"The Laity: Shock Troops of the Church Militant"
This title occurs within the larger theme of "the Church Militant and
the Future of America." Let us begin with some preliminaries. I
offer for your consideration, first of all, the reflections of a
Catholic layman, second an American archbishop, and last some recent
statistical data. Let us start with an assessment of our present
situation by Patrick Buchanan:
The hard truth with which conservatives must come to terms is that
the resolution of America's social crisis may be beyond the realm of
politics and government, in a democratic society. If men have come
to believe homosexuality is a "legitimate" and even commendable
"life-style," that abortion is a matter of personal choice, that
"pornography" exists only in the eye of the beholder, no federal law
will dissuade them. If a woman has come to believe that divorce is
the answer to every difficult marriage, that career comes before
children, that the day-care center is the proper place for infants
and toddlers and the boarding school for the younger children, no
democratic government can impose another set of values upon her. If
half of America has given up "the old time religion," no political
party and no national administration can reconvert that half of the
country . . . Much of what ails America, then, is not a "problem"
that can be "solved" by political action; it is a predicament with
which we must learn to live. But this necessity _ that we understand
and accept the limits of politics in a democratic society _ is not an
argument for quietism. Traditionalists and conservatives have as
much right as secularists to see our values written into law, to have
our beliefs serve as the basis of federal legislation . . . The duty
of the political conservative, then, is to do our best to make
ourselves, and our government, the allies of our Judeo-Christian
values, to make government again the protector and friend of the
permanent things, to do the best we can in the times in which we
live. And to put our trust and faith, ultimately, not in ourselves
alone. (Patrick Buchanan, , pp. 341, 359)
For our second offering, I present an interesting dialogue which took
place a few years ago between John Paul II and the Archbishop of
Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, on the subject of the laity in America:
The Archbishop began in a very upbeat way with statistics indicating
the alleged growth and strength of the Catholic laity. According to
Weakland's statistics, the Catholic laity make up 28% of the total
population which is an increase of 8% since 1947. The Archbishop
informed the Pope that the laity are "moving rapidly into the upper
echelons of society, business and politics." This is a source of
great pride to the Archbishop since these people are "products of the
fine Catholic educational tradition of the Church in the USA."
These upwardly mobile Catholics continue to seek higher levels of
education. Accordingly, it "can be assumed" that the laity will
"continue to take a prominent role" in American society. The
Archbishop sees this as a great improvement over the dark period
before the Second World War when the Catholic laity were "mostly
working class immigrants, considering themselves second class
citizens at best." Today, the Church in America "can boast of having
the largest number of educated faithful in the world."
The jubilant Archbishop again turned to sociological statistics to
demonstrate the vigor of the Catholic laity. He mentioned that
Sunday Mass attendance has declined from 74% in 1958 to 53% in 1985
but quickly added that 71% went to Mass at least once a month! This
fact is not perceived as a serious pastoral problem by the Archbishop
since the figure "has been stable" for the past decade and the
defection rate today "is not much different" from the 1950's.
Weakland continues with this insightful statistical analysis: An
increased number of Catholic laity are reading the Bible and attend
"other Church functions." Another cause for the Archbishop's
optimism is that surveys "show a remarkable increase" in the numbers
attending the sacrament of Reconciliation, up from 18% in 1977 to 23%
in 1986. The Archbishop then informed the Pope that there is a "high
rate of contentment with the changes of Vatican II especially among
Let us now move from the exuberant Archbishop of Milwaukee to our
third offering, which is a survey of Catholics in New York conducted
by the :
We are told that 62 percent of Catholics do not think that sexual
intercourse by unmarried couples is morally wrong, 59 percent do not
disapprove on moral grounds of listening to heavy metal rock music
and videos, 38 percent do not see "homosexuality" as immoral, 83
percent would approve of a married woman using birth control pills,
and 93 percent would approve of using a condom to prevent the spread
On the abortion issue, the question posed was: "Should a woman be
able to get an abortion for any reason?" To this question 63 percent
of Catholics answered "Yes."
