Aurora Santiago

“Social Commitment of the Church and Role of the Laity as Perceived in Vatican II – Overview of decisions and reality in 50 years”

Atty. Aurora A. Santiago

National President, Sangguniang Laiko ng Pilipinas

Delivered during the International Conference to Commemorate 

The 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

With the Theme “Vatican II + 50 – A Cardijn Perspective”

October 12, 2012, Communication Foundation for Asia

4427 Old Sta. Mesa St., Manila

My dear sisters and brothers in the Lord.  It took me a lot of considerations whether to accept or not your invitation to talk on the topic, which I perceived as very scholarly one “Social Commitment of the Church and the Role of the Laity as Perceived in Vatican II – Overview of decisions and reality in 50 years.” At first glance, I was thinking that only an expert or a scholar of the Church on her social teachings and on lay empowerment could best deliver the desired content of the topic. Considering my “nominal” involvement in the apostolate of the Church, I consider myself not worthy. Nevertheless, I am now here in front of you, out of obedience to my vocation to service and as a product of Vatican II, to impart on my own simple and humble way, the knowledge I have had on the topic. 

Social Commitment

Allow me to define first the meaning of Social Commitment or Social Responsibility for a clearer understanding.  

What is Social Commitment? 

The Term Social Commitment/Responsibility as defined refers to the idea that organizations, institutions, companies and corporations should contribute wealth or resources solely dedicated to the improvement of society as a whole. The principal of social responsibility dictates that these entities should contribute to the general well- being of humanity.

The Social Commitment of the Catholic Church 

In the Catholic Church, Social Commitment is central in the saving mission of the Church. God sent Jesus Christ, who had existed from the beginning of time, to our world to show human beings who we are and how we are to live. Jesus taught us about God’s love, which embraces all people, including the “impure” lepers and tax-collectors, which calls us to treat everyone as our neighbor and brother or sister, including our enemies, and which requires all of us as sinners to turn from our old ways to the new life of God. Jesus Christ was God’s love, forgiveness, salvation, healing, justice, and compassion in the flesh, and he reestablished the right relationship with God through his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus was on a mission from God, and we Christians need to continue that mission in the flesh. It is in this context that Social Commitment of the Church must be understood, her social commitment encompasses all the facet of human life.  

The Church, faithful to its mission of bringing the Gospel values to everyone has never failed to guide and direct the Church in its entirety, drawing them closer to the Kingdom amidst all the challenges. 

Allow me to name some of the major social commitments that have been addressed by the Church for the past 50 years: 

Life and Dignity of the Human Person

The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation for all the social teachings. This theme challenges the issues of abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning and the death penalty. The Catholic Church holds the belief that every human life is precious and is a gift from God, and that every institution is measured by whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.

Call to Family, Community, and Participation

This social teaching proclaims that the human person is not only sacred, but also social. It stresses that how we organize society in economics, politics, and law or policy directly affects human dignity and community. Society often proclaims the importance of individualism, but Catholic social teaching argues that human beings are fulfilled in community and family. The Catholic Church believes we have the responsibility to participate in society and to promote the common good, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

Rights and Responsibilities

Human dignity can only be protected if all human rights are protected and responsibilities of all human beings are met. Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to the basic needs of life. The Catholic Church teaches that every person has a duty and responsibility to help fulfill these rights for one another, for our families, and for the larger society.

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable 

This world is shaped by the division between growing prosperity for some and poverty for others. The Catholic Church proclaims that the basic moral test of a society is how the most vulnerable members are faring. Our society is marred by a deepening division between rich and poor. 

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers 

The Catholic Church teaches that the economy must serve the people. Too often the marketplace takes precedence over the rights of workers. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. The rights to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative are all part of protecting the dignity of work by protecting the rights of the workers. Respecting these rights promotes an economy that protects human life, defends human rights, and advances the well-being of all.


Our society often stresses individualism, indifference and sometimes isolationism in the face of international responsibilities. The Catholic Church proclaims that every human being has a responsibility to our brothers and sisters, wherever they live. We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. Solidarity is about loving our neighbors locally, nationally, as well as internationally. This virtue is described by John Paul II as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38).

