President's Corner

The Secular Character of the Laity and the DSPT College of Fellows

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

On December 30, 1988 Blessed John Paul II issued his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici vatican. In it, the Holy Father spoke of a "secular character" that is proper to the lay faithful that specifies the uniqueness of the lay vocation. I would like briefly to explore what is meant by the "secular character" of the laity and then to situate the College of Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in the light of the mission of the School to foster the lay vocation.

What is the "secular character" of the laity? Should we attempt an answer with recourse to the common language of our culture we are immediately confronted with a problem; in popular usage both the word "laity" and the word "secular" are negative terms. If we ask the average Catholic to offer a definition of "laity", we will invariably receive the answer "the laity are the non-ordained." If we research the definition of the word "secular" we will find, even in the OED, that it means "of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred." The "secular character" of the laity would then be taken to mean "the worldly or irreligious character of the non-ordained." This was not the meaning of Blessed John Paul II although, regrettably, some of the ordained appear to act as if it were.

The initiatives proper to the laity are, indeed, "worldly" but in the precise manner in which the mission of Christ himself was worldly, was for the sake of the world:

"… In particular the lay faithful are called to restore to creation all its original value. In ordering creation to the authentic well-being of humanity in an activity governed by the life of grace, they share in the exercise of the power with which the risen Christ draws all things to himself and subjects them along with himself to the father so that God might be everything to everyone" (Christifideles Laici, 14 vatican).

We believe that by his incarnation Christ assumed humanity in his own person and offered all that is human to the Father in an act of perfect sacrifice. In his person humanity has become a way to God and the creation itself is restored to its original purpose and value. Blessed John Paul II situates his discussion of the "secular character" precisely with reference to this redemptive act of Christ.

What is a character? The sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders impart a sacramental character which St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of as a power to receive and bestow divine gifts:

Each of the faithful is deputed to receive, or to bestow on others, things pertaining to the worship of God. And this, properly speaking, is the purpose of the sacramental character. Now the whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ's priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to Whose character the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ's Priesthood, flowing from Christ Himself (S.T. III, 63,3)

By our baptism and confirmation we are incorporated not only into Christ's life but also into his mission. The character that we receive precisely enables us to participate in the priestly work of Christ. Hence, through baptism and confirmation each of the faithful is directly deputed and empowered by Christ himself to recapitulate Christ's own offering: to restore to creation its original purpose and value by freely taking upon ourselves the condition of being-in-the-world that is human, offering it in our own persons to the Father. By means of this sacrifice each of the baptized and confirmed participates in the universal or common priesthood of Christ, and Vatican Council II and the subsequent papal magisterium make clear that the ministerial priesthood is at the service of and for the sake of the common priesthood of all the faithful.

It is important to note that "secular character" translates the Latin indoles saecularis, which might more properly be rendered "secular disposition." Bl. John Paul II insists that this disposition is to be understood theologically and is related to the character of the sacraments. Possessed of the sacramental character imparted by baptism and confirmation lay persons are entrusted "a vocation… that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, ‘are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties'” (ibid., 15; John Paul cites Lumen Gentium 31 vatican).

What, then, are we to understand by "secular"? Even apart from any theological consideration, the word is descriptive of human acts, human initiatives. The very idea is Catholic in its origin and connotes the fact that human acts which are bounded and limited by time nonetheless have their own proper dignity and require their own proper competence. As such, as actions of men and women who are in the divine image and likeness, they possess a transcendent or sacred value in their own right.

Real secularity pertains when created things possess their full and proper dignity through being ordered to the supernatural (in contemporary language, “transcendent”) destiny of the human person through the power of the Risen Christ. The “secularism” that we now confront precisely consists, ironically, in the denial of transcendence and the assertion of a sort of profane religion: we are summoned in modern life to render unto Caesar the things that are God's. We have turned what could be secular pursuits into mere tasks: to educate, for example, has become a task through which certain “skills” are imparted. Education is no longer secular: it is not the imparting of wisdom at the service of the divine vocation of the student, whereby the student is able to understand and to order the various realms of human endeavor to both the proximate and final goods of the human person.

