Amid the tension and polarization of the church's present context, Paul Lakeland's interpretation of the Catholic laity as an oppressed class on the order of the poor of Latin America or women in traditional culture is bound to become a rallying point for many anda bête noire for many others. Books on the laity are hardly in short supply, but many of those available focus on pastoral practice, spirituality, or some deliberately circumscribed theological territory. Lakeland, on the other hand, alerts us within his first two pages that a serious theology of the laity cannot avoid being itself an ecclesiology. The book marshals theological developments of the last fifty years in service of a lay- centered understanding of the church, presented with both theoretical foundations and a vision of its practical consequences. Throughout, Lakeland does an admirable job of balancing his style to make the work useful for both general and specialized readers.
The author is at his best when reviewing, comparing, and critiquing the work of other theologians. Particularly in Part One, "How We Got to Where We Are," Lakeland surveys the contributions of an impressive number of historical and contemporary writers on the laity. From the rich ancient origins of the word laity itself, through the "theological nadir" of the concept in the Vatican I era, to the twentieth-century revival of the discussion, Lakeland marks a clear path through the major advances and detours. The interaction between post-war pastoral developments and the Nouvelle Theologie of the 1940's and '50's, and in particular the pre-conciliar work of Yves Congar, are given an especially important role. (Congar's landmark work on the laity remains Lakeland's measure for his own views throughout the book, albeit much critiqued and corrected.) Also prominent in the discussion of Vatican II's use of concepts such as collegiality and coresponsibility are the thought and influence of Leon-Joseph Suenens and Edward Schillebeeckx. The section ends with a sketch of the increasingly nervous treatment which official church documents have accorded to questions of the lay role since the Council, and the ongoing but "underplayed" debate among theologians. Lakeland emphasizes that fundamental ecclesiological questions raised by the council's perspective on the laity have yet to be faced, largely owing to fear of the profound ecclesiological rethinking that they demand.
Lakeland takes a more prospective view in Part Two, asking, "Where do we go from here?" Predictably, this is where readers will encounter both the most inspiring and the most problematic ideas. Chapter 5 on "Secularity" is truly the pivot of the whole book, at once the home of Lakeland's governing insight and the occasion for his most vexing, if momentary, losses of perspective. The dominance of the secular in the contemporary world is neither lamentable nor indifferent from a Christian point of view, but rather is the context within which human life must be understood. This affirmation allows Lakeland to argue convincingly that, far from being the church's "second class," the laity, immersed in the secular world, is in the defining position for the church. Eventually, he will shape this basic conviction into an inspiring vision of the church's mission in the post-modern world. In its initial appearance, however, his presentation of secularity as the fundamental ecclesiological category seems at times almost Deistic, a good argument for no church at all. While candidly aware of the questions that might be raised about his reliance on the unlikely theological team of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Lynch, Jürgen Habermas, and Harvey Cox, Lakeland nonetheless presses the point about the "unconditionality of the secular" very bluntly, leaving some essential nuances almost buried in vehemence.
Chapter 6, the title chapter, seems to suffer from a similarly over-zealous application of radical theory. Bringing the thinking of various liberation theologies to the relationship between laity and clergy, Lakeland declares that clerics cannot participate in the conscientization of the laity "any more than whites can raise the consciousness of African Americans to their oppression, or men can lead the women's movement." While it is indeed clear that lay persons will never achieve self-consciousness and responsibility in the church by waiting for Father's permission, Lakeland takes little account of significant differences between this and other types of liberation. These differences can be summarized in the fact that, unlike the advantaged in virtually every other kind of class division to which liberation theologies have responded, all priests necessarily begin their membership in the church as lay people. Typically these days, they spend many formative years and may even gain significant career experience in that state. Further, precisely because of the equating of ministry with church leadership which Lakeland rightly questions, a good many clergy have begun as educated and alert laypersons who wanted to use their talents to make a difference in the church. All of this by no means answers Lakeland's painfully accurate rendering of the leadership failures within the church, nor absolves the structure from the oppression that he describes. It does, however, call into question the wisdom of rigidly maintaining that "the primary way [clergy] can help is by standing aside."
This is particularly the case given the necessity of building towards the cooperative church leadership which Lakeland envisions so well in the final two chapters. Drawing on various presentations of communion ecclesiology, and several perspectives on the critique of modernity, he first sketches a vibrant picture of the mission of the church in the contemporary world as "combating the anti-human." He then concludes with a description of "An Accountable Church" in which his core understanding of the role of official leadership and its interaction with membership in the church is finally (rather tardily) clarified. In the end, Lakeland does not eliminate the distinction between ordained and non-ordained members of the church, nor reduce the ordained to a role of near-irrelevance, as some of his earlier rhetoric seems to threaten. Rather, he reorders the idea of leadership around participation and consensus, allowing us to imagine the essentials of Catholic Christianity functioning with renewed credibility decades after Vatican II called us to a closer and more respectful relationship with "the world." Lakeland reminds his readers, "Credibility is a reward for what we stand for, not simply for what we say we stand for."
If doubts about the ultimate effectiveness of Lakeland's work remain after struggling past the central chapters to the conclusion, they seem to lie, oddly enough, in the prospects for a favorable response from ordinary laypeople. In the midst of the rapidly deepening ideological split in the church (which is not directly addressed in the book), those whose response to post-modernity is the panicked fear of losing identity are already waging zealous war against visions of change such as Lakeland's. On the other side of the divide, where there is both great ferment and great discouragement in the wake of the scandals, it is yet unclear whether large numbers might opt to sidestep a contentious ecclesiological debate and find a "close enough" version of the "Accountable Church" in some other denomination. Hopefully, the burgeoning discussion to which Lakeland has contributed so significantly will be able to find ways to directly and compassionately address both these forms of giving up on Catholicism in the post-modern world.