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The Laity from Apostolic Times through the Middle Ages


Are we living in the age of the Laity?


People sometimes call it that. But there is much hard work to be done before Catholic lay women and men universally recognize, accept, and carry out the role in the Church's mission that is theirs by right and obligation — and before others truly recognize that they should. The aim here is to help in bringing these things about.

We can begin by asking ourselves what a genuine age of the laity ought to look like. Some people seem to think it would mean more lay ministry and/or more power sharing with the clergy. Increased lay participation in decision-making in the Church is indeed a worthy goal, as is — up to a point — involving more lay people in ministry [2]. We shall say a lot more about both things below.

But an age of the laity that went no further than power sharing and ministries would not, in the final analysis, amount to much. The story of Gianna Beretta Molla suggests what an age of the laity that deserved the name might truly be like.

Gianna was born October 4, 1922, near Milan. She studied medicine at the University of Milan and the University of Pavia, graduating in 1949. A specialist in pediatrics, she gave herself generously as a doctor to the poor, joined Catholic Action, and met an engineer named Pietro Molla, whom she married in 1955. She was a woman who enjoyed skiing, going to the opera, playing the piano, and puttering with oil paints.

Pietro and Gianna had three children. After several miscarriages, in 1961 Gianna Molla was pregnant again.

Toward the end of the second month she started experiencing sharp pain. The diagnosis was a fibrous tumor of the ovary. As a doctor, Gianna knew the score: either a hysterectomy that would kill her baby or surgery that would spare the child but leave her own life at risk. She chose the latter. "Save the baby," she told her husband and her physician.

Gianna Emanuela was born April 21, 1962. Soon her mother began to experience severe pain from septic peritonitis. She died on April 28, 1962. "Jesus, I love you," were her last words.

Pope John Paul II beatified her April 24, 1994, and on May 16, 2004, declared her a saint. Her husband and children were present at the ceremony. In his homily at the Mass of canonization the Pope said: "The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves." The priest who promoted her canonization cause called her death "the culmination of a life lived with great intensity and a profound love of God and her fellow man."

And that, at the heart of it, is what a genuine age of the laity would be all about.

Even now, of course, there is plenty to celebrate. Not so long ago, nobody would even have thought of speaking of "the age of the laity." An episode in the career of John Henry Newman, the eminent nineteenth-century British Catholic convert and theologian, suggests the view of laity prevalent then.

Today, Newman's On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine is regarded as a careful, nuanced discussion of one means at the disposal of the Magisterium [3] for ascertaining the faith of the Church. "The body of the faithful," Newman pointed out, "is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine." People take that for granted now.

It was different in 1859, when Newman's essay first appeared. A fierce controversy followed publication, with Newman himself in its center. This painful episode would dog him for years to come.

Some members of the British clerical establishment took Newman's essay as an assault on authority and its author as a dangerous troublemaker. Several years after the essay was published, one of them wrote to Archbishop (later, Cardinal) Henry Edward Manning of Westminster: "Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace."

And the prominent lay people who supported Newman? The writer expressed his contempt in these words: "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." It was a joke — the kind that speaks bitter truth.

Thinking about the role of lay people in the Church has come a long way since then. Especially notable progress was achieved at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Yet every serious student of this subject realizes that serious problems and uncertainties of both a theoretical and practical nature persist, while new ones have emerged in recent years. Newman's vision of Catholic lay people who know their faith, are deeply committed to it, and strive enthusiastically to live it out is still far from universally realized.

The fundamental aim of what follows is to help realize it. In On Consulting the Faithful and other works, Newman often took a historical approach, shedding light on the present from the experience of the past. Adopting something of the same approach here, we begin this examination of the role of the Catholic laity in the mission of the Church by taking a quick look at history. This overview will touch on a few highlights of a long, complex story stretching over two millennia.

The Early Church

In a number of places in the New Testament we find the Apostles assigning functions of various kinds to their early collaborators, including lay people. In one way or another, these functions all replicate and express the threefold ministry of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

At the same time, though, it is important to be aware that the New Testament offers no support for the view that in these early times all members of the Christian community were essentially the same from the point of view of ministry. Referring particularly to the celebration of the Eucharist, a historian of the priesthood says:

The view that the New Testament indicates that the total community was enjoined to celebrate the Eucharist, so that in principle any baptized Christian might be the eucharistic celebrant, appears to be totally without any foundation. . . . Ministerial leadership in general is the basis for eucharistic leadership in particular (Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M., Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988, p. 80).

Still, at the start the sociological and ecclesial distinction between clergy and laity was not so strongly emphasized as it came to be later. The terms "priest" and "layman" are not even found in the New Testament as names for distinct classes or categories of persons within the Christian community.