Through the prism of our participation in the common priesthood of Christ the world takes on an entirely different meaning and significance:

The "world"… becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ. The Council is able then to indicate the proper and special sense of the divine vocation which is directed to the lay faithful. … To be present and active in the world is not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way a theological and ecclesiological reality as well. In fact, in their situation in the world God manifests his plan and communicates to them their particular vocation of "seeking the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God" (ibid., 15; the Holy Father again cites Lumen Gentium 31 vatican).

Accordingly, for one possessed of the priestly character of Christ, life in the world is not a circumstance, but a divine vocation: “each one is called there by God” (Lumen Gentium 31 vatican). We should note, in passing, that Bl. John Paul proposes that every Christian vocation is, in its naissance, secular in character.

The priestly work of the laity therefore involves faithfulness to Christ and the exercise of that faithfulness in all of the secular endeavors of modern society. To be faithful is to stay, to remain with another regardless of what might occur, to look and not look away. Those who have been given the divine gift of faith are able to look upon human realities and to see them with Christ. Such a one is able to judge wisely the things of earth –the secular things –precisely because, seeing them with Christ, he or she loves them in Christ.

What practical difference does this make? Love is intolerant of generalizations, but insists upon the particular. No one loves humanity in general; our love is directed to a person who is unique and unrepeatable. In so far as we are faithful to Christ we will be attentive to persons in their uniqueness and to the acts by which we relate to them. There is no such thing as business; there are contractual relationships into which we enter with others. There is no such thing as an "economy", save as a mental construct. Instead, there are commercial relationships that can, to a limited degree, be measured and predicted. These relationships can be fostered and offered, in their unique and unrepeatable character, to God in worship.

Love is also intolerant of tolerance; we never tolerate those whom we love. Secularism insists upon tolerance because, in its insistence upon generalities, it despairs of relationship. No one ever looks longingly into the eyes of his beloved and says, with quivering voice, “I tolerate you!” If he does, he will strictly deserve what happens next. Moreover, to tolerate what I know in Christ to be untrue is necessarily to betray one who I love.

This is what the love of Christ, embodied in the mission of the laity, brings to the world: the celebration, the love, and the sanctification of ordinary things such as: the ordinary love of a young couple; the ordinary events of birth and death that mark the cycle of human life; the ordinary responsibility to discern one's vocation and work; the ordinary manifestation of human creativity in the arts and sciences; the ordinary pursuits of the political community; the ordinary responsibilities of family life and of friendship. These ordinary things are the most wonderful and significant achievements of creation, and if the Gospel is not addressed to humanity in the midst of its ordinary endeavors, then the Gospel is not pronounced at all.

One who loves the world in the manner of Christ is one who is wedded to the truth –not merely the truth of propositions, but the truth about creation and the truth about the supernatural destiny of the human person. As Yves Congar, the great Dominican theologian of the laity, once remarked: “there are persons in whose presence it is not possible to lie.” To the degree that we commit ourselves to life in the world; to the degree that we look upon the world with Christ, and begin to see with him; to the degree that we see the dignity of secular pursuits, how they are ordered to the human person and offer them to Christ to the Father; to the degree that we are faithful to men and to women –that we remain with them, that we look and do not look away; exactly to that degree we become those in whose presence the truth about the person is made known, those in whose presence it is not possible to lie.

