Barry Blake, SFO Vocations Promotion Committee

In 1957, the great Dominican theologian, Fr. Yves Congar, published his seminal study for a theology of laity, titled Lay People in the Church. In this book, Fr. Congar says (I paraphrase):

Religious life (life in religious communities, separated from the world) and life in the world (the secular life) are both necessary - not so that the Church as institution may exist, but so that she may fulfil her apostolic mission and fully carry out her work as the Body of Christ.

The lay function (living in the world) is necessary, for it is through this function that the Church carries out its mission (to turn civilization Christward) and its work (to open human structures to faith in Christ) [1].

These things can be done only by lay people, for they belong both to the world and to the Church in a way that is true neither of the clergy nor of monks.

Foundations of lay ministry

This concept of lay ministry was fresh at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-64) and became foundational for defining the place of the laity in the structure and mission of the Church - particularly as it is enunciated in Lumen gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and particularly in Chapter IV, "The Laity".

Prior to Vatican II, Church practices were governed by the 1917 Code of Canon Law. This Code saw the laity as passive objects of the care of clerical pastors whom the laity were required to support. The Code affirmed the rights of the laity to receive the sacraments and permitted lay associations, provided that they were under clerical direction. But there was no mention of lay ministry - all ministry was performed by the ordained. The basis for the old axiom that the role of the laity was "to pray up, pay up and shut up" is readily perceived when one examines the 1917 Code.

What was at issue within the Church at the time of Vatican II, though, was not the subordination of the laity to the ordained ministry but the right of the laity to organic and active involvement in the life of the Church. It was a question of ecclesiology.

Vatican II brought forward an ecclesiology that places all Christ's faithful - all the Christifideles - in a mutually supporting relationship. Lumen gentium refers to the Church as "a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (LG 4). It is this communio (koinonia, in Greek) of the blessed Trinity that underlies the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium. The ecclesiology of communio is the firm foundation on which stands our belief in the equality in dignity before God of all the faithful (all men and all women), and of their right and obligation to share in the activities of Christ's threefold office (his tria munera) as priest, prophet and king of all. As Lumen gentium says:

(All) the faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world (LG 31).

That is, the role of laity is in both the Church and the world. Therefore, lay ministry must render service to both the ecclesiological domain and the secular domain.

The new Code of Canon Law (the first since 1917) translates the documents of Vatican II into church legislation. It came to publication in 1983, twenty-four years after Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council and called for the reform of the 1917 Code.

One could expect, from reading Lumen gentium, that the new Code would speak at length on the subject of lay ministry, alongside its canons on the ministry of the ordained. On reading the Code, though, one finds that the term "lay ministry" is not to be found.

Accepting this reticence to use 'ministerial' terminology in relation to the laity, and recognising that Canon Law is the law of the Church, let us examine briefly what the Code does say about the role of the laity in the Church.

The Code of Canon Law and the Laity

In Book II of the Code, titled "The People of God", we find a description of Christ's faithful in the terms used in Lumen gentium (cc. 204-207). Christ's faithful, the Church, is comprised of two categories of people, sacred ministers (clerics) and lay people (c. 2071) [2]. At the core of the Code's understanding of the relationship between the ordained and non-ordained, is their sacramentality. All are incorporated into Christ through Baptism; most are strengthened by Confirmation; and some few are ordained to sacred ministry through the sacrament of Holy Orders. That is, there exists a sacramental basis for participation in the threefold mission of Christ.

It is in Title II of Book II that the Code formulates most of the new law regarding the duties and rights of the laity, and distinguishes them from those of the sacred ministry, which are to be found within Title III. Through these canons, the laity, both women and men, are given opportunities to participate in areas of church life that were previously reserved for men of the clerical order. These areas include governance (the kingly munus), proclamation (the prophetic munus), and sanctification (the priestly munus).

From a starting point of equality of dignity and action before Christ (c. 208), one could expect the laity to be given equal dignity and function alongside the ordained in the Code. On reading Book II, however, it is clear that this equality of action is to be differentiated according to a lay person's "condition and office". The exact meaning of this phrase is obscure, but it would seem that "condition" relates to one's situation in the Church as either a cleric or lay member (their sacramental condition), and to the particular service that one renders. An "office" is the vehicle by which the power of governance is exercised (c. 131), although there may be some offices that do not involve ecclesiastical governance [3]. The Code relates "condition" and "office" when it says, "Only clerics can obtain offices the exercise of which requires the power of order or the power of ecclesiastical governance" (c. 274 1).

In respect of "governance" offices, laity can cooperate with the ordained (c. 129 2) [4], and, in the "non-governance" offices, suitable laity are capable of being admitted to office (c. 228 1).

