out in accordance with the "spirit of the gospel" and the magisterium of the Church. At the same time the Laity should avoid any suggestion their opinions are necessarily the teaching of the Church.

Can. 228
§1. Suitable qualified Lay persons can be appointed by "the sacred pastors" to those "…ecclesiastical offices and functions which they are able to exercise according to the precepts of the law."
§2. Lay persons who "…excel in necessary knowledge, prudence, and integrity" can be appointed by "the pastors of the Church" as experts and advisors, even in councils according to the norm of law."

Can. 229
§1. Lay persons have the right to "...acquire knowledge of Christian doctrine."
§2. Lay persons also possess the right to acquire that fuller knowledge of the sacred sciences and attend "…ecclesiastical universities and faculties or in institutes of religious sciences."
§3. If the"… prescripts regarding the requisite suitability have been observed", they "...are also qualified to receive from legitimate ecclesiastical authority a mandate to teach the sacred sciences."

Can. 230
§1. Lay men can be admitted "…through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte." Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.
§2. Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector "…by temporary designation". All lay persons can also undertake "…the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law."
§3. When required, such as a lack of Ministers, "…lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply certain of their duties, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside offer liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law."

Can. 231
§2. Without prejudice to the prescript of ⇒ can. 230, §1 where, for example, a lay person works full-time for the Church they "…have the right to decent remuneration" by the Church for roles they undertake for Her. "They also have a right for their social provision, social security, and health benefits to be duly provided".

It is of note that there are a number of fundamental rights stipulated here – the right to privacy, the right to fair trial, etc. Such rights are also reflected in many civil Human Rights Charters such as the a European Convention of Human Rights.

It is of particular note that many of the more specific rights outlined above are conditional and require approval by the appropriate "ecclesiastical authority".

Obligations/rights of financial administration

In other parts of the Code of Canon Law, there are some other specific rights which include obligations on the ecclesiastical authorities to appoint suitable qualified members of the Christian Faithful (i.e. either / and / or Clerics or Lay people) into poisitons of financial management:

Can. 492
§1. In every diocese, a Finance council is to be established, at which the diocesan bishop himself or his delegate presides and which consists of at least three members of the Christian faithful truly expert in Financial affairs and civil law, outstanding in integrity, and appointed by the bishop.
§2. Members of the Finance council are to be appointed for five years, but at the end of this period they can be appointed for other five-year terms.
§3. Persons who are related to the bishop up to the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity are excluded from the Finance council.

Can. 493 In addition to the functions entrusted to it in Book V, The Temporal Goods of the Church, the Finance council prepares each year, according to the directions of the diocesan bishop, a budget of the income and expenditures which are foreseen for the entire governance of the diocese in the coming year and at the end of the year examines an account of the revenues and expenses.

Can. 494
§1. In every diocese, after having heard the college of consultors and the Finance council, the bishop is to appoint a Finance officer who is truly expert in Financial affairs and absolutely distinguished for honesty.
§2. The Finance officer is to be appointed for a Five year term but can be appointed for other Five year terms at the end of this period. The finance officer is not to be removed while in this function except for a grave cause to be assessed by the bishop after he has heard the college of consultors and the Finance council.
§3. It is for the Finance officer to administer the goods of the diocese under the authority of the bishop in accord with the budget determined by the Finance council and, from the income of the diocese, to meet expenses which the bishop or others designated by him have legitimately authorized.
§4. At the end of the year, the Finance officer must render an account of receipts and expenditures to the Finance council.

Can. 537 In each parish there is to be a finance council which is governed, in addition to universal law, by norms issued by the diocesan bishop and in which the Christian faithful, selected according to these same norms, are to assist the pastor in the administration of the goods of the parish, without prejudice to the prescript of ⇒ can. 532.

In effect here, according to Canon Law, there must be a Finance Council at Parish level.

Can. 1287
§1. Both clerical and lay administrators of any ecclesiastical goods whatever which have not been legitimately exempted from the power of governance of the diocesan bishop are bound by their office to present an annual report to the local ordinary who is to present it for examination by the finance council; any contrary custom is reprobated.
§2. According to norms to be determined by particular law, administrators are to render an account to the faithful concerning the goods offered by the faithful to the Church.

