The vocation of the Catholic laity is unintelligible outside of the framework of eschatology. This might seem like a rather obvious claim; the laity are Christians who will one day die and face the judgment seat of Christ, as will all people, and, so, of course the laity must live their life always with this in mind, as must the clergy and religious as well. To fail to live eschatologically in this way is to live as a practical atheist, to live as if God did not exist. However, there is more to the picture than this.
The lay vocation does not make sense outside of eschatology because the life and work of the lay faithful is characterized by its “secular” nature. This sentence probably does not make complete sense at first glance; the connection between eschatology and the secular is not always immediately clear, since a common feature of the popular Catholic imagination is that the secular stands in opposition to not only heaven but also to God himself. The secular, temporal order is what lies in the past once heaven has become the present reality, so it is said. However, the truth is that eschatology has everything to do with the secular and vice versa. It is our oftentimes narrow understanding of both realms that inhibits us from seeing this, leaving us that much more the worse off.
It is a fundamental Catholic belief that not only human beings, but also the entire created order is not only willed and sustained by God into existence but is also destined for redemption in Christ. St. Paul expresses this perfectly, and rather dramatically, in the first chapter of his Letter to the Colossians:
He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (1:15-20).
This passage is often taken as presenting the “Cosmic Christ,” as can be seen in the universality of its scope. Jesus Christ is presented here not only as having the fullness of the Godhead, not only as the head of the Church, not only as he through whom all things are made, but also as he in whom all created things are oriented and reconciled. “[B]y the blood of his cross,” all things attain their peace and reconciliation. Creation’s “groaning in travail,” of which St. Paul speaks in Romans 8, will be put to rest in the new age to come, not because creation shall be annihilated, but because it shall be redeemed in Christ.
The study of eschatology, often taken to refer to the “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, and hell), has in fact a broader field of inquiry than these four topics taken in isolation might suggest. Or, to make a more daring claim, the notion of heaven has a much broader scope than merely the dwelling place of the saints and the angels. Heaven, in fact, has an additional meaning and aspect beyond even the state in which we “see” God face to face. This is certainly the supreme aspect and act of heaven in which the blessed partake; there is no doubt about this.
However, if one limits heaven merely to the materially void “place” of the angels and the beatified souls, or even to the state of the beatific vision, then one can easily lose sight of the truly cosmic dimension of heaven and salvation, which involves both our resurrected bodies and the cosmos in which our bodies are made fit to dwell. In the age to come, heaven and earth will, in some sense be united, since the created order will itself be transformed, and the heavenly Church, after the resurrection of the body, will reside in this transformed creation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to this broader meaning of heaven when it speaks in paragraph 1043 of the “mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, [as the] ‘new heavens and the new earth.’” This teaching is grounded in both 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, wherein both biblical authors speak of the new heavens and the new earth as God’s special dwelling with man wherein divine righteousness prevails. However, of the two, the Book of Revelation stimulates the imagination and gives much more detail, though one should always be careful to not focus too concretely on the imagery used therein:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (21:1-4).
What the Book of Revelation speaks of here is the fulfillment of what St. Paul writes of in Ephesians 1:9-10: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” It pertains to the mystery of the divine will, which is made known to us in Christ, that the created order does not fall outside of the divine plan; it is neither beyond the realm of the redeemable nor abandoned in the age to come. Because it is created (and, therefore, not independent of God’s will) and fundamentally good, as the refrain of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis testifies, it, too, falls within the plan of God. Regardless of whether the heaven to which the Book of Revelation refers is the upper sphere of the earth or whether it is heaven as understood in the traditional, theological sense, the point remains that the “new Jerusalem” descends from “above” and makes its dwelling here on earth. The veil will be completely torn away, and the spiritual and the temporal realities will be wedded together in the age to come.
But, does not this passage from Revelation quoted above flatly state that the “first heaven and the first earth” will pass away, will be replaced, by this “new heaven and new earth”? And, if this is so, then in what sense can the current created order be said to be actually redeemed? If it is replaced whole-hog then it does not appear to be redeemed, but instead it appears to be substituted by an order that better suits the fully actualized Kingdom of God.
This is a tricky dilemma indeed, since Revelation 21 seems so clear and matter of fact. However, I do not think that such an interpretation is correct. Since the language, imagery, and genre of the Book of Revelation falls into the category of apocalyptic literature, It is best interpreted by the more straightforward and literal thinking of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. There, St. Paul writes not of the created order as being de facto replaced, but as being transformed and freed from the bondage of sin and corruption:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God (8:19-21).
Notice here that St. Paul’s language and understanding strikes a different vision than that of Revelation 21. Whereas the imagery used by Revelation speaks of the “passing away” of the first heaven and the first earth, St. Paul speaks of a freeing and loosing of this same creation from the form of “bondage to decay” to the form of the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” Though odd when taken merely at face value, one must always interpret Scripture in light of Scripture; one must interpret the vague and ambiguous in light of the clearer and more straightforward. What is to be expected in the new creation is not a substitution of one creation for another, but a transformation the self-same creation.