Care for God’s Creation

The Catholic tradition insists that every human being show respect for the Creator by our stewardship of His creation. We are called to protect people and the planet by living our faith with respect for God’s creation. In a society with controversy over environmental issues, the Catholic Church believes it is a fundamental moral and ethical challenge that cannot be ignored.

The Church’s Social Teachings

The social commitment of the Church have been expressed in the different Social Doctrines promulgated and shared to “all the people of God” to serve as source and guide in effecting social transformation in the world. The entire teaching of the ecclesiastical Magisterium which applies revealed truth and Christian moral principles to the social order is called the social doctrine of the Church. It applies the Gospel message to social reality. The purpose of the Church’s social teaching is to present to men God’s plan for secular reality. It enlightens men’s minds with truth and guides them in building up the earthly city according to the divine plan.

The principles of the social doctrine of the Church are to serve the Catholic faithful as a secure guide in their mission of sanctifying the world. These principles set forth the fundamental directions for action which will enable the salt and the light of the Christian faith to render the earthly city fruitful and to make the saving Cross of Christ shine forth within it.  

“…the Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else:  the human rights of the individual, and in particular of the ‘working class’, the family and education, the duties of the State, the ordering of national and international society, economic life, culture, war and peace, and respect for life from the moment of conception until death”.

(Centesimus Annus, 54)

Notable among the Church Social Doctrines are the following:

Casti Connubii – encyclical of Pius XI (1930) both address the sanctity of marriage and the family, with special emphasis on the principal threat against them in modern times: artificial birth control. 

Dignitatis Humanae – declaration of Vatican II (1965) is the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.  In the context of the Council’s stated intention “to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society”, Dignitatis Humanae spells out the Church’s support for the protection of religious liberty. More controversially, it set the ground rules by which the Church would relate to secular states.

Familiaris Consortio – apostolic exhortation of John Paul II (1981) On the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) is a postsynodal Apostolic Exhortation written by Pope John Paul II and promulgated on November 22, 1981.

Gaudium et Spes – constitution of Vatican II (1965) the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, was one of the four Apostolic Constitutions resulting from the Second Vatican Council. The document is an overview of the Catholic Church’s teachings about humanity’s relationship to society, especially in reference to economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science, technology and ecumenism.

Laborem Exercens – encyclical of John Paul II (1981) The encyclical Laborem Exercens was written by Pope John Paul II in 1981 to celebrate 90 years since the publication of Rerum Novarum. In this encyclical His Holiness focuses on the dignity of human work in the contemporary world.

Lumen Gentium – constitution of Vatican II (1964) the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. Directly translated from Latin, it means “Light of the Nations.” Lumen Gentium stresses evangelization while encouraging a greater understanding for those outside the Church and urges missionaries to seek dialogue as well as conversion.

Mater et Magistra – is the encyclical written by Pope John XXIII on the topic of “Christianity and Social Progress”. It was promulgated on May 15, 1961. The title means “mother and teacher”, referring to the role of the church. It describes a necessity to work towards authentic community in order to promote human dignity. It taught that the state must sometimes intervene in matters of health care, education, and housing.

Populorum Progressio – is the encyclical written by Pope Paul VI on the topic of “the development of peoples” and that the economy of the world should serve mankind and not just the few. It was released on March 26, 1967.

It touches on a variety of principles of Catholic social teaching: the right to a just wage; the right to security of employment; the right to fair and reasonable working conditions; the right to join a union; and the universal destination of resources and goods.

Pacem in Terris (Peace on earth) – encyclical of John XXIII (1963) Pacem in terris was the first encyclical that the Pope did not address to the Catholic faithful only, but also to “all men of good will”. In this work, John XXIII reacted to the then political situation in the middle of the Cold War. The “peace encyclical” was issued only two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall and only a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Pope explains in this encyclical that conflicts “should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation”. He further emphasizes the importance of respect of human rights as an essential consequence of the Christian understanding of men. He clearly establishes, “…That every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life…”

Quadragesimo Anno – (Latin for “In the 40th Year”) is an encyclical written by Pope Pius XI, issued 15 May 1931, 40 years after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Unlike Leo XIII, who addressed the condition of workers, Pius XI discusses the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He describes the major dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism. He also calls for the reconstruction of the social order based on the principle of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Rerum Novarum – (Latin for On the New Things) is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic bishops that addressed the condition of the working classes. The encyclical is entitled: “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour”. 

