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There are estimated to be over one billion Catholics in the world. The majority of these are lay Catholics, also known as the laity, which includes all Catholics, except those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders, who are considered to be clergy. The Catholic Church is led globally by the Pope and the Roman Curia and locally by diocesan bishops and archbishops. The Pope and the bishops in communion with him 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.
The responsibilities of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, a dicastery of the Roman Curia based in Vatican City, were transferred to the newly established Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life as of 1 September 2016.
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."
This dicastery emerged from the Decree on the Lay Apostolate of the Second Vatican Council - Apostolicam Actuositatem. It was officially created by Pope Paul VI, on 6 January 1967, with the motu proprio Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam.
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Catholic canon law
Within the Catholic Church, the rights of the Catholic laity are found within the Code of Canon Law. 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.
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.
§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.
§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.
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:
§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.
§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."
§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."
§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."
§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".
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:
§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.
§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.
§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.
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.
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."
The following are requirements for admission to the ministries:
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."
However, "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men." 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."
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."."
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."
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.
The National Council for Lay Associations (NCLA) was the idea of the late Monsignor Derek Worlock, who later became Archbishop of Liverpool, England. It became one of the Consultative Bodies of the Bishops' Conference in England & Wales and was formed from all the large Catholic lay organisations. The NCLA was initially called the National Lay Apostolic Group and was formed after the First World Congress for the Apostolate of the Laity held in Rome in October 1951. In 2003 the NCLA celebrated its 50th birthday with a Golden Jubilee Mass in Salford Cathedral. Today however the NCLA appears to no longer exist as a viable organisation.
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. 
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.
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. There has not been another National Pastoral Congress since this time in England & Wales.
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 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.
Organisations such as Opus Dei and Miles Jesu are ostensibly Catholic lay organisations which are overseen by clergy associated and / or affiliated with them. The structure of these organisations are termed a "personal prelature".
In recent years many lay advocacy groups have formed. Many of these have been in response to the clerical sex abuse crisis.
Lay Catholics have contributed to Catholic media online in such avenues as blogs, online columns, and newspapers. These include both Catholic specific sites such as the National Catholic Reporter and the National Catholic Register along with secular newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The Daily Telegraph.
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.
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.
There are also many Catholic newspapers and periodicals produced around the world by lay Catholics, which are independent of the Church hierarchy. Examples in the United Kingdom are The Catholic Herald and The Tablet. In the United States newspapers such as the National Catholic Register, which is a subsidiary of EWTN, and the National Catholic Reporter have lay people on staff as writers.
Recently, laypeople have started to act as public spokespeople for the Church in both official and unofficial capacities. One such example was the foundation of Catholic Voices by Opus Dei in preparation for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom in 2010.  The group has sense been made a permanent part of their work and expanded to other countries. Primarily focusing on you Catholic professionals, it provides them with training to talk to the media about events happening within the Catholic Church.
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.
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 Milwaukee, United States on the clergy child sex abuse scandal, the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said: "There are signs of a new clericalism, which may even at times be ably veiled behind appeals for deeper spirituality or for more orthodox theological positions".
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".
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. 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", which was published in the Rambler in July, 1859. The recipient of Talbot’s utterances was the then Archbishop of Westminster Henry Edward Manning.
|“||Dr Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against Your Grace. You must not be afraid of him.||”|
|“||What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical.||”|
John Henry Newman was a great defender and proponent of significantly increased Catholic lay involvement in the life of the Church. 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. However, he was ultimately made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Talbot died in an asylum at Passy, near Paris in 1886.