Answers to this question have witnessed two false extremes. While debating the draft of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, one Austrian bishop illustrated a point by telling the assembly that when he looked up “layman” in an old theological dictionary the entry said, “see clergy.” One false extreme is clericalism—in which the role of the lay person is reduced to nothing more than supporting the work of the clergy. The opposite extreme is the false belief that the Fathers of Second Vatican Council wished to do away with the hierarchy altogether and create a so-called “circle church” where everyone is equal and no one has an office of leadership. The documents of the council do not support either of these extreme positions. Twenty years after the council, the 1987 Synod of Bishops clarified a balanced view of role of the lay faithful resulting in Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici.
In 1964, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church had already defined the ‘laity’;
. . . to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. These faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ. . . (LG 31; AA 2).
This constitution highlights the profound gift given to the lay faithful through baptism which makes them one with Christ and sharers in the “priestly, prophetical, and kingly” ministries of Christ. This sharing does not involve the ‘sacred powers’ that are conferred in the Sacrament of Ordination but none-the-less it results in a unique ‘vocation’ and ‘apostolate’ (LG 31, AA 1). One of the key ideas is that the lay vocation is to be ‘secular’ and is to “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (LG 31). While the lay faithful can and must perform may vital roles within the life of the Church the primary vocation of the lay faithful is performed in the midst of the secular world. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, develops this notion further noting that the apostolate of the laity is exercised;
. . . by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ (AA 2).
All of the faithful, both clergy, religious and lay faithful share in the one vocation to holiness (LG 39) exercised in different ways in keeping with their individual callings. The lay faithful have a specialized apostolate to evangelize and sanctify their daily lives and their secular vocations. This is accomplished through the work of “the Holy Spirit Who sanctifies the people of God through ministry and the sacraments” (AA 3). The Holy Spirit gives the faithful special gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 12:7). These charisms of the Holy Spirit are given to be exercised both “in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the building up of the Church” (AA 3).
All too often, the focus of these spiritual gifts is only on their use ‘in the Church’ and not also on the more fundamental apostolate of evangelizing and sanctifying our daily lives and the temporal order. This can lead to a false compartmentalizing of life. A specialized ‘lay spirituality’ emerges in the minds of the council Fathers. They urge that;
“The success of the lay apostolate depends upon the laity's living union with Christ . . . This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is nourished by spiritual aids which are common to all the faithful, especially active participation in the sacred liturgy. These are to be used by the laity in such a way that while correctly fulfilling their secular duties in the ordinary conditions of life, they do not separate union with Christ from their life but rather performing their work according to God's will they grow in that union (AA 4).
It is not enough to simply live virtuous lives in the midst of the world, although that is important, we must join our daily lives to Christ. The temporal affairs of the world include the, “prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress” (AA 7). “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (AA 7). The council Fathers recognize that, “in the course of history, the use of temporal things has been marred by serious vices” and the whole Church has the duty to rectify distortions in the temporal order directing them to God through Christ (AA 7). Pastors must form the laity in the necessary moral and spiritual principles to renew the temporal order in Christ. This formation should be uniquely tailored to the lay vocation. The Fathers note that the apostolic formation of the laity “is specially characterized by the distinctively secular and particular quality of the lay state and by its own form of the spiritual life” (AA 29). Preparation for the lay apostolate involves lifelong well rounded human, spiritual and theological formation and is aided by lay groups and associations dedicated to the lay apostolate (AA 29-30).