What can we learn from all of this? Patrick Buchanan tells us the
answer to the crisis afflicting America is not found in political
parties or political action. Rembert Weakland reveals the inroads
which secularity have made within Church leadership in this country.
The poll doesn't tell us much but it certainly points to
widespread confusion. Perhaps the laity should not be called but the . But we shouldn't tamper with the
To conceive of the laity as _ and the Church as an
"army in battle array" is certainly most appealing. It conjures up
images of St. Michael leading the hosts of God, crying out "who is
like unto God" as he casts down Lucifer; Godfrey of Bouillon at the
gates of Jerusalem crying out "open in the name of the Savior"; Don
Juan of Austria cross and sword in hand at Lepanto; of monks chanting
the Divine Office in their monastic fortresses armed with their
spiritual weapons of poverty, chastity and obedience, forming the
Yet, when we stop and look around us, in many ways the picture looks
bleak. It does appear as if we're losing on all fronts. There may
be some truth to this as we find ourselves surrounded and
disheartened by scandals, defections and betrayals.
Given the bleakness of the landscape, the widespread confusion and
scandal, where do we start? How do we as faithful and dutiful
soldiers of Christ, consecrated and confirmed in His service, fight
the good fight of faith?
We begin, not by pointing our finger at the Pope, nor the American
Bishops, nor the parish priest. Recall when Napoleon had captured
Pope Pius how he stretched out his 4 foot 6 inch frame and said to
the Pope: "Listen here you, I'll destroy you and your Church." And
the Pope stood up and said, "Silly little man. Me and my bishops
haven't done it in 1800 years and you think will do it!" Yes,
the Church has survived in spite of the hierarchy. No, we don't
start with the Pope, the American bishops or the priests . . . we
start with .
Throughout the history of the Church there have been a number of
doctrinal crises which have led the Church to examine more closely
her teaching. She has had to clarify certain points through a
conciliar or papal definition. A fine example of this was the
Council of Chalcedon which settled a number of christological
disputes. Cardinal Newman, in his brilliant shows how the Church can develop
her teaching without any essential change. This development can
occur in ecclesiology and spirituality. The Church, in living her
fidelity to Christ, can come to a better understanding of herself and
a clearer understanding of her doctrines. Certain aspects of her
teaching can be brought into sharper focus.
The Church in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has read
the signs of the times and has placed a greater emphasis on the role
of the laity. The Protestant revolution and assault in the sixteenth
century was met by a bastion of theological lucidity. . . . the
Council of Trent. The fundamental Catholic doctrine of mediation was
attacked and so the Church wisely defended, clarified, and emphasized
those truths which were under attack: the Mass, the sacramental
system, and of course the priesthood and hierarchy. (One can never
say enough about the glory of the Catholic priesthood.) This
emphasis was right and proper at that time. In order to counteract
the leading Protestant errors, the role of the priest had to be
stressed with the result that little was said about the laity.
With the French Revolution and the supposed "Age of Enlightenment" we
see the rise of an ever increasing secular outlook and an anti-
Christian mentality spread throughout the lands of Christendom as the
Church continued to lose her influence on society. This hostile
secularism has continued to drive Christ and his Church out of the
public arena. The Church, in response, has foreseen the solution to
this problem in the apostolate of the laity. This can be seen in the
teaching of the popes from Pius IX on, culminating in the teaching of
the Second Vatican Council which not only referred to the laity in
nearly ever major document but devoted an entire decree on the laity.
One of the first to see clearly the importance of the laity in the
life of the Church and to defend their call to holiness, from which
springs the apostolate, was St. Francis De Sales, who stands without
peer as the theologian for the laity.
Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been
concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world or
have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete
retirement. My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within
families and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary
life as to outward appearances.
