In God’s saving plan lay people play a specific role in the Church’s service to individuals and society in the renewal of the temporal order
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 13 April, the Holy Father continued his series of reflections on the role of the laity. "It is necessary to remember first of all", the Pope said, "that lay people are called to help promote the human person, a particularly urgent and necessary task today". The Holy Father's talk was the 88th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. There is an order of reality—institutions, values, activities—which we are used to describing as "temporal" insofar as it directly concerns things that belong to the context of present life, although they are also destined to eternal life. Today's world is not made up of appearances and deceptive shadows, nor can it be considered only in relation to the hereafter. As the Second Vatican Council declared: "All that goes to make up the temporal order... all these are not merely helps to man's last end; they possess a value of their own" (Apostolicam actuositatem n. 7). The biblical account of creation presents this value to us as recognized, desired and established by God, who, according to the Book of Genesis, "saw how good it [his creation] was" (Gn 1:12,18,21) and indeed, "found it very good" after the creation of man and woman (ibid., 1:31). With the Incarnation and the Redemption, the value of temporal things is not eliminated or diminished, as though the work of the Redeemer was opposed to the work of the Creator: rather, it is restored and elevated, in accordance with God's plan, "to sum up all things in Christ" (Eph 1 :10) and "through him to reconcile all things for him" (Col 1:20). In Christ therefore all things hold together (cf. Col 1 :17).
Lay people serve the individual and society
2. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the historical experience of evil, and for man, of sin which can only be explained by the revelation of the fall of his first parents and of the subsequent human falls from generation to generation. "In the course of history", the Council states, "the use of temporal things has been tarnished by serious defects" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 7). Today too, instead of having dominion over things in accordance with God's plan and command, as scientific and technological progress would enable them to do, many, through excessive confidence in their new powers, are enslaved by them and seriously harmed.
The Church's task is to help mankind properly orientate the whole temporal order and direct it to God through Christ (cf. ibid.). Thus the Church makes herself the servant of mankind and lay people "participate in the mission of service to the person and society" (Christifideles laici, n. 36).
3. In this respect, it is necessary to remember first of all that lay people are called to help promote the human person, a particularly urgent and necessary task today. It is a question of safeguarding—and often restoring—the pivotal value of the human being, who precisely because he is a person, can never be treated "as an object to be used, or as a means, or as a thing" (ibid., n. 37).
All men are equal as regards their personal dignity: no racial, sexual, economic social, cultural, political or geographical; discrimination is permissible. It is a duty of solidarity to compensate for the differences stemming from the conditions of time and place in which each person is born and lives with an active human and Christian support, expressed in concrete forms of justice and charity, as St. Paul explained and advised the Corinthians: "Not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality" (2 Cor 8:13-14).
4. Promotion of the person's dignity is linked with "the respect, the defence and the promotion of the rights of the human person" (Christifideles laici, n. 38). First of all, recognition of the inviolability of human life: the right to life is essential and can be considered "the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights" (ibid.). As a result "all offences against life itself ... all violations of the integrity of the human person ... all offences against human dignity ... all these and the like ... militate against the honour of the Creator" (Gaudium et spes, n. 27), who wanted man to be made in his image and after his likeness (cf. Gn 1:26), and placed under his dominion.
A special responsibility in this defence of personal dignity and the right to life belongs to parents, educators, healthcare workers and all those who wield economic and political power (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 38). In particular, the Church urges lay people to face bravely the challenges of the new bioethical problems (cf. ibid.).
5. The individual rights to be defended and promoted include the right to religious freedom, as well as to freedom of conscience and freedom of worship (cf. ibid., n. 39). The Church maintains that society has the duty to ensure the individual's right to profess his convictions and to practice his religion within the due limits established by the just requirements of public order (cf. Dignitatis humanae, nn. 2, 7). There has been no lack of martyrs in every age to defend and to promote this right.
Lay people are called to be involved in political life according to their capacities and the conditions of time and place, in order to promote the common good in all its needs, and especially to implement justice in service to citizens as persons. As we read in the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici: "A political policy on behalf of the person and society finds its continuous line of action in the defence and the promotion of justice" (n. 42). It is clear that in this activity, which belongs to all the members of the earthly city, lay Christians are called to give the example of honest political conduct, which does not seek personal advantage or to serve the causes of groups and parties by illegal means, which in fact lead to the collapse of even the noblest and most sacred ideals.
6. Lay Christians will not fail to join in society's efforts to re-establish peace in the world. For them it is a question of realizing the peace given by Christ (cf. Jn 14:27; Eph 2:14) in its social and political dimensions, in individual countries and in the world, as people's awareness increasingly demands. To this end, it is their task to carry out a thoroughgoing work of education in order to defeat the old culture of selfishness, hate, revenge and hostility, and thereby to develop the culture of solidarity and love of neighbour at every level (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 42).
All areas of life can help proclaim the Gospel
It is also the task of lay Christians to be committed to economic and social development. This is a requirement of respect for the individual, of justice, solidarity and brotherly love. It is up to them to work together with all people of goodwill to find ways to guarantee the universal purpose of goods, whatever social regime is in force (cf. ibid., n. 43). It is also up to them to defend the rights of workers, seeking satisfactory solutions to the most serious problems of increasing unemployment, and striving to overcome all injustices. As lay Christians, they express in the world the Church's application of her own social doctrine. Nevertheless, they must be aware of their personal freedom and responsibility in matters of opinion in which their choices, though always inspired by Gospel values, should not be presented as the only alternative for Christians. Respect for legitimate opinions and choices different from one's own are also a requirement of love.
7. Finally, lay Christians have the task of helping to develop human culture with all its values. Present in the various areas of science, artistic creation, philosophical thought, historical research, etc., they will contribute the necessary inspiration deriving from their faith. Furthermore, since the development of culture increasingly implies the involvement of the mass media, a vital means for the formation of mentalities and behaviour, they will have a keen sense of responsibility in their involvement in the press, cinema, radio, television and theater, always carrying out their work in the light of the mandate to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth: this has particular relevance in today's world, which urgently needs the ways of salvation that Jesus Christ has opened to everyone (ibid., n. 44).
L'Osservatore Romano April 20, 1994