The non-reception of Vatican II teaching on lay apostolate

This is a striking graphical representation of references to the term “lay apostolate” in The Catholic News Archive, i.e. the online repository of US Catholic newspapers from 1833 to 2012.

See the original graph here. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to make it bigger.

What it shows is that use of the term “lay apostolate” was almost non-existent in the 19th century. It began to emerge in the early decades of the 20th century.

The earliest reference to the term that I can see comes from Bishop Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1880, who in a speech reported in the Catholic Telegraph compares the Church to an army in which the role of lay people is little more than to “obey” their pastors:

Now let us try to take counsel with each other, I speak to yon as the Lay Apostolate. In the olden time the Church was not inaptly compared to an Army, strong in proportion as the men confidently respected and lovingly obeyed the orders of their officers with alacrity. In this manner yon will be strong as a congregation, I speak not of this particular congregation individually but of the diocese as a corporation. Yon will reverence, respect and obey him, who to-day, by order of the Chief Pastor of Christendom, is set apart to preside over you.

Not a promising beginning for the “lay apostolate”!

Things begin to change for the better during the first quarter of the 20th century. Note this intriguing 1921 National Catholic Welfare Commission report on the role of the Laymen’s League:

The ideal of the Laymen’s League is the establishment of militant lay apostolate through the practice of annual spiritual retreats and the training of a corps of competent writers and lecturers who will spread a sound knowledge of social facts, and of Christian principles in the light of which these facts may be interpreted and their problems find adequate solution.

Hmmm, 28 March 1921! Before the YCW even existed by that name. (It was still the Young Trade Unionists – La Jeunesse Syndicaliste), the Laymen’s League is promoting a version of what we have come to know as Cardijn’s see-judge-act!

As another article published in Our Sunday Visitor on 1 May 1921 explains, the Laymen’s League was founded in the City of New York ten years earlier for the purpose of developing a “militant lay apostolate” through the promotion of “Social Study Groups.”

Very intriguing albeit similar to what was happening in “Study circles” in Europe. But striking to find it in the English-speaking world. I’ll have to come back to this in another post!

Use of the term “lay apostolate” really takes off, however, from 1951, the year of the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate with 135 references (the first time the number exceeded 100).

By 1957, the year of the Second World Congress on Lay Apostolate, the number reaches 268. In 1959, the year John XXIII called Vatican II, it had reached 508. By the time the Council opened in 1968, the number was up to 628. In 1965, the year the Council adopted Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the number is 773 and it actually peaked in 1967 – the year of Cardijn’s death – with 820 references.

A year later in the tumultuous year of 1968, it drops to 384 and by 1982, the centenary of Cardijn’s birth, it drops to 39.

In 1987, the year of the Vatican Synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” there is not a single reference to the lay apostolate. Nor is there a year later in 1988 when Pope John Paul II published his Apostolic Exhortation, Christifidelis Laici, despite its focus on the “secular character” of the vocation of the “lay faithful.”

John Paul II, it seems, preferred to use the term “apostolate of the lay faithful” although he does cite the term “lay apostolate” from Vatican II.

Indeed CF contains 40 references to this “apostolate” of the lay faithful. So, clearly, he has maintained the Vatican II teaching on lay apostolate.

Nevertheless, we find no further reference to the term “lay apostolate” from 1988 until 2002 when it re-emerges with 12 references rising to 18 (!!!) in 2007 after which it declines to the point of disappearance again.

In other words, over the course of the decades when the Church was most intent on implementing the teachings of Vatican II, reference to the “lay apostolate” all but disappeared!

As I showed in an earlier blog post, this corresponds with the decline evidenced by Google’s Ngram tool, which shows a similar decline and disappearance in published books over the same periods.

Theologians often evaluate the impact of Church teaching by speaking of its “reception” – or “non-reception” by the clergy and faithful.

Is this disappearance of reference to the “lay apostolate” not an absolutely astonishing example of non-reception of a key teaching of Vatican II?


Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem

John Paul II, Christifidelis Laici

Stefan Gigacz, The rise and fall of the lay apostolate (Plenary Reflections)


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