Frequently on the pretext of some supposed impossibility, they will
not even think of undertaking a devout life. It is their opinion
that . . . no one should aspire to the palm of Christian piety as
long as he is living under the pressure of worldly affairs.
I shall show such men that a strong, resolute soul can live in the
world without being infected by any of its moods.
It is an error, or rather a heresy, to wish to banish the devout life
from the regiment of soldiers, the mechanic's shop, the court of
princes or the home of married people. (St. Francis De Sales,
This teaching was reechoed in the Second Vatican Council's teaching
concerning the "universal call to holiness."
The Lord Jesus, divine teacher and model of all perfection, preached
holiness of life (of which he is the author and maker) to each and
everyone of his disciples without distinction. "You, therefore, must
be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk
of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the
perfection of charity (L.G. #40).
I think that oftentimes we forget that in this life we are engaged in
a great war. This is why it is important to remember that the Church
on earth is the Church militant . . . i.e., the Church fighting,
struggling against sin and temptation. In this war we have three
great enemies which seek our death. What I call "the grand alliance"
and the ancient spiritual wisdom of the Church calls the world, the
flesh, and the devil.
Since the laity, in fulfillment of their vocation, must in a special
way live in the world, these enemies take a particular line of
First lets examine "the world."
This mundane spirit which pulls at us to an inordinate attachment to
earthly things at the cost of weakening our attachment to Christ
seeks to exalt the possession of things above all else. We are told:
"It's not what you are but what you have that's important" _ "He who
dies with the most toys wins."
Widespread consumerism, unbridled pleasure, comfort, riches, fame _
all are presented so as to lure us away from a Christ-like spirit.
The mall has become the cathedral of twentieth century man. That's
where we go when we are depressed. All are encouraged to participate
in the liturgy which is celebrated by making a purchase! To go to
the mall and return empty-handed is to be a mere catechumen. Power
also becomes the goal and passion of our life so that Christians
speak of and long for "empowerment." Violence has also become an end
in itself. In films, how far we have come from John Wayne's
reluctance to fight in Ford's "The Quiet Man" to the slow motion gore
of "Friday the 13th VII" or "Faces of Death." Speak of faith and
morality in this area and you will be both ridiculed or persecuted.
Behind the worldly spirit of course is the Prince of this world.
This worldly spirit leads us to drop our spiritual weapons as does
our other adversary closely related to it, the flesh.
The flesh as an enemy is downplayed today. Again, we are told "if it
feels good do it" since "after all, life is to enjoy." The flesh is
an internal enemy more properly called concupiscence. Unmortified
appetites lead us to seek pleasure without restraint and leads to
excess in sex, drugs, etc. The inroads into the Catholic laity are
found in widespread fornication, contraception (which offers sex for
pleasure not children _ recreation not intimacy and self-donation),
abortion (unborn children offered up to the old gods of convenience,
pleasure, sexual license and lust), adultery, and divorce.
And of course behind this cacophony is the spirit of darkness, who as
many spiritual authors have told us is never as strong as when his
existence is denied or ignored. Mention the Devil as Paul VI did and
they will laugh at you. The first letter of Peter tells us that the
Devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.
Well, if there was a hungry lion loose in the neighborhood we
certainly would arm ourselves and seek protection for our children.
To battle a spiritual power one must use spiritual weapons. We must
become shock troops. Our effectiveness as troops will depend upon
our holiness of life. Holiness is a for our efforts
as lay apostles.
As John Paul II said in his Apostolic Exhortation , "Holiness then must be called a fundamental presupposition
and an irreplaceable condition for everyone in fulfilling the mission
of salvation within the Church." As the great Dominican, Garrigou-
Lagrange, used to say in his lectures at the Angelicum, "You cannot
influence others unless you first have developed your own interior
life." Christ himself has taught us this. What were his first words
to his followers? Come . . . "Come learn of me." . . . What were his
last words? . . . Go . . . "Go out into the world." Today we have
far too many who go out into the world without first having come to
Christ to learn and imbibe mind and spirit. Is it any
wonder that so many Christians are seduced by the world and speak
incessantly of empowerment, liberation, and reproductive freedom? So
we must first be holy . . . grafted into Christ; and then and only
then do we go out to the world.
