Catholic laity

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

There are estimated to be over one billion Catholics in the world.[1] 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.[2] The Catholic Church teaches that there is a universal call to holiness and since the Second Vatican Council has emphasized this as a key to the spiritual lives of lay people.[3]

The Roman Curia and the laity[edit]

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."[4]

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

Canonical rights of the laity[edit]

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Within the Catholic Church, the rights of the Catholic laity in regards to the Church 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. In particular, Canons 224-231 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law outline the general and specific canonical rights of lay persons in the Catholic Church. [7]

Lay ministries[edit]

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.[8]

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."[8]

However, "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men."[8] 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."[9]

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."."[10]

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."[8]

Lay councils[edit]

Powers and influence of the Laity[edit]

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)[edit]

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.[11] Today however the NCLA appears to no longer exist as a viable organisation.

The National Council of the Laity (Venezuela)[edit]

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.[12] [13]

The Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea[edit]

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.[14]

Lay Congresses[edit]

The National Pastoral Congress (England & Wales)[edit]

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.[15] There has not been another National Pastoral Congress since this time in England & Wales.

Lay associations[edit]

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.[16]

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[edit]

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".

Lay advocacy groups[edit]

In recent years many lay advocacy groups have formed. Many of these have been in response to the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Some of the reforms these groups advocate for are:[17][18][19][20] 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[edit]

Web content[edit]

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[21] and The Daily Telegraph.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

Lay newspapers[edit]

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.

Lay spokespeople[edit]

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

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. [25] 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.[25]

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]


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.[27]

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".[28]

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".[28]

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.[29] 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",[30] 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.[32] 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.[32] However, he was ultimately made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Talbot died in an asylum at Passy, near Paris in 1886.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Number of Catholics on the Rise". Zenit News Agency. 27 April 2010. Archived from the original on 27 July 2010. Retrieved 2 May 2010. 
  2. ^ "The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church",, June 2012.
  3. ^ Cahoy, William John (2012). In the Name of the Church: Vocation and Authorization of Lay Ecclesial Ministry. Liturgical Press. p. 40-42. ISBN 9780814634233. 
  4. ^ "The Pontifical Council for the Laity" Archived April 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.,, June 2012.
  5. ^ "Apostolicam Actuositatem" Archived June 25, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.,, June 2012.
  6. ^ "Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam",, June 2012.
  7. ^ "The Code of Canon Law" Archived February 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.,, June 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d e "Pope Paul VI - Ministeria Quaedam". 
  9. ^ "Divine Worship". 
  10. ^ "Divine Worship". 
  11. ^ Living Faith in Local Communities - What Happened to the Hopes of Vatican II ?
  12. ^ "Google Translate". 
  13. ^ Council for the Laity decries violence in light of upcoming referendum and calls for a National Day of Prayer for Peace on February 11
  14. ^ "CBCK News - 'The Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea' Was Renamed 'the Council of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Organizations of Korea'". 
  15. ^, Digital Virtue - w:. "Weekly News". 
  16. ^ .International Lay Associations
  18. ^ Computing, Moonlight. "FOSIL Faithful of Southern Illinois-Lay Catholics Keeping the Voice of Prophecy Alive". 
  19. ^ "Home". 
  20. ^ "Catholics for Equality & Justice - Call To Action". 
  21. ^ Green, Emma. "The Boston Globe Bails on Crux and Religion Journalism". 
  22. ^ "Opinion". 
  23. ^ "Pontificio Consiglio delle Comunicazioni Sociali". 
  24. ^ The Catholic Herald, London, August 5th 2011, "The Vatican doesn't want to control blogs", p. 7
  25. ^ a b "Catholic Voices to become permanent academy –". 
  26. ^ The Catholic Herald, London, August 5th 2011, "Catholic Voices inspires groups across Europe ahead of papal visits", p. 1
  27. ^ "This is a crisis of clericalism". 5 April 2010 – via The Guardian. 
  28. ^ a b "News -". 
  29. ^, Digital Virtue - w:. "Weekly News". 
  30. ^ On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, July 1859
  31. ^ a b Talbot to Manning, April 25, 1867. Cf. W. WARD, The life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, London, 1913, II, p. 147
  32. ^ a b "NEWMAN ON THE LAITY". 
  33. ^ "Newman Friends International The Cardinalate of John Henry Newman - Newman Friends International". 

External links[edit]