Laboring to Change the World

Canonize Bill Buckley? No, I think not. Buckley, who passed away two and a half years ago, was a serious Catholic, but it’s a bit of a stretch to see him as material for canonization. Yet he stands for something that really does deserve to be recognized and saluted: a layman engaged in putting faith to work in the secular world—lay apostolate, we used to call it, though there’s no indication Buckley ever applied the term to himself.

Is the founder of National Review, successful talk show host, and prolific author too conservative for your taste? Then for Buckley substitute someone like Flannery O’Connor or Cesar Chavez. My point will still be valid.

Two things lately reminded me of it again.

One was reading Lee Edwards’ splendid new biography William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books). Edwards makes it clear that, while Buckley didn’t flaunt his Catholicism, it was central in his life. “His faith was his grounding,” a longtime close associate says.

The other was reading a talk by a national church official responsible for matters pertaining to the laity. Its central message was one all too familiar these days: what lay people do in parishes and other ecclesiastical settings is what’s really important; what they do in the workplace, the community, and secular settings generally ranks a distant second to the churchy stuff.

The talk began with a promising theme — the “priesthood of the faithful” that comes with baptism. This is one of those ancient Christian ideas, ignored for centuries, that Vatican Council II rediscovered and rehabilitated. Unfortunately, since Vatican II, it has largely relapsed into obscurity. When was the last time you heard a sermon on baptismal priesthood?

Alas, the man speaking about priesthood of the faithful quickly went off on the wrong track and stayed there. Despite a few passing references to the fact that what lay people do in the secular world is not without importance, the burden of this gentleman’s remarks was that “ministry” in which lay people engage in their parishes in collaboration with the clergy takes the prize for being what really first-rate Catholic lay people should be doing today.

Now, lay ministry is a good thing for the minority of admirable lay people who feel themselves called to it. But this over-emphasis on ministry doesn’t come from Vatican II and it isn’t what John Paul II said in his neglected Magna Carta for the laity, Christifideles Laici. Rather, it’s what the lay ministry lobby in the Church, composed of theologians, religious educators, and ecclesiastical bureaucrats, has been saying and working hard to sell for years.

One harmful result of these efforts has been a disastrous neglect of lay apostolate. Some people still do apostolate, of course, but they get little or no formation and encouragement for it. Such limited resources for these purposes as exist instead go almost exclusively to promoting lay ministry in parishes and other church settings.

To the best of my knowledge, William Buckley wasn’t a lay minister and had no interest in being one. If someone had told him he was a lay apostle, he would probably have told that person he or she was crazy. Yet even in old age and failing health, he drove himself relentlessly to complete a biography of Barry Goldwater. Laboring to change the world in the service of principles he believed to be true and good, Buckley lived the priesthood of the faithful to the hilt.

Now what was that about canonizing him?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • elkabrikir

    One reason I think that “lay ministry” in the church setting receives so much emphasis, is that it is a vehicle of power for many people. They can “do good works” without revealing the prideful nature behind them.

    These ministries often require degrees now, and come with titles. People of good will are shut out of this power structure in favor of the “professional elite layperson”.

    While lay ministry IS invaluable, it can also be a snare of the devil without rectitude of intention at all levels.

    There’s no glory in being an honest lawyer or an invisible Mother of Many on the the soccer field. Few flock to those apostolates because of their invisiblilty. The mysteries of God remain clouded to most.

    Whatever your apostolate, please read Soul of the Apostolate. An interior life is the only way for a succesful apostolate regardless of where one is called to minister.