Someone requested that I re-post this Post from 2012/2014. It was my first attempt on this blog to formulate my theological thoughts on the lay vocation.
This post began with the plan to share a few brief thoughts, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. It will take 3 parts to finish this 3550 word piece.
“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium 31
I was listening recently to an interview on Catholic radio featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and passionate faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job as an executive in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods. It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself, well, really furious. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and begin selling religious goods, the interviewer said:
That’s a really inspiring story. How good it is for our listeners to hear about someone who had the courage to abandon his worldly career, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more people like you out there.
I quite literally yelled aloud in the car: “Oh, yeah! As opposed to all those really uninspiring people who choose to remain in their secular career to serve God and his holy Church. What about all the Zacchaeuses of the world Jesus left where he found them? You know, Zacchaeus, the guy who after his Jesus revolution became a righteous tax collector [Luke 19:1-10]? This sure is bad news for the vast majority of Catholic laity who are stuck in the world of their secular careers.”
As the red light turned green, I turned to my left and smiled with some embarrassment at the man in the car next to me who was watching me shout and gesture.
There’s so much to say about all this. Let me get didactic and begin with a clarification of terms.
The word “world” gets a bad rap among us Christians. When we think of “the world” or of “worldly people” we think of colluding with all that is compromised by anti-God values. But the Bible is a bit more nuanced in its view. In the Scriptures, the term “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) is used in three different ways. First, to begin with the negative sense, “the world” refers to all things in creation which are opposed to God. This world is against God and His ways. Second — and this is the most fundamental sense — “the world” refers to creation as made good by God in the beginning. This is creation as God intended it to be. But it is the third sense that is, for my purposes, the richest sense. It combines elements from the first two senses. Here “the world” is creation, fallen away from God, that has become a “theater of redemption” loved by God in the midst of its rebellion. God’s saving plan, brought to perfection in Christ, has transformed the fallen world from ruins into a new and restored creation born from the womb of an empty tomb. This third sense of “world” is the white hot core of the lay vocation: to raise up from the midst of the world’s ruins a new cosmic Temple built on the foundation of the Body of the risen Christ (Eph 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5).
Then there’s the word “secular” — another pariah adjective in devout Catholic circles. In fact, my daughter said to me very recently when she was talking about the “secular” genre of music: “What does the word secular mean, anyway? It sounds bad when I say a song is secular.” The word “secular,” like the phrase “temporal order,” is used in Church documents as a synonym for this present world. It comes from the Latin word saecula, which means “the present age” or “era.” Hence, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum is traditionally translated in the Glory be as “world without end”, while in the Eastern Church it is generally translated, “unto the ages of ages.” The word secular generally refers to this present order of existence we live in, to be distinguished from the Age to Come of God’s eternity or heaven. Like the adjective “worldly,” the word “secular” has come to refer in common Catholic usage almost exclusively to an atheistic and hostile ideology bent on eradicating God and religion from public life. “Secularism” seeks to create a world with a low ceiling, sealed off from all transcendent meaning and values.
In this post I will employ the much more theologically rich and nuanced meanings of secular and worldly.
In addition to the three senses I mentioned above, secular/world/temporal refers to that which is not explicitly religious, sacred or churchy. “Religious stuff” includes things like church institutional structures and ministries, liturgical worship, sacraments, theological language or acts of piety. Those “good of religion” are things directly related to the virtue of religion. This is an important distinction, though I am only giving a very general sense of it here. I want to emphasize that my distinguishing between secular and religious realities is not intended to separate them like oil and water, but rather I distinguish in order to rightly relate them and preserve their distinctiveness. With this distinction in mind, secular can be said to refer not to what is irreligious — which implies disdain or hostility toward faith — but to what is non-religious. To use a whimsical example, a Sazerac is a temporal/worldly/secular good, while Sacraments are religious/sacred/churchy goods.
Here’s my crucial point: For a person of faith, there’s tons to talk about, think about and do that is not religious, but is still very good and very much a part of being a fully alive Christian. For Catholics, the “goods of religion” and “secular goods” are each understood to possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another. Though distinct, each is meant to relate to, complement and mutually enrich the other. Catholics reject the idea that “the secular” should be absorbed into the religious or that “the religious” should be absorbed into the secular. They also reject the distinctively modern view that religious and secular dimensions of life are unrelated, insulated or opposed to each other; or that “the religious” should be private and domesticated and “the secular” public and dominant.
These distinctions are what Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said:
Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them. The Catholic layman should be perfect citizen of the world, a positive and constructive element, a person worthy of esteem and trust, a person who loves society and his country.
These heady distinctions remind me of humorous story that a friend of mine once shared with me. After she had given a talk at a women’s prayer group, offering some reflections on Marian spirituality, several of the women attending gathered around her afterward and excitedly began to talk about various Marian apparitions, healing priests, miraculous images, etc. My no-nonsense friend, a bit overwhelmed by this gush of piety, said: “Can we just talk about the weather?” The air grew still and everyone awkwardly walked away.
Returning to the radio show interview.
Now, it may be this businessman on the radio show rightly judged after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his Christian integrity in the context of the morally compromised business practices he had established in the years prior to his conversion. That’s not my judgment to make. What I reacted so strongly against was the underlying message in the tone of the interviewer’s comments, that implied secular careers were less radical and constituted a form of “settling for less.” On the other hand, explicitly religious, ministerial or maybe even non-profit careers came out on top as a higher, purer and more-radical Christian way for lay men and women.
Over the last 25 years of working in the Church, I’ve witnessed this mindset alive and well, especially in conversations that invoke the word “vocation” or “calling.” I have found this view to be especially seductive among young people who have had life-altering conversion experiences. When they come to faith, they suddenly experience within themselves how much they have internalized modernity’s chasm between faith and life, God and the world, sacred and secular. They sense that Christ’s radical calling to follow Him into holiness requires them to abandon the world and choose a non-secular vocational path. There’s a gentleman I know who spoke to me once at great length about the Catholic college he sent his children to. He loved the college but had this to say about its effect on students:
My wife and I — and many other parents we know — sent our children to the [University of St. Fiction] hoping they would be formed into our nation’s future business leaders, politicians, economists, lawyers, doctors, architects. But they came out with theology degrees. Came out aimless, unsure of what to do with their lives. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.
Yes, it’s extremely important to affirm the passionate zeal informing young people’s willingness to dedicate their life primarily to the “goods of religion.” Indeed, for those called to priesthood, consecrated life or lay ecclesial ministry (like myself), that zeal represents an authentic dimension and sign of a religious-goods vocation. However, these are not the vocations of the vast majority of the lay faithful called to dedicate their personal vocations to the secular world. This point and distinction must be made eminently clear by Church’s leaders and teachers of the faith! The decision to dedicate one’s life to a secular career and to a life fully immersed in the world is an eminently noble path to the perfection of holiness that flows from the very Heart of God.
These false dichotomies — radical religious vs. settling secularists — imply that being a really spiritual person requires those laity called to live out their “secular genius” in the world to face an option crisis: God or the world? Such false dilemmas can serve to pressure those who desire holiness to seek escape from their secular careers, their involvement in public civic life or in secular culture in order to live in some sacristy, or engage in as many overtly religious activities as possible. In this way they minimize the contaminating character of secular interests. In such an otherworldly Catholic culture, church mice are seen as the real champions of Jesus, the truly radical witnesses of discipleship who live lives akin to clergy or monks. Thus seen, the “worldly” lay faithful who must drive the engines of a secular world look out on these world-fleeing spiritual elites and, with either a guilt-ridden longing or a cynical disdain, say: “If that’s what being holy means, I’m out.”