The implementation of Apostolicam Actuositatem – or not!

In the lead up the Plenary Council, I have not yet seen anything like an evaluation of how the Australian Church has implemented the decrees and decisions of Vatican II.

Here I’m not referring to the broad changes in theological approach since the Council or to the liturgical changes but to other more specific changes and actions that the Council called for and in some instances demanded.

In this post, I’ll start with Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (and NOT as it is often mis-called the “Decree on the Laity”).

By way of introduction, let’s also note that §1 of the Decree “the most holy synod (i.e. the Council) earnestly addresses itself to the laity,” making it the only conciliar document specifically addressed to lay people.

It goes on to say the apostolate of lay people should “be broadened and intensified” in light of modern conditions. And while it would be important to evaluate how well this has been achieved, this is not the kind of issue that we can deal with here.

Chapter I is entitled “The vocation of the laity to the apostolate” and it sets out to characterise this apostolate but does not contain any specific demands that we can evaluate here.

Chapter II is entitled “Objectives” and sets out the objectives of the lay apostolate, including particularly the need for the laity to take up their “special obligation” to renew “the temporal order.”

Chapter III describes “The various fields of the apostolate,” which include “church communities, the family, youth, the social milieu, and national and international levels.”

Chapter IV sets out “The various forms of the apostolate” including as individual or in groups or associations. All Christians are obliged to engage in the individual apostolate, it says in §16.

And it is here that the decree starts to become more concretely specific.

With respect to associations, it states that “Catholics should more and more develop organised forms in the international sphere” (§19).

Catholic Action

In §20, it characterises one particular kind of association known as “Catholic Action,” which it says have four characteristics:

a) Their immediate aim is the Church’s “apostolic aim” for “the evangelization and sanctification” of people” and “the formation of a Christian conscience” so they can “infuse the spirit of the Gospel into various communities and departments (or milieux) of life”.

b) They “cooperate with the hierarchy in their own way,” i.e. as lay people, bringing their own experience and “assuming responsibility for the direction of these organisations.”

c) In these organisations, lay people “act together in the manner of an organic body.”

d) In so doing, whether on their own initiative or invited by the hierarchy, lay people in these organisations “function under the higher direction of the hierarchy itself, and the latter can sanction this cooperation by an explicit mandate.”

In fact, this is a very interesting characterisation of Catholic Action associations. In particular, lay people assume responsibility themselves for the organisation. The role of the hierarchy is limited to “higher direction,” which is specified in the next chapter in §24 and is mainly limited to providing direction in matters of faith, morals, liturgy and the like.

In other words, Catholic Action associations enjoy a high degree of autonomy under this Vatican II characterisation. This is a very significant evolution over the situation prior to the Council, particularly in relation to the so-called “Italian” form of Catholic Action, which was subject to very close hierarchical direction and control. (It would probably be fairer to call it the Pius X model of Catholic Action because he was the pope responsible for that form.)

For an example of how close and rigid that control was have a look at this 1952 report on his visit to Rome by Pat Keegan on the Italian Catholic Action movement.

In contrast, AA20 defines Catholic Action in terms much closer to the “Belgian/French” form of “Specialised Catholic Action” in which the lay leaders of those movements enjoyed great autonomy, i.e. the Cardijn model. (Perhaps we could also call it the Pius XI model since he was the pope who recognised the Jocist model as “authentic” Catholic Action.)

§20 goes on to note that the Council “earnestly recommends these associations” and “invites the clergy and laity working in them to develop the above-mentioned characteristics.”

§21 seeks to set out the implementation of §20, insisting that associations “which the hierarchy have praised or recommended as responsive to the needs of time and place, or have ordered to be established as particularly urgent, must be held in highest esteem by priests, Religious, and laity and promoted according to each one’s ability.”

Here perhaps there is a point capable of concrete evaluation, namely whether Catholic Action organisations, for example, have been held in the highest esteem by priests, religious and laity and promoted by each one. Certainly, the decline of these movements in Australia (and other countries) is completely at odds with what Vatican II sought.

Chapter V deals with “External Relationships” and seeks to characterise the kinds of relationship various associations should have with the hierarchy and other Church bodies.

Selection and training of priests for the lay apostolate

§25 is particularly significant here, noting that priests have a particular and important role to “work fraternally with the laity in and for the Church and take special care of the lay persons in these apostolic works.”

In this light, “special care should be taken to select priests who are capable of promoting particular forms of the apostolate of the laity and are properly trained.” This is a requirement of Apostolicam Actuositatem which may be capable of being objectively evaluated. E.g. do dioceses follow this criterion in evaluating candidates for the priesthood, for example?

The role of religious

We note also that §25 states that “Religious Brothers and Sisters should value the apostolic works of the laity and willingly devote themselves to promoting lay enterprises.” Again, this is a point that lends itself to evaluation.

Lay Apostolate Councils

Coming to §26, we find a very specific recommendation:

“In dioceses, insofar as possible, there should be councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church either in the field of evangelization and sanctification or in the charitable, social, or other spheres, and here it is fitting that the clergy and Religious should cooperate with the laity. While preserving the proper character and autonomy of each organisation, these councils will be able to promote the mutual coordination of various lay associations and enterprises.

Councils of this type should be established as far as possible also on the parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan level as well as in the national or international sphere.”

This would seem to imply that each parish and each diocese, for example, should establish a lay apostolate council in which the various lay groups and associations would seek to coordinate their work.

Personally, I can’t think of any examples of such a council at parish or diocesan let alone national level.


Chapter VI deals with “Formation for the Apostolate.”

In §28-29, it calls for a diversified and thorough” formation that “is specially characterised by the distinctively secular and particular quality of the lay state and by its own form of the spiritual life.”

Here again, we find a point capable of concrete evaluation, e.g. documenting the efforts to provide such formation particularly adapted to the lay state and form of spiritual life.

As well as spiritual formation, it also calls for “a solid doctrinal instruction in theology, ethics, and philosophy adjusted to differences of age, status, and natural talents.”

It goes on to state that such formation “cannot consist in merely theoretical instruction, from the beginning of their formation the laity should gradually and prudently learn how to view, judge and do all things in the light of faith as well as to develop and improve themselves along with others through doing, thereby entering into active service to the Church.”

§30 adds that such formation needs to be developed also for children and promoted through Catholic schools.

And it adds that this formation ‘must be so organised that it takes into account the whole lay apostolate, which must be carried on not only among the organised groups themselves but also in all circumstances throughout one’s whole life, especially one’s professional and social life.”

With the decline of the Jocist movements, the question can be asked: how has this formation been and how is it being implemented?

Lay apostolate documentation and study centres

§32 is also significant. It recommends the establishment of ‘centers of documentation and study not only in theology but also in anthropology, psychology, sociology, and methodology,” which should be “established for all fields of the apostolate for the better development of the natural capacities of the laity-men and women, young persons and adults.”


Although much more could and no doubt should be said in relation to the above, it is clear that many of the practical measures to promote the lay apostolate that were called for by Vatican II remain yet to be implemented.

Stefan Gigacz


Apostolicam Actuositatem (Vatican II)

Pat Keegan, A visit to Rome (1952)




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