In relation to Canon 1287 §1, an annual report must be presented to the local bishop by anybody who has been appointed as the administrator of any "eccelsiastical goods", for example the annual income and expediture within a particular parish. As regards §2, the same administrators must "render an account" to the Faithful relating to the "goods", for example money, they have given to the Church. Canon Law does not specify how this "account" should prepared or transmitted.

Lay ministries

Prior to 1972, no Lay ministries existed, only the Minor orders and Major orders. The Minor Orders were, in effect, the lower orders of the Clerical state and were reserved for those preparing for the Priesthood:

As a result of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, on 15 August 1972, Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam.[7]

This in effect suppressed the Minor Orders and replaced them with two ministries, namely Lector and Acolyte. A major difference was that: "Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders."[8]

The following are requirements for admission to the ministries:

  • the presentation of a petition that has been freely made out and signed by the aspirant to the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) who has the right to accept the petition;
  • a suitable age and special qualities to be determined by the conference of bishops;
  • a firm will to give faithful service to God and the Christian people.

The ministries are conferred by the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) through the liturgical rites De institutione lectoris and De institutione acolythi as revised by the Apostolic See.

An interval, determined by the Holy See or the conferences of bishops, shall be observed between the conferring of the ministries of reader and acolyte whenever more than one ministry is conferred on the same person."[9]

However, "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men."[10] Due to this fact these ministries are rarely formally instituted in many regions of the Catholic Church.

In their place has evolved the widespread use of commissioned Readers, Altar Servers and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist as these functions can be undertaken by both men and women.

Permission to undertaken these roles can be found in The General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

In relation to Readers Instruction #101 says: "In the absence of an instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful preparation, so that the faithful by listening to the readings from the sacred texts may develop in their hearts a warm and living love for Sacred Scripture."[11]

As regards Altar Servers and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist Instruction #100 says: "In the absence of an instituted acolyte, lay ministers may be deputed to serve at the altar and assist the priest and the deacon; they may carry the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, and they may also be deputed to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers."."[12]

It is worth noting that an option to institute the other Minor orders was retained in this document, in that a Bishops Conference may request permission from the Apostolic See: "...if they judge the establishment of such offices in their region to be necessary or very useful because of special reasons. To these belong, for example, the ministries of porter, exorcist, catechist, as well as others to be conferred on those who are dedicated to works of charity, where this ministry had not been assigned to deacons."[7]

Lay councils

Powers and influence of the Laity

The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not permit the Laity to have any kind of executive or juridical powers in Ecclesiastical affairs. This therefore curtails the extent of influence the Laity has over how the Church is governed on a day-to-day basis. However, Lay experts and advisors were appointed to participate during the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. Post the Second Vatican Council members of the Laity are routinely appointed to sit on Commissions & Committees established at every level – Curial, Bishops Conference, Diocesan, Deanery, and Parish.

National Council for Lay Associations (England & Wales)

The National Council for Lay Associations (NCLA) was the idea of the late Salford Cathedral.[13] Today however the NCLA appears to no longer exist as a viable organisation.

The National Council of the Laity (Venezuela)

One country where a Council of the Laity appears to be thriving is Venezuela. The National Council of the Laity (Consejo Nacional de Laicos) in Venezuela routinely issues statements and press releases often criticising the policies of the current President Hugo Chávez.[14] [15]

The Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea

The Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea, formerly The Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea was renamed during the 2010 Autumn General Assembly of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Korea. This was ratified at the 44th Ordinary General Meeting of the Council which was held at the Catholic Center in Myeongdong, Seoul on February 19, 2011.[16]

Lay Congresses

The National Pastoral Congress (England & Wales)

Archbishop Derek Worlock, supported by the late Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, convened the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool, England in 1980. The Congress consisted of some two-thousand Lay people. The Congress discussed and deliberated on issues and topics that the gathering agreed were of particular relevance and concern to lay Catholics in England & Wales at that time. The results of these deliberations were drawn together in a document entitled "The Easter People". This document was very publicly rejected by Pope John Paul II when it was presented to him by Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock in Rome, Italy, in 1980.[17] There has not been another National Pastoral Congress since this time in England & Wales.

Lay associations

There are many thousands of lay associations existing at a local, diocesan, national / bishops conference or international level. The cover the whole spectrum of Catholic Lay life, from their Faith, Social Action, to the Professions in which they work.