One reason why priest is not used to refer to a certain group of men may have lain in the early Christians' desire not to seem to be taking anything away from the unique priesthood of Christ (cf. Heb 10.12). But we can also see another reason at work. There was a strong sense in these early days of the unity and fundamental equality of all members of the Christian community, interacting within a hierarchical structure that provided for a number of complementary roles and functions.

Another historian describes the situation existing in the first three centuries this way:

Presbyteroi [priests] and even some episkopoi [bishops] continued to live as ordinary working men, tending their farms and businesses. Only in case of need did the local episkopos subsidize the presbyter. In most respects, sociologically, the presbyter was not differentiated from the lay person (Alexander Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulists Press, 1990, pp. 144-45).

The vision of the Church as a hierarchically structured communion of fundamentally equal persons with complementary roles, working together to build up and sustain the whole, is memorably expressed in St. Paul's metaphor of the Mystical Body of Christ. [4] In his first letter to the Corinthians — a community that was, it seems, torn by conflicts that threatened to reduce it to competing factions — he begins by emphasizing the unity and equality of all.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12.4-7).

Warming to his theme, Paul turns to the image of the body as a vivid illustration of what he has in mind. "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ," he writes.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body . . . . If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. . . . But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that all the members may have the same care for one another.

Hammering his point home in reference to the Christian community — in Corinth and everywhere else — Paul then declares:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues (1 Cor 12.12-28).

For our present purposes, the message could hardly be more clear: Lay people are full members of this body of Christ, the Church, quite as much as anybody else, and in that capacity the laity have important work to do.

In writing of the roles of members of the Christian community, St. Paul's emphasis is upon what they do within the Church in order to build her up and be of service to one another. They are healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in tongues, and so on. Within a fairly short time, however, the realization grew that, by reason of their membership itself, the Christian community's lay members also were called to accept their share in doing the work of the Church precisely by what they did outside the confines of the ecclesial community. That is to say, they were called to be evangelizers — by their very manner of life, to give witness to the world regarding their faith.

This momentous idea is stated with great clarity and force in a famous work of Christian apologetics called the Epistle to Diognetus. Composed around the year 200 AD, it is cast in the form of a letter to a high-ranking Roman official. Of the Christians it says in part:

Yet while they dwell in both Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one's lot was cast, and conform to the customs of the country in dress, food, and mode of life in general, the whole tenor of their way of living stamps it as worthy of admiration and admittedly extraordinary. . . . In a word: what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. . . . The soul, when stinting itself in food and drink, fares the better for it; so, too, Christians, when penalized, show a daily increase in numbers on that account. Such is the important post to which God has assigned them, and they are not at liberty to desert it (Epistle to Diognetus, in Colman J. Barry, O.S.B., ed., Readings in Church History. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1985, pp. 39-40).

Plainly, this, too, refers to the lay members of the Church quite as much as it does to her clergy. It is not just the clergy who build up the Church and evangelize the world by causing the light of faith to shine forth in their lives. And if the realities of Christian life in those early days often were — as may well have been the case — rather less glorious than the glowing ideal set out in the Epistle to Diognetus, that in no way takes anything away from the fact that this truly was the ideal.

Unfortunately, it was not to remain that.

The Clericalization of the Church

As times and circumstances changed, in the Church and in the world, so thinking and practice concerning clergy and laity also changed. This is to say that clericalization [5] set in.

The process began around the beginning of the third century AD — that is, not so long after the Epistle to Diognetus was written. More and more emphasis came to be placed upon the difference between clerics [6] and lay people. The clergy increasingly became a religious elite, more or less isolated from ordinary lay life. At the same time, the laity gradually came to be looked upon — and also to look upon themselves — as being essentially passive in religious affairs.

A number of different factors worked together to bring about this change. Let's look at some.

The ecclesiastical policy of Constantine and his successors:

Attributing military triumph over his rivals to the will of the Christian God, the Emperor Constantine became a convert to Christianity in the year 312 AD. He then set out vigorously to protect, promote — and direct — the fortunes of the religion he had embraced.

There was nothing unusual about this. Indeed, it was consistent with the common understanding of a Roman emperor's role at a time when there was no separation of church and state as we understand it now, and the emperor was regarded as being supreme in the religious sphere as well as the civil, secular one. We should not be surprised, then, to find Constantine referring to himself as the Church's "bishop of external affairs."


The clericalization of the Church was part of the religious policy pursued by Constantine and his successors. Their intention may have been to make clear the sacred nature of the Christian priesthood in contrast with pagan priests who customarily were regarded as state functionaries. Clerics now were exempted from civil and military service, from being answerable to civil courts, and from the payment of taxes. Visible differences between clergy and laity grew more and more pronounced, with distinctive garb and the tonsure [7] becoming common among clerics. Church councils in the fifth and sixth centuries further underlined the lay-clergy separation by insisting that ordination was irrevocable — once a cleric, always a cleric. Increasingly, too, the priesthood was limited to unmarried men.