It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labour and obtaining capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration for “The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”  It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected communism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.

Solicitudo Rei Socialis– (On Social Concern) (1988) is an encyclical promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 30 December 1987, It is part of a larger body of writings known as Catholic social teaching that trace their origin to Rerum Novarum which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio by updating the Church’s teaching on the “development of peoples” and changes that took place in the preceding two decades.

Centissimus Annus – (Latin for “hundredth year”) was an encyclical written by Pope John Paul II in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Centesimus Annus specifically examined contemporaneous political and economic issues. The encyclical is partially a refutation of Marxist/communist ideology and a condemnation of the dictatorial regimes that practiced it. The particular historical context in which it was written prompted Pope John Paul II to condemn the horrors of the communist regimes throughout the world. However, the Pope also reserved condemnation for reactionary regimes that persecuted their populations, ostensibly to combat Marxism/communism.

The encyclical also expounds on issues of social and economic justice. The encyclical does include a defense of private property rights and the right to form private associations, including labor unions. These however, are not the primary focus of the encyclicals message.

Evangelium Vitae – “The Gospel of Life” is the name of the encyclical written by Pope John Paul II which expresses the position of the Catholic Church regarding the value and inviolability of human life. The Pope issued the encyclical on March 25, 1995.

Deus Caritas Est – God is Love (Pope Benedict XVI, 2005) he first written by Pope Benedict XVI, in large part derived from writings by his late predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Its subject is love, as seen through a Christian perspective, and God’s place within all love. The encyclical begins with a reflection on the forms of love known in Greek philosophy – eros (possessive, often sexual, love), agape (unconditional, self sacrificing love), philia (friendship)—and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus.

Caritatis in Veritate – “In Charity and Truth” Published on July 7, 2009, and is the first social encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate is Latin for “Charity in Truth”. The encyclical primarily focuses on the underlying notion that love and truth are vital factors in human development and is an effective resolution to the problems of global development and progress towards the common good. It stresses that though charity is an extraordinary force that motivates people to strive for the common good, it must be linked to the truth for it to remain a force for good.

The effectiveness however of the Church’s Social Teaching depends on the response of the target agents, and who are these agents?  The answer is very clear; it is us, the lay faithful.

The Role of the Laity

The last decades of the 20th century saw the seeds of an encouraging springtime blossoming in the Church. Vatican II’s teaching on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful was immediately accepted in the Church with great enthusiasm and gratitude. New and fascinating prospects were opened up for the laity. Everywhere people were saying that the “time for the laity in the Church” had come. The Council marked an historic turning-point in the life of the Catholic laity.  The social commitment of the Church in the world in the various aspects of human lives was made more alive and active with the present realization of the vocation and mission of the lay.   

Vatican II’s doctrine on the laity was enunciated in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church “Lumen Gentium” and in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity “Apostolicam Actousitatem”. But, in a more or less explicit way, the theme of the laity is present in all the other conciliar documents, and especially in the   Pastoral Constitution on the Church and in the Modern World “Gaudium et Spes”. 

Before Vatican II, lay involvement was understood as participation and collaboration in the mission of the hierarchy. This understanding was based on a concept that considered the Church as a hierarchical. With Vatican II, the concept of Church was re-rooted in the biblical concept of People of God. (Lumen Gentium, 7)  In this concept, emphasis is given to the common dignity of all the faithful, their common sharing in the grace of Baptism, their communion with Christ.  All the members of God’s people have the same vocation to be holy.  In the oneness of the People of God, there is but one mission for all, that is to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord. St. Paul spoke of the oneness of the People of God. We have “one Lord, one Baptism” (Eph. 4:4) He also said that in the Body of Christ, there are many members and many different charisms or gifts. Thus in the people of God, there are some who are ordained to hold office and to exercise the function of shepherding the other members of the People of God. But this is not a different mission, only a different function, a different form of service.  In the Church, there is unity of purpose, a diversity of functions and service. (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2) 