There are, therefore, two primary conditions of Christ's faithful identified in Canon Law. There is, firstly, the ordained ministry, who receive the sacred powers of order (principally the sole power to consecrate, absolve and anoint the sick) and who can be given offices of governance. Secondly, there is the laity, who have equality of dignity and action before God, but who cannot be given any office requiring the power to sanctify or govern. This situation aligns with Lumen gentium, however, where Chapter III is titled, "The Church is Hierarchical".


While all Christ's faithful, by right of Baptism, can contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ (c. 208); the locus of the participation of lay people is the secular world

(c. 225 2), while the primary locus of the ordained ministry is within the Church. All such evangelical actions are rightly considered as mission. Should they be regarded as ministry?

The term "ministry" is today used more broadly than Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law uses it. There is general opinion that ministry is more than the activity of the ordained, and can be defined broadly as "action done in public on behalf of the Church, as a result of a charism of service"[5]. Sharon Euart has suggested the following categories of ecclesiastical ministry: (1) ordained ministry, (2) jurisdictional ministry, (3) public ministry, and (4) common ministry [6]. Using these categories, the Code recognises the participation of the laity as follows:

Ordained Ministry - That ministry which requires the sacrament of Holy Orders. It includes such sanctifying functions as presiding at the Eucharist and anointing the sick; such proclamation functions as preaching the homily at Mass; and such governance functions as leading the local church. Laity can cooperate with the sacred liturgical and governance functions reserved for the ordained, but cannot perform any of them.

Jurisdictional Ministry - That ministry which requires canonical or juridical authority for its exercise. Some jurisdictional ministries require Orders, for example, the sanctifying function of absolving from sin. Some other ministries do not require orders, but are nevertheless perceived as being the normal locus of the ordained. When members of the laity participate in the exercise of these ministries, it is viewed as a sharing in the apostolate of the ordained.

The jurisdictional ministries that are open to the laity through delegation, but for which they do not have power or faculty in their own right, would appear to include those covered by the following canons:

Sanctification canons (pastoral care and sacred liturgy):

c. 230 3 may exercise ministry of the word when needed.

c. 230 3 may preside over liturgical prayers when needed.

c. 230 3 may confer baptism when needed.

c. 230 3 may distribute Holy Communion when needed.

c. 517 2 may share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish.

c. 766 may be allowed to preach in a church.

c. 910 2 may be deputed an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist.

c. 1112 may be delegated to assist at marriages.

c. 1168 may be selected and approved to administer certain sacramentals.

Proclamation canons

c. 229 3 may receive a mandate to teach the sacred sciences.

c. 875 1 lay catechists are to be given a role in missionary work.

Governance canons

c. 129 2 may cooperate in the exercise of the power of governance.

Public ministry - That public ministry on behalf of the Church which is specific to the laity. This ministry is not a sharing in the functions or offices of the ordained ministry but does require ecclesiastical authority. Lay public ministry includes those offices and functions covered by the following canons:

Sanctifying canons

c. 230 1 may be given stable ministry of lector (men only).

c. 230 1 may be given stable ministry of acolyte (men only).

c. 230 2 may be assigned to temporary role of lector.

c. 230 2 may exercise role of commentator.

c. 230 2 may exercise role of cantor.

c. 230 2 may exercise other such roles in accordance with the law.

Proclamation canons

c. 215 may establish and direct associations for charitable or pious purposes and hold meetings to pursue these purposes.

c. 216 may promote and support apostolic action.

c. 229 have the duty and right to acquire the knowledge of Christian teaching and to proclaim it.

Governance canons

c. 228 1 suitable lay people may be admitted to some ecclesiastical offices and


c. 228 2 outstanding lay people may become advisers to the Pastors of the Church.

c. 463 may be elected by diocesan pastoral council to participate in the diocesan


c. 482 may be appointed chancellor or vice-chancellor of the diocesan curia.

c. 483 may be appointed a notary of the diocesan curia.

c. 492 may be appointed to the diocesan finance committee.

c. 494 1 may be appointed diocesan financial administrator

c. 512 1 may be selected as a diocesan pastoral council member.

c. 536 1 may become a parish pastoral council member.

c. 537 may be selected as a parish finance council member.

c. 830 1 competent laity may be appointed a censor by the local Ordinary.

c. 1279 2 may be appointed administrator of ecclesiastical goods.

c. 1421 2 may be appointed a judge in a college of judges.

c. 1424 may be appointed an assessor by a judge.

c. 1428 2 may be appointed an auditor to gather evidence for a judge.

c. 1435 may be appointed promoter of justice and defender of the bond.

Common ministry - That public ministry which is proper to all the lay Christian faithful. These ministries reflect the common obligation to love one's neighbour, and do not require any special appointment or mandate. They include:

c. 225 1 evangelising, particularly in circumstances where they are the only source of

Christ's message.

c. 225 2 transforming the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel in one's secular


c. 226 1 for those who are married, to strive to build up the People of God through their

marriage and family.

c. 226 2 for those who are parents, to ensure the Christian education of their children.