In line with developments like this, the approach to public worship also changed. The liturgy, [8] formerly understood to be an action in which the people actively participated, more and more became something that priests did while the people simply watched.

The rise and spread of monasticism [9]:

The monastic movement was well underway by the fourth century AD. By no means was it limited to clerics and religious at the start, since lay people also were drawn to this mode of living, spiritually and physically removed from the world, that embodied a more demanding, intense way of serving God than ordinary, everyday life. Gradually, however, ordination became the rule for men in monastic communities.

One result was that lay people came to be thought of as less religiously serious and spiritually elevated than those who embraced the monastic way of life. And, predictably, this thinking eventually was applied outside the monastic context, as the monastic model became normative for clerics generally.

Summing up what happened, the theologian Yves Congar writes: "The lay condition is presented as a concession to human weakness. . . . From the Christian point of view life in the world is a compromise. . . . The laity, concerned in temporal affairs, have no part in the sphere of sacred things" (Yves Congar, O.P., Lay People in the Church. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1985, pp. 12-13).

The influence of St. Augustine and his interpreters:

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is one of the towering thinkers in Christian history. But he does play a role in the story of the laity's decline. Especially when taken over by lesser interpreters who came after him, Augustine's radical emphasis on fulfillment in the next world and his de-emphasizing of life in this one tended to devalue the way of life of even devout Christian lay people.

The consequences can be seen centuries later in a volume like the enormously influential fifteenth-century spiritual masterpiece The Imitation of Christ. Marvelous work that it is, it nevertheless abounds in sayings like this: "Unless a man be detached from all created things, he cannot freely attend to spiritual things" (The Imitation of Christ, II, 21). But that, it might be said, is difficult advice for a lay person to carry out who believes conscientious and well-ordered concern for many different "created things" to be not only unavoidable for human beings but an important part of what it means rightly to attend to the things of the spirit!

But it would be wrong to suppose that either then or later the Church failed in its fundamental duty to form lay people for life in heaven or that lay people as a group failed massively in their fundamental duty to be so formed. The gospel was preached, the sacraments were administered, lay women and men for the most part lived decent, productive lives leading to fulfillment in eternal life. Still, the view of the laity and the temporal order that then prevailed was of little help to this ever-so-important project; at times, it may actually have been more or less a hindrance.

The Middle Ages

The socially and politically chaotic situation that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire accelerated the decline in the laity's status in several ways. The religious and cultural level of the barbarians who were the new Christian converts often was far inferior to that of the clerics who had evangelized them; and as time went by, the general eclipse of learning which spread through Europe only made matters worse. Clerics were very nearly the only educated people around, and even they often were semi-educated at best.

In this era, too, conflicts between lay lords and the clerical hierarchy became a continuing fact of life. The tension was rooted in the common failure — so visible in the case of a ruler like the all-powerful Constantine — to distinguish between church and state and the rights of the authorities in each sphere. By the seventh and eighth centuries, lay lords commonly controlled not only the property of the Church but the selection of bishops, abbots, and parish priests. The portioning-out of religious offices became a political power game whose painful, predictable result was that those selected often were unworthy of the offices they held.

The system as a whole is referred to by the expression "lay investiture." [10] Putting an end to lay investiture and correcting abuses in clerical life were central goals in the reform movement that arose at the French Benedictine monastery of Cluny in the tenth and eleventh centuries and was especially associated with Pope Saint Gregory VII (1073¬-1085). Although Gregory's lengthy conflict with the Emperor Henry IV ended with the Pope's death in exile, his determined assertion of papal authority in the face of imperial claims eventually bore fruit.

The Cluniac reform [11] movement made for a stronger papacy, a stronger clergy, and a healthier Church. But it also had an unintended result — fostering clericalization and weakening the position of the laity in the Church.

New theological and popular thinking about the priesthood and the Eucharist also played their role in this development. Increasingly, the celebration of the Mass became an action of the priest separated from the people. "The Mass was now believed to produce spiritual benefits whether or not it was devoutly attended. . . . By the end of the Middle Ages, the Mass had been transformed from an act of public worship into a form of clerical prayer" (Patrick J. Dunn, Priesthood: A Re-examination of the Roman Catholic Theology of the Presbyterate. Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1990, p. 85). The popular piety and Eucharistic devotion which flourished at this time are indeed among the glories of medieval Catholicism; but encouragement given to the religious passivity of the laity is not.