The essential characteristic of the lay faithful who work in the Lord’s vineyard (cf. Mt20:1-16) is the secular nature of their Christian discipleship, which is carried out precisely in the world. “It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will”. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence.  They are called by God that, being led by the Spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties.  By Baptism, the laity are incorporated into Christ and are made participants in his life and mission according to their specific identity. “The term ‘laity’ is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful who, by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world”

The presence of the laity in social life is characterized by service, the sign and expression of love, which is seen in the areas of the family, culture, work, economics and politics according to specific aspects. Complying with the different demands of their particular area of work, lay men and women express the truth of their faith and, at the same time, the truth of the Church’s social doctrine, which fully becomes a reality when it is lived concretely in order to resolve social problems. In fact, the credibility of this social doctrine comes more immediately from the witness of action than from its internal consistency or logic.  

Vatican II marked a decisive turning –point. With the Council the hour of the laity truly struck, and many lay faithful, men and women, more clearly understood their Christian vocation, which by its very nature is the vocation to the apostolate. In a special way, Vatican II entrusted the lay faithful with the mission “of seeking the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, #3).  Vatican Council II declares: the Church can never be without the lay apostolate; it is something that derives from the layman’s very vocation as a Christian.. No less fervent a zeal on the part of lay people is called for today; present circumstances, in fact, demand from them an apostolate infinitely broader and more intense” (Apostolicam Actousitatem # 2).   

Positive Developments

As a result of Vatican II lay people have subsequently participated in many of the functions previously reserved to the priest:  teaching, preaching, and healing. In many parishes lay people preside at quasi-liturgies designed to assist parishes in praying together in the absence of a priest. 

Since then, a lively season of associations has blossomed, in which along with traditional groups, new movements, sodalities, communities, Pastoral Councils and Councils of the Laity have arisen. Greater involvement of the lay faithful in the life and mission of the Church can be seen and felt. 

From a positive perspective, we have seen wondrous developments in the way laypersons relate within the total church reality: 

We have seen the growth of consultative structures in the Church, through Parish and Diocesan Pastoral Councils, Councils of the Laity and the Synodal approach of some Dioceses to governance and pastoral planning.

We have seen models of lay participation even to Diocesan Leadership level.

We have seen and enjoyed the ability to participate in many ministries: pastoral and health care, education, liturgy, planning and stewardship. Even the ministry of theologian has been opened out to Laity. What is more, we have seen a wonderful plenitude of people ready and willing to commit themselves to ministry in a highly dedicated and effective fashion. This is especially true of the surge in the numbers of Lay Pastoral Associates providing crucial service in our Parishes. 

Significant advances have also been made in distributive justice regarding their employment as well.

We have seen a wonderful rush of Social Justice structures and groups forming themselves for real action in society. Further, we have seen these structures validated and supported by the provision of resources and public theology at official levels of our community. We have also seen the strong continuance of our traditional pastoral care for the poor and disadvantaged.

There has been amazing growth in the numbers of Laity educated, trained and formed in ecclesial disciplines. Laity are reaching degree level in fields such as Theology, Liturgy, Canon Law, and Ministry, creating the beginnings of an educated Laity, so essential for creating true partnership in Mission.

Curial support has been acknowledged by the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

The 1983 Revision of the Code of Canon Law saw clear improvements in delineating the significant rights of Laity to participation in the total life of the Church 

The 1987 Synod of Bishops, and the subsequent publication of the Papal Exhortation, Christifideles Laici as well as multiple statements of Papal and other teaching significantly developed the Theology of Laity.  

There has been significant growth in Lay Movements such as the Basic Christian Communities movement, among many other movements, both official and unofficial.

These and other developments have given rise to much hope for the future. There are still many challenges to be faced, however. While we celebrate the growth of recognition of Laity and the significant steps taken so far, there are still many ambiguities, paradoxes and concerns that trouble the People of God.

Matters of Continuing Concern

The consultative structures of the Church are still only ‘recommended’ and ‘advisory’. They do not necessarily facilitate Lay participation in real decision-making. Such participation as well as its authority are dependent on the individual Bishop or Parish Priest, and may be dismantled at will. This participation by Laity in the decision-making of the Church as one of the great challenges. 