The majority have sought and have been given backing by the appropriate "ecclesiastical authority". However, others have invoked the right contained in Canon 215 to form a Catholic Association without ecclesiastical approval. In these circumstances the only prescription on them is that they cannot use the term "Catholic" in their name. (Can. 216)

The Pontifical Council for the Laity is the body responsible for approving those Catholic Associations that exist at an international level.[18]

The structure of some Religious Orders allow for Lay branches to be associated with them. These are often referred to as Third Orders.

Some of the best known Catholic Lay Associations are Knights of Columbus, Knights of Columba, Catenians, Knights of Malta. There are also many lay Catholic guilds and associations representing a whole range of professions. These include the Catholic Police Guild, Holy Name Society (NYPD), the Association of Catholic Nurses, the Guild of Catholic Doctors, the Catholic Phyicians Guild, the Catholic Association of Performing Arts (UK), the Catholic Actors Guild of America.

Personal prelatures

Organisations such as personal prelature".

Lay pressure groups

In recent years many Lay pressure groups have formed. Many of these have been in response to the widespread clerical sex abuse that has been uncovered. Much of this has been blamed on a lack of supervision and oversight by those in authority within the Church, poor and weak management and flawed decision-making, when such abuses came to light.

Some of the main demands of these groups[19][20][21][22] are:

  • The binding of the Catholic Hierarchy to a universal and comprehensive system of transparency and accountability relating to their governance of the Church
  • The mandatory empowerment of the Laity to a degree of oversight and scrutiny at every level of the Church - local, diocesan, provincial, national / bishops conference, international, dicastery
  • Automatic consultative and collaborative rights for the Laity at every level of the Church
  • Increased rights for women in the Church
  • Increased Lay access to and involvement with ministry within the Church
  • The freedom of speech and an end of censorship.

Lay media

Lay blogs and websites

Many lay Catholics have set up blogs and websites to express their criticisms of the Catholic Church and to call for reform, knowing that by using this medium they will be free of any censorship or control by the Church's ecclesiastical authorities.

One of the best known in England is the London-based Daily Telegraph blog run by the journalist Damian Thompson. Much of his criticism is reserved for the Bishops of England and Wales, whom he often refers to collectively using the pejorative phrase "the magic circle".[23]

However, there are also many thousands of other websites and blogs that have been produced by lay Catholics with the aim of assisting with the teaching, explanation, and propagation of the faith, as well as providing Catholic-related news.

The Vatican hosted a conference of bloggers on 2 May 2011. This was sponsored jointly by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. One hundred and fifty bloggers were invited from across the world.[24]

Richard Rouse, an English layman, who works for the Pontifical Council for Culture, has stated that this meeting was most certainly not held in an attempt by the Vatican to try to control Catholic blogs. He has also confirmed that there will not be another Vatican Blogmeet, but individual Diocese may hold similar conferences."[25]

Lay newspapers

There are also many Catholic newspapers and periodicals produced around the world by lay Catholics, which are independent of hierarchical control or oversight. Examples in the United Kingdom are The Catholic Herald and The Tablet. In the United States of America (USA) there are the more traditional National Catholic Register and the more progressive or dissenting National Catholic Reporter.

Lay spokespeople

Mathew Ahmann, Catholic layman and speaker during the March on Washington, behind Martin Luther King, Jr.

A very recent project conceived and run by Opus Dei is the media training of a select number of young lay Catholics in order to be available for interviews to religious and secular media outlets on Catholic related subject, issues and beliefs.

The first of these was Catholic Voices in England and Wales. The catalyst was Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010.

Catholic Voices is now being replicated in Spain and Germany. In Germany the lay media group will be known as Catholic Faces. Other countries who have expressed an interest in this concept are Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA.[26]

There continue to be a number of unofficial and semi-unofficial Lay spokespeople for the Church who are called upon to give a Catholic viewpoint by various news media outlets. These lay Catholic commentators are often chosen due to their particular viewpoint, be it traditional or liberal. The Catholic Hierarchy are somewhat uncomfortable with this as they have no control over what is said.