Thus far, we have considered the priestly character of each Christian. Yet to do so presents an incomplete description of our priesthood. Every dimension of the universal priesthood is an ecclesial reality. Precisely because each of the baptized participates in the one priesthood of Christ, in the exercise of the common priesthood each is united with the whole Church. Accordingly, the proper subject of the priestly character is the whole People of God; each participates in the priesthood of Christ as a member of that People:

The reality of the Church as communion is… the integrating aspect, indeed the central content of the mystery, or rather, the divine plan for the salvation of humanity. The Church as communion is the "new" People, the "messianic" People, the People that "has, for its head, Christ; … as its heritage, the dignity and freedom of God's children; … for its law, the new commandment to love as Christ loved us; … for its call, the kingdom of God… established by Christ in a communion of life, love and truth." (Christifideles Laici 20 vatican)

The redemptive work of Christ proceeds communally. In this sense the particular "place" in the world to which God calls each member of this People is one with the "place" one inhabits within the Church as a member of the People of God. The discernment of one's own vocation is, accordingly, made possible by being referred to the whole People. Hence, blessed John Paul II insists that:

A member of the lay faithful "can never remain in isolation from the community, but must live in a continual interaction with others, with a lively sense of fellowship, rejoicing in an equal dignity and common commitment to bring to fruition the immense treasure each has inherited" (Christifideles Laici 20 vatican).

At the Council the Church is seen as an "event": the risen Christ calls and appoints a People to continue his redemptive work in such a way that the Church is "the sacrament of salvation of the human race" now, in time. In the words of Congar:

As the People of God it transmits through the world the offer of grace and of the Covenant; it is the community of Christians united to their pastors that is the sign and instrument of the "dialogue of salvation," a dialogue which transpires within the framework of the People of God through the use of the objective means of salvation, in the first place, the sacraments in the classical sense of the word (Congar, "the People of God", Vatican II: an Interfaith Appraisal, University of Notre Dame Press, 1966).

For this reason the Council also insists that it is Christ himself who appoints each member of his people to the apostolate: we are the People of God not the people of the Church.

In the exercise of the universal priesthood, the unique and unrepeatable character of the personal vocation of each member of the People of God can be discerned only with reference to the whole People. The "dialogue of salvation" which is a commerce between Christ and the world he redeems is also and simultaneously a dialogue between those who are sealed with the priestly character. It is entirely necessary to the work of Christ that this dialogue be incarnate and institutionalized in the Church.

In Christ the work of philosophical or theological reflection is an instantiation of the "dialogue of salvation", through which the risen Lord draws all things to himself. The Church, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her very nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realized in different forms through her members," and a consideration of the Church in her secular dimension is properly a locus theologici.

Accordingly, our graduates must be conversant not only with the philosophical and theological tradition, but also with contemporary issues in secular society in initiatives outside the compass of the School's curriculum, such as the political and judicial process, economics and business, the sciences, bio-medical research, technology, media and the arts; in short, in every activity in which the "secular character" of the laity is exercised. We are reminded that blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have insisted that the Catholic university is the ecclesial institution through which the dialogue between the faith and contemporary culture can best take place. This is especially true of our School which is comprised of religious preparing for ordination alongside men and women who live the lay vocation, and which also is devoted to the interface of philosophy and theology for the sake of that dialogue.

We have, therefore, established the College of Fellows to secure two complementary ends: First, to "read the signs of the times" by reflecting together upon the secular dimension of the Church with men and women who are eminent in their own fields and who have lived their priestly consecration within their secular pursuits. Second, to afford the opportunity for the Fellows to reflect together upon the manner in which the Holy Spirit is already at work in the world and to provide a forum whereby their wisdom and experience can enrich the Church.

I would like to conclude my remarks by referencing Fr. M.D. Chenu:

In faith we are dealing with an event. We are no longer in nature but in history. One day, God became man and entered into the history of men. History becomes the proper dimension for this act, and not nature with its needs. God is not conceived or called for because of his usefulness. Love is freely bestowed, on my side as well as his, through my free response. To be a Christian is to be in relation to a fact—the fact of Christ —to a history, and not to a morality, a law, a theory, or a cult (M. Chenu, “The Need for a Theology of the World”, The Great Ideas Today, 1967, pp. 58-59).

Faithful to our risen Lord we are called upon not only to study history but to make it. As we gather today and tomorrow it is my hope that we can deepen "the dialogue of salvation" that we have begun together, appreciate more profoundly the vocation that we have received and be renewed in the common priesthood to which the Lord has summoned us.