Some comments

It is clear that the new Code has attempted to put some flesh on the Vatican II statement regarding how lay ministry and ordained ministry are ordered one to another:

Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ. (LG10).

While Vatican II teaches that in all areas of apostolic service, lay and ordained ministry are ordered one to the other, it did not develop this principle into any concrete division of functions between the lay and the ordained; and so the Code legislators addressed this issue in the spirit of Vatican II's ecclesiology. In the face of a Church history where all ministry and all offices were held by the ordained in persona Christi, it was inevitable that there would be some tension between maintaining continuity with tradition and now sharing Christ's munera with the laity. One of the sticking points was using the term "ministry" in respect of the apostolic works of the laity. Another was the giving of equal status to women in this new lay ministry.

While the Code writers studiously avoided using the term "lay ministry", it was obvious that when they legislated that lay men can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte (c. 230 1), they had created new ministries for the laity [7]. From that point, the use of the term "lay ministry" was inevitable and the problem would be to limit its application. What has confounded many commentators though, is that the legislators hung on to the tradition of an all-male ministry and could not bring themselves to legislate equality of dignity and action between lay men and women in respect of these two new ministries [8].


In the matter of legislating for lay participation in the Church's apostolate, the 1983 Code made a quantum leap forward from the position of 1917 Code - a leap that was commensurate with the renewal in apostolic activity that was brought about by Vatican II. After two decades of Code implementation, much has changed as regards the role of the laity in church life and liturgy. This expanded lay role has not been necessitated by the prevailing climate of a rapidly diminishing priesthood, but is the Church's response to a soundly based ecclesiology. All the baptised have a common priesthood in Christ, and the laity have consequential rights and obligations to play their part in a collaborative ministry with the ordained, so that together they carry out the Church's mission.


[1] Yves Congar, Lay People in the Church, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965), 454-55.

[2] C. 207, 1 defines lay people as those who are not sacred ministers; and recognises that those consecrated to religious life can be drawn from both the laity and the sacred ministry (c. 207, 2).

[3] This would be akin to the distinction between "line managers -operational function" and "staff officers - technical function" in the business world.

[4] C.131 identifies delegation as a mechanism for this cooperation.

[5] O'Meara, Thomas A., Theology of Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 136.

[6] Sharon A. Euart, "Council, Code and Laity: Implications for Lay Ministry", in The Jurist, Vol. XLVII, (Washington, DC: CUA, 1987), 492-505.

[7] The Canon Law society of America commented that "Lay ministry is not limited to lector and acolyte. Ministeria quaedam permitted conferences of bishops to request the installation in other ministries if this was necessary or helpful in their local situation". The Code of Canon Law: a text and commentary, (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 167.

[8] Elizabeth McDonough's comment is representative of comments regarding the exclusion of women from the ministries of lector and acolyte: "Since it first appeared in Ministeria quaedam in 1972, some canonists have referred to this exclusion as inexplicable, curious, discriminatory and sexist". Elizabeth McDonough, "Women and the New Church Law" in Concilium: Canon Law - Church Reality, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1986), 77. Amongst male canonists, Fr. F.G. Morrisey writes: "... it is very difficult to find reasons - except for the Holy Father - to justify c. 230 1, which is clearly discriminatory". Francis G. Morrisey, "Applying the 1983 Code of Canon Law: the task of canonists in the years ahead", in The New Code of Canon Law, (Ottawa: Saint Paul University, 1986), 1151.


1. The Code of Canon Law, London: Collins, 1983.

2. Congar, Yves, Lay People in the Church, Geoffrey Chapman: London, 1965.

3. Coriden, James A., An Introduction to Canon Law, New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

4. Coriden, James A., Green, Thomas J. and Heintschel, Donald E., eds. The Code of Canon Law: a text and commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

5. Euart, Sharon A., "Council, Code and Laity: implications for lay ministry". In The Jurist, Vol. XLVII, 492-505. Washington DC: CUA, 1987.

6. Flannery, Austin, general ed. Vatican Council II. Vol. 1, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1975.

7. Kaslyn, Robert J., "Introduction, Book II: People of God", in New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, edited by John P. Beal, James A. Coriden and Thomas J. Green, 241-245. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.

8. Lawler, Michael G., A Theology of Ministry. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1990.

9. McManus, Frederick R., Laity in Church Law, new code, new focus. In The Jurist, Vol. XLVII, 11-31. Washington DC: CUA, 1987.

10. Osborne, Kenan , Priesthood: a history of the ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

11. O'Meara, Thomas A., Theology of Ministry. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.