A selection of letters to the Editor
SIR,—We are indebted to the CATHOLIC HERALD of June 4 for the momentous news that a World Laity Secretariat is to be set up in the Vatican. Thank you, too, for your admirable leading article on the subject in the same issued in which, inter alma, you have reminded us that the Laity are the Church. We have heard that before, of course; but in the past many a layman has learned to his cost that it is not advisable to pursue this idea to its logical conclusion and attempt to have any say in the conduct of the affairs of the Church. Dare one hope that this is now to be changed?
It would perhaps seem so from the publication in the same issue of the CATHOLIC HERALD Of Cardinal Heenan's statement, on hehalf of the Hierarchy of England and Wales, which reads. as follows—"Before setting up the Secretariat it is important . . . to inquire from the laity themselves how they think is should be set up and who it should be run". From this one might reasonably refer than at last some effective machinery for allowing the long-suffering laity to have their say is about to be set up.
But, alas, another announce ment in the same news item sounds a less reassurieg note. I refer to Mgr. Worlock's statement to the effect that the views of the "lay leaders in Britain, in the form of the National Council of the Lay Apostolate, have been sent to the Holy See". Who, may one ask are these so called "leaders"? What are their qualifications; how are they selected; who has authorised them to represent the views of the Laity; and what steps have they taken to ascertain those views?
These are all very pertinent questions, and surely the Laity, whose representatives these people claim to be, should know the answers, But I have failed to find a single layman who does. Nor have I succeeded in finding anyone who has had an opportunity of making his views known to these representatives. On the face • of it their credentials would not stand Lip to the most superficial scrutiny.
An organisation claiming to represent any particular category of society or body of people must be able to show:—
(I) That it has a positive mandate to speak for them. i.e., that is a specific object of organisation; (2) That its membership includes a reasonable proportion (say at least 50 per cent) of those it nominally represents: (3) That proper steps have been taken to ascertain the views of its members and to give effect to those views in the formulation of its policy; and (4) That the governing or central body of the organisation is freely elected and that its members can be removed or replaced without difficulty if necessary.
In the light of these criteria, the validity of which is I think not open to question, it is quite clear that none of the existing Catholic societies in this country, or any combination of them, can substantiate a claim to represent the Catholic laity, because the sum total of their entire membership cannot amount to more than a very small percentage of the toal number of Catholics in the country. This, may 1 add, does not imply any reflection on those who arc prominent in these movements. They may be, they probably are, sincere, capable and well informed people actuated by the highest motives. The fact nevertheless remains that they are not in a position to speak for the Catholic laity as a whole. Nor, I suggest, can they sustain a claim to be regarded as lay leaders. whatever that may mean. The expression is. I submit. a complete misnomer. Catholic opinion. in its very essence. is the sum of individual opinions on each particular subject formed in the light of each person's religious conviction. it works from the bottom upwards, so to speak. Its forma' lion does not call for leadership like a political party. And, anyway, how can a leader lead without any contact with the led? By all means let us have properly authorised representative spokesmen; but "leaders"?, thank you— No!
The fact must be faced that under the existing system of lay Catholic organisation in this country it is not possible to obtain a clear picture of what ordinary Catholics are thinking.
The only way, as I see it, of establishing a reliable organ of Catholic lay opinion is to start at the parish level, by setting up in each parish some sort of lay association or Council freely elected annually by the parishioners and charged with the duty of speaking for them.
From this starting point, through suitable regional intermediate groupings, it would be possible to arrive at a reasonably sized representative body for each diocese; and from these a national body, if required, could emerge.
An orgarcisation of this kind could be set up within about three months of the decision to establish it; and, once in being. it would be a simple matter to sound out lay opinion on any particular subject whenever desired.
Capt. S. E. Norfolk, R.N. (Reid.) Sevenoaks, Kent