There has been awkwardness between the ‘upsurge’ of the Laity into ecclesial ministries and the continuing concern of the hierarchy about the ‘clericalization’ of the Laity. Perhaps even concern about usurpation of Clerical functioning, position and, dare we say, power. The theme of ‘ontological difference’ between baptized and ordained seems to have had the effect of driving further wedges of separation between Laity and Clergy. Pope John Paul II in Christifideles Laici cautioned us “we are to avoid a laicization of the clergy and a clericalizing of the laity. The clergy, the religious, and the laity have different roles and callings. The Church is one body: Christ is the head, and we are all members of that body with different talents and services to perform. The clergy act in the person of Christ the head when they teach faith and morals, provide the sacraments, and form community. The religious are witnesses to the Beatitudes and the final times by their prayer life and by their special apostolates in the Church. The laity have a vast responsibility. Their task, their apostolate, is the transformation of the entire temporal order: the economic, political, social, and cultural orders of society.

There is still the issue on the “dichotomy” between faith and life.  We have not yet resolved the ‘sacred/secular’ duality. We have neither marked the Mission to the world as sacred business, nor have we adequately formed our people to participate in it. We have rightly attracted and formed people for the support act, ministry, but not yet for the main feature, mission. The sanctuary is seen as a sacred place, but so is every factory, every workshop, every bus station, every cradle, every bed. The difference is we have not marked them as such. That is why we can still hear stories from our household helpers and workers who called their employers “plastic”, since they act as saint inside the Church but becomes an oppressive tyrants in their homes or in the workplace.  Pope John Paul II in Christifideles Laici sounds this caution. “there can be no separation between one’s faith and real life, between religion and day-to-day reality in the world (CL 2i, 59). He regards this as one of the major errors of our times.

The problem on “Nominal Catholics” is still a great concern which the Church must address. Here in our country, while we are proud to become the only predominant Catholic country in Asia, only around 20% regularly goes to Church on Sundays and holy days of obligation.  

There still a seeming worldwide and ongoing restlessness for change from the control/dependency model of church to a co-responsible church. 

In the International Conference I attended last August in Romania, Pope Benedict XVI issued a message wherein he exhorted the delegates that “Co-responsibility implies a change in mentality, especially about the role of the laity in the Church. Lay persons are to be considered not as “collaborators” of the clergy but as persons co-responsible in the reality of the essence and action of the Church. 

He encouraged the laity to make theirs the decisions of their dioceses and parishes, promoting sincere collaborations with other components of the Ecclesial community, creating a respect and communion with the priests, for a community which is alive, ministerial and missionary. He advised them to offer their disposition to participate in all aspects of the social, cultural and political life, keeping always in mind the common good.

Ignorance. Most of the lay faithful, particularly in the urban areas are not aware on the Church teachings on social commitment and even on lay empowerment.  Only some lay leaders have knowledge on these but somehow, their knowledge is very limited. 

Fifty years after, Vatican II remains a great challenge. The newness it brought into the life of the Church has in some sense become the daily normality of the Christian communities. But delving deeply, looking at the size of the “pie”, there is still so much to be done.  

In closing, I would like to quote Pope Benedict XVI in his message to the delegates in Romania: “While I assure you of my affectionate prayers, for you, your families and for you associations, I send you all participants in this Assembly my Apostolic Blessing, which I gladly extend to all those whom you meet in your daily apostolate.” 

In his very words, the Pope extends to all of you, whom I meet today, his Apostolic Blessing.

Thank you and Mabuhay!


Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Apostolicam Actousitatem 

Casti Connubii 

Dignitatis Humanae 

Familiaris Consortio 

Gaudium et Spes 

Laborem Exercens 

Lumen Gentium 

Mater et Magistra 

Populorum Progressio 

Pacem in Terris 

Quadragessimo Anno

 Rerum Novarum 

Solicitudo Rei Socialis 

Centissimus Annus 

Evangelium Vitae 

Deus Caritas Est

Caritatis in Veritate

Christifideles Laici

Laity Today, The Congress of Catholic Laity, Rome 2000

National Congress on the Laity, Philippines, 2011 

The Principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Javier Hervada, Spain 

Catholic Social Teachings, Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, Philippines 

Catechism of the Catholic Church