The static, highly-structured character of feudal society in the late Middle Ages also contributed to a situation in which active roles in the mission of the Church were reserved for the clergy. Lay people were expected to be passive and docile in religious affairs. Few grasped the fundamental idea of personal vocation — that God calls each member of the Christian community to play a unique role in carrying out his redemptive plan.

What this meant as a practical matter can be seen in the case of a committed Christian like St. Thomas More [12] (1478-1535). After concluding that, contrary to what he had for years hoped and more or less supposed was the case, he was not called to be a monk, the young More faced a serious personal crisis. "Since marriage was a mere concession to weakness, it was certainly not a path to perfection — or so held the cultural prejudice of More's age. Therefore, when this young, brilliant, idealistic youth struggled to accept what eventually emerged as a clear call to marriage, he was brought almost to the 'very gates of hell'" (Gerard B. Wegemer, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage. Princeton, N.J.: Scepter Publishers, 1995, pp. 10-11).

Thomas More was exceptional but in this matter he was not unique. One writer sums up the situation of the laity like this:

In the Middle Ages the layman found his field of action reduced to worldly affairs, with the disappearance of the sense of the laity's active participation in the field proper to the Church, which had been so lively in the early centuries; the Church's mission came to be identified almost exclusively with the ministry of the clerics, and Christian perfection came to be considered as something proper to clerics and religious. The layman's possibilities were reduced to the practice of the common virtues in the exercise of his secular functions, which was generally presented in ascetic literature as an obstacle to the Christian life of perfection (Alvaro del Portillo, Faithful and Laity in the Church. Shannon, Ireland: Ecclesia Press, 1972, p. 17).

With the advantage of half a millennium's hindsight, we can see now that change was needed. It soon came — but not easily or painlessly. It began with that huge fracturing of Christendom called the Reformation.


  • Laity, from the Greek word laos ("people"), is the name for the members of the Church who are not in Holy Orders. Today the term Christifideles laici (the lay members of Christ's faithful) is sometimes used.
  • Ministry is the name for a role of service in the Church, modeled on the threefold office of Christ as priest, teacher, and king. Ministry properly so called belongs to clerics, but in a more general sense the term also refers to service roles performed within the Church by lay people. Ministry is a formally instituted office of service within the Church, often of a liturgical nature. Ministries properly so called pertain only to the ordained; roles of service assigned to non-ordained persons are called ministries in an analogical sense.
  • Magisterium is a Latin name for the teaching authority of the Church, instituted by Christ and exercised under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This teaching authority is present in the Pope and the bishops in union with him.
  • Mystical Body of Christ is a name for the Church stressing its unique unity with Christ, as well as the fundamental equality of the members within a hierarchical structure in which all have complementary roles. The term originates in the writings of St. Paul. The Church as Mystical Body of Christ is the subject of an important encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, published in 1943, and is one of the images used by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to express the mystery of the Church in the first chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium.
  • Clericalization refers to a process whose effect is to isolate clerics from the laity and assign them a superior position in the Church while encouraging lay people to be passive and more or less disengaged from the Church's mission.
  • Cleric is the term for members of the Church who are in Holy Orders. Bishops, priests, and deacons are clerics.
  • Tonsure is the practice originating in monastic life of shaving some or all of the hair from the head.
  • Liturgy is the public worship of the Church. The celebration of the Eucharist is the preeminent liturgical act.
  • Monasticism is a way of life emphasizing withdrawal from the world for the practice of prayer and penance, either alone or in community with others. Monasticism arose in the East with St. Anthony in the fourth century and in the West with St. Benedict in the sixth century.
  • Lay investiture was the medieval practice according to which lay lords conferred office upon holders of Church offices — bishops, abbots, parish priests. Lay investiture was the focus of a long and sometimes bitter struggle between ecclesiastical authorities and temporal authorities.
  • Cluniac reform is the name for the tenth and eleventh-century reform movement in the Church which arose at the Benedictine monastery of Cluny in France and spread through Europe. It stressed the reform of monastic life and clerical life generally.
  • More, St. Thomas (1478-1535), Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, was executed by King Henry VIII for his opposition to the King's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and to Henry's claim of supremacy over the Church in England. He was canonized in 1935. He is the author of numerous literary works, including Utopia.


Russell Shaw. "The Laity from Apostolic Times through the Middle Ages." Chapter 1 of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church: Living Out Your Lay Vocation (Chilliwack, BC: The Chartwell Press, 2014).

Reprinted by permission of the author. 

The Author

Shaw_Catholic_LaitysmshawACsm Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including  Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, American Church:The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity, Beyond the New Morality: The Responsibilities of Freedom, Third Edition, and Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium

Copyright © 2014 Russell Shaw
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