In England, one such Lay interviewee is Joanna Bogle. She has written extensively on Catholic related subjects and has given many interviews both on radio and TV. Her reputation is that of a fierce Catholic Apologist. Bogle is particularly infamous for a Channel 4 News interview she gave in March 2009, where she admits she lost her cool.[27]

Secularists and others have seized upon this interview and cited it as an example of Catholic bigotry, naivety and narrow mindedness. However others have defended her vehement and passionate stance.[28][29]


In relation to the Catholic Clergy, Clericalism is often associated with a narrowness of view and a desire to retain and not to relinquish any powers, privileges, or position.[30]

There are some who believe that a new wave of clericalism is infecting the Church. Some link it to the new wave of orthodoxy and traditionalism that has been sweeping the Catholic Church in recent years. In April 2011, during a conference in [31]

In the same conference Martin also said that he planned to require all seminarians to: "…carry out some part of their formation with lay people so that they can establish mature relationships with men and women and do not develop any sense of their priesthood giving them a special social position".[31]

In regards the Catholic Laity, clericalism is often viewed as a barrier to progress to improving Lay rights and greater access to the supervision, oversight, and administration of the Church, as well as increased involvement in Church ministry.[32] Such sentiments are often accompanied by the now infamous quotes of Monsignor George Talbot made in 1867. Talbot's views were largely in response to the position of John Henry Newman in his article "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine",[33] which was published in the Rambler in July, 1859. The recipient of Talbot’s utterances was the then Archbishop of Westminster Henry Edward Manning.

John Henry Newman was a great defender and proponent of significantly increased Catholic Lay involvement in the life of the Church.[35] After publishing "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine" Newman was thereafter looked upon with grave suspicion and distrust by many of the Catholic Hierarchy, both in England and Wales, and in Rome.[35] However, he was ultimately made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Talbot died in an asylum at Passy, near Paris in 1886.[36]

See also


  1. ^ "Number of Catholics on the Rise". Zenit News Agency. 27 April 2010. Retrieved 2 May 2010. 
  2. ^ "The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church",, June 2012.
  3. ^ "The Pontifical Council for the Laity",, June 2012.
  4. ^ "Apostolicam Actuositatem",, June 2012.
  5. ^ "Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam",, June 2012.
  6. ^ "The Code of Canon Law",, June 2012.
  7. ^ a b Ministeria Quaedam
  8. ^ Ministeria Quaedam #3
  9. ^ Ministeria Quaedam #8, #9 & #10
  10. ^ Ministeria Quaedam #7
  11. ^ Particular Ministries #101
  12. ^ Particular Ministries #100
  13. ^ Living Faith in Local Communities - What Happened to the Hopes of Vatican II ?
  14. ^ Declaración del Consejo Nacional de Laicos sobre la violación de derechos fundamentales y del orden constitucional
  15. ^ Council for the Laity decries violence in light of upcoming referendum and calls for a National Day of Prayer for Peace on February 11
  16. ^ The Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea' Was Renamed 'the Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea
  17. ^ Hume’s Mission Impossible
  18. ^ .International Lay Associations
  19. ^ Voice of the Faithful
  20. ^ Fossil
  21. ^ Association for the Rights of Catholic in the Church
  22. ^ Call to Action
  23. ^ Holy Smoke
  24. ^ Vatican Meeting - Blog
  25. ^ The Catholic Herald, London, August 5th 2011, "The Vatican doesn't want to control blogs", p. 7
  26. ^ The Catholic Herald, London, August 5th 2011, "Catholic Voices inspires groups across Europe ahead of papal visits", p. 1
  27. ^ "Author ‘lost my cool’ in AIDS debate on TV". The Catholic Weekly, Sydney, Australia. 16 August 2009. Retrieved 3 September 2011. 
  28. ^ "Unhinged blogger let loose on telly!". Frank Owen. 18 March 2009. Retrieved 3 September 2011. 
  29. ^ Interview and Comments on YouTube
  30. ^ This is a crisis of clericalism
  31. ^ a b Church culture must change after sex abuse scandal, archbishop says
  32. ^ The Tablet, "A rebuff to the Catholic laity", 22/11/1997
  33. ^ On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, July 1859
  34. ^ a b Talbot to Manning, April 25, 1867. Cf. W. WARD, The life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, London, 1913, II, p. 147
  35. ^ a b Newman on the Laity
  36. ^ The Cardinalate of John Henry Newman

External links

  • The Code of Canon Law
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