Now all authentically Catholic spirituality must be deeply grounded
in Dogma. This is why doctrinal formation is so important if the
laity as apostles are going to bring Christ and his gospel to the
world to transform it . . . to purify it . . . or as our college
motto states, "to restore all things in Christ."
The Pope emphasized this very point in his exhortation on the laity:
The situation today points to an ever increasing urgency for a
doctrinal formation of the lay faithful, not simply in a better
understanding which is natural to faith's dynamism but also in
enabling them to "give a reason for their hope" in view of the world
and its grave and complex problems.
The laity, in living the life of faith, grounded in the divine life
given in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, nourished by the
sacraments, prayer (especially the rosary) and by living a life of
Christian virtue, can become holy and bear witness to a world intent
Lay spirituality is profoundly incarnational and secular in that it
seeks to redeem the temporal order through involvement and
interaction rather than a monastic withdrawal. It therefore is
deeply apostolic and is lived in accordance with ones duties and
state of life. We must remember that this does not always mean doing
great things in the eyes of the world. As St. Teresa of Avila said
"it's not you do, its the with which you do it" that
determines ones growth in holiness. And so, a mother cooking a meal
for her children, a father kneeling at his child's bedside to pray, a
kind word or gesture for a neighbor who is suffering, all lead to
sanctification and growth in holiness.
As the Second Vatican Council stated:
Gathered together in the People of God and established in the one
Body of Christ, under one head, the laity _ no matter who they are _
have, as living members, the vocation of applying to the building up
of the Church and to its continual sanctification all the powers
which they have received from the goodness of the Creator and from
the grace of the Redeemer.
The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of
the Church. . . .
The laity however are given this special vocation: to make the
Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where
it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth
Thus every lay person, through those gifts given to him, is at once
the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church
itself "according to the measure of Christ's bestowal."
Such an understanding should prevent the clericalization of the laity
which we are witnessing today as the laity are encouraged not to the
apostolate in the world but to ministry in the sanctuary. So that we
have what have truly become "ordinary extraordinary ministers of the
eucharist." What we really need are Catholic laymen on fire with the
faith who bring Christ to the world as Catholic doctors, lawyers,
Of course, there can be no renewal of the social order without holy
Catholic families. We need families strong in the faith who give
witness to the saving truth of Christ and his Church and live as the
domestic church. We need families and homes dedicated and
consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, acknowledging his Lordship
over their lives. We all know the impact and influence which one
good family can have in a neighborhood or school. This is the key
factor not only in the battle to restore the social order but also
the ecclesial order. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life
come from holy families. Recall when Pius X proudly showed his
episcopal ring to his mother and she said in response (as only an
Italian mother could) "Remember, Giuseppe you would have no ring on
your finger were it not for this one on mine." Let us have the
courage then to redouble our efforts in our own lives and in the
lives of our families to respond to the invitation of Christ.
In this dark hour, when so many have gleefully predicted the end of
the Church, let us recall that we have inherited the collected wisdom
of 2000 years! The world has always awaited and proclaimed the death
of the Church. But death could not hold Christ our Head in the tomb
nor shall it hold His divinized members. For certainly, if we apply
the words of that great soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola, to ourselves
and "pray as if everything depended on God and act as if everything
depended on us," the Divine Mercy will not be found wanting! So let
us gird up our loins and, united to Him, prepare to do battle as
shock troops of the Church Militant. The ultimate victory will be
ours, for our Lord told us: "Heaven and earth will pass away but my
words will not pass away."
_ Timothy T. O'Donnell, S.T.D.
Adapted from an address given at the
23rd annual National Wanderer Forum
September 22, 1990.
This article was taken from the Spring 1991 issue of "Faith &
Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101
Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-
636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN