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The Christian Lay Vocation and Catholic Social Teaching

By David Tamisiea
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2024

The Christian Lay Vocation and Catholic Social Teaching

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) marked the first time that an ecumenical council considered the Christian lay vocation as such. According to the Council in its dogmatic constitution on the Church,
Lumen Gentium, the Christian lay faithful by virtue of baptism are united to Christ and thereby share in his redemptive mission, but what distinguishes them from the rest of the faithful in carrying out this mission is their “secular character” (LG 31).

But what does the Council mean by the laity’s secular character? The Council sums it up this way: “They live in the world, that is to say, they are engaged in each and all of the secular professions and occupations, and in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which, as it were, their very existence is woven” (LG 31). The laity’s secular character is to be distinguished from ideological secularism which denies any transcendent reality beyond this world and excludes in principle all religious affirmations of God and the afterlife. Rather, the laity’s secular character designates their life as Christians living and active in temporal affairs, that is, in the realm of politics, business, healthcare, law, education, culture, marriage and family life, and all other things that pertain to life in this world.

The Council further teaches that the Christian lay faithful’s particular vocation is to order the temporal affairs of the world according to God’s will and to sanctify the world from within (LG 31). In other words, the laity are called by God to engage in secular affairs and direct them according to Christian principles and values. This vocation differs from that of the clergy, who are entrusted chiefly with the sacred ministry of the sacraments, preaching, and pastoral care, and from that of consecrated religious, who publicly profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chaste continence, and obedience in a stable form of life totally dedicated to God.

St. John Paul II likewise emphasizes the indispensable role Christian lay faithful have in bringing Gospel values into the world in his apostolic exhortation on the lay vocation,
Christifideles Laici. According to John Paul, although Christ’s exhortation to his disciples to be salt, light, and leaven in the world (Mt 5:13–16; 13:33) applies indiscriminately to all Christians, this entreaty is specifically applicable to the laity due to their extensive involvement in earthly affairs. Like salt, light, and leaven, the Christian lay faithful can and should profoundly influence the world from within in a manner that corresponds with the demands of the Gospel (CL 15).

How are lay people to do this? Much of the answer to this question lies in Catholic social teaching. Catholic social teaching refers to a body of doctrine rooted in divine revelation that offers guidance for building a just, peaceful, and charitable society. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical
Rerum Novarum, Catholic social teaching has been developed over the past century and a half in papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents. Catholic social teaching includes guiding principles for social life like the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, the dignity of human work, and the like.

While Catholic social teaching is addressed to the entire Church and all people of good will, it is in a particular way addressed to the Christian lay faithful on account of their secular character and vocation. This is because the responsibility for building, organizing, and administering secular society belongs primarily to the laity, not to priests or religious (CCC 2442).

What does all this imply? For one, it means that lay Catholics have a duty to familiarize themselves with the Church’s social teaching and then put it into practice. As St. John Paul II observes, the lay faithful need sound doctrinal formation in Catholic social teaching: “This [need for doctrinal formation] is especially true for the lay faithful who have responsibilities in various fields of society and public life. Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge—and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation—of the Church’s social doctrine” (CL 60).

The more Catholic lay people learn about the rich heritage of wisdom found in Catholic social teaching, the better equipped they will be to build and organize a peaceful, just, and charitable society concordant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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