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The role of the laity and political engagement

The Lincoln City Council recently passed a “Fairness” ordinance. The ordinance purports to combat unjust discrimination against those in the LGBT community. But, the ordinance, like countless state legislative bills we’ve seen, acts as a sword against traditional beliefs on marriage and human sexuality. Recall the court cases of the cakemaker (Jack Phillips), florist (Barronelle Stutzman), and wedding videographer (Telescope Media). The ordinance is being challenged through a referendum petition drive led by Nebraska Family Alliance.

The ordinance and petition drive have raised a fundamental question: what is the role and responsibility of the laity regarding political engagement?
I make this claim because there have been frequent questions: What will the Church do? What will the bishop say? What will my pastor and parish allow?

These questions are important, but they forget something more important: the primary role of the laity in political life.

Consider these words from Saint Pope Paul VI: “Laymen should take up as their own proper task the renewal of the temporal order. If the role of the hierarchy is to teach and to interpret authentically the norms of morality to be followed in this manner, it belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiatives freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live.”

In other words, the laity need not and should not wait around for a stamp of ecclesiastical approval to do what the Church has already called them to do, which is to “take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation,” as the Second Vatican Council puts it. As the Council also states: “As citizens, [the laity] must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility.”

This clear teaching on the role of the laity is intended, in part, to push back on the mistaken idea that solving political problems is the primary role of bishops and priests or that laity can pawn off the political sphere to the clerical class.

I would also add another phenomenon I’ve observed. There is a real tendency for the Christian community to put out house fires rather than build houses. What on earth do I mean?

The Lord is calling us not merely to get riled up—and rightly so—when basic injustices occur in society and political life, as is happening with the “Fairness” ordinance or as happened with the Nebraska Department of Education Health Standards. Being “merely reactive” is insufficient. In other words, it’s not enough to put out political house fires every so often. (I would argue that the occasional political house fire is actually part of a much larger wildfire that’s consuming the house.) You can’t just grab a water bucket and douse the house fire.

We need something more fundamental: we need laity to proactively build the basic foundations and architecture of a just society. The Lord is calling the laity to this fundamental, constant, and vigilant work. To quote Pope Benedict XVI: “As citizens of the State, [laity] are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly[.]”

This stance toward political life requires discernment and vocational awareness among Christians. The question must be asked in each of our hearts: how is the Lord calling me to be engaged in the political sphere? The Lord is calling many of you to greater activity, even to the point of running for public office and serving in public life. For others of you, He is calling you to smaller—yet important—activity. In all these ways, houses can be built rather than the occasional scrambling to extinguish a house fire that is really a wildfire.

So, to close out, take the bull by the horns. Holy Mother Church—by your Baptism and Confirmation and regular, ongoing formation at Mass and in your daily prayer life—has already called you to action. No need to wait for the standing orders—they’re always in place.

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