Depending on how one interprets these passages and weighs them against each other has wide-reaching implications for the Catholic Church as a whole and the lay faithful in particular. This is because, in the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature” (§31). At first glance this might seem like a rather odd statement, like a derogatory characterization rather than a fitting description. When used in common parlance, “secular” tends all too quickly to bring to mind such nasty things as “secularism” and “secularization,” neither of which are very positive words by which to identify the 99.9% of Catholics who exist throughout the world. However, “secular” is a rather loaded word with a heavy baggage that does not necessarily pertain to it.
The term “secular” comes from the Latin word saeculum, which can be translated as “this present time” or “this present age.” Taken at face value, the saeculum refers to the age in which we now exist, the temporal order as it currently stands, as opposed to the redeemed order which is to come. However, to harken back to the point made above, the relationship that stands between the created order now, which by virtue of the salvific work of Christ is characterized by the “already but not yet” presence of the Kingdom of God, and the new creation to come is one of transformation from above and not mere substitution. The created order can be neither annihilated and substituted, nor merely left as is. In both scenarios the all-embracing scope of God’s universally salvific prerogative would be frustrated and left unfulfilled.
Although the Scriptures often speak of “the world,” that is, the temporal order, in a rather negative fashion, one must make important distinctions so as to not fall into the error of thinking that it is definitively characterized down to its very core by its being under the authority of the “ruler of this world” (Jn 14:30), the domain of all that stands athwart from God. Joseph Ratzinger is helpful in this regard. In a 1965 essay entitled (in English) “The Christian and the Modern World,” Ratzinger distinguishes between four different ways in which “the world” can be understood from the Christian perspective, each progressively more narrow and less abstract than what preceded it:
- the world as the existing cosmos simply as given by God,
- the world as “the reality confronting man that man has already shaped,”
- the world as existing in union with man, “as the totality of those human behaviors in which man is related to the shaping of his earthly forms of existence,”
- and the world as consisting of “that behavior through which man makes a decision in favor of this world alone and against what is godly and eternal.”
Such distinctions are important because the concept of “the world” is multifaceted and dynamically layered. One can hardly experience the “first” world free from the “fourth,” or any of the other worlds identified in between, in isolation. The distinctions are significant because without them one can easily conclude that the created order simply, as given by God, is as inimical to God as are the human tendencies to set oneself against the Creator. If one fails to make proper distinctions, then one falls into the pitfalls of either Gnosticism, Manichaeism, or any of the other heresies that proclaim the spiritual world to be fundamentally good and the material world fundamentally bad.
However, when one holds Genesis 1, Colossians 1, Romans 8, and John 14, to name just a few, in a healthy tension, then one is led to understand the world as that which is fundamentally good but in need of redemption, as that which is created and willed by God to be transformed in the age to come from its bondage to decay and its domination by the evil ruler of this world. If the world is simply bad or is straightforwardly unredeemable, then it ought to be annihilated and replaced by God in the new age to come. However, if the world is good but in need of redemption, then the former solution is out of the question for an all-powerful, all-good God.
Yves Congar, OP, understood well the importance of the Church getting her thinking right about the different dimensions of the idea of “the world” and was keenly aware of how much hangs in the balance. In his monumental work on the laity, Lay People in the Church, he sets up the problem in the following way and then outlines two problematic approaches to understanding the relationship between the world as it exists now and the world that is to come:
The problem is to know whether what we do in the secular sphere of this world is altogether irrelevant and without importance for what will be the Kingdom of God. Do our interior spiritual dispositions alone signify for that Kingdom? Is the world only the occasion or the background (how often tragic!) of our charitable deeds and spiritual purification? Or does the world in its texture of temporal earthly work add something to them? . . . has all that a relationship, some continuity, with the final reality of God’s Kingdom? And if so, what?
To answer this question, Congar distinguishes between the “dualist-eschatological view” of Luther and Barth and the affirmative-optimist views of Teilhard de Chardin, M. I. Montuclard, and Canon Thils. The former is characterized by a radical discontinuity and opposition between the present created order and that which is to come; “We are aboard a vessel whose destiny is to go to the bottom; men will be saved by journeying in another ship built wholly by God.” The latter is characterized by “a certain continuity between the work of this world, the cosmic process, and the eschatological Kingdom;” nothing need be done to the ship except to allow it to run its course, progressively advancing to its final end based upon its own immanent powers and capabilities.
Congar, however, rejects both of these opposing views, while recognizing that each gets something basically correct: the dualist-eschatological view recognizes the need for a wholly transcendent redemptive action from above and beyond; the affirmative-optimist views puts its finger on the true continuity between this world and the world to come. Congar’s approach, which straddles the middle between these two, is centered upon what he calls “God’s unitary plan.” Concerning this central idea, Congar writes:
[God’s unitary plan] appears to me grounded in this, that between the world and the Kingdom there is unity through final object, at least partial unity of subject or of material cause, unity of agent, namely, the Word of God and his Holy Spirit. There is unity through man, with whose fate the world is associated, whether in catastrophe or in hope and in transfiguration. Thus the world forms with man, though “in the lump” and not strictly, a single object of divine intervention, a single beneficiary of redemption and transfiguration . . . when [Christ] takes up the work of salvation he takes up the work of restoring its meaning to creation, and of bringing it effectively to the term whose germ and vocation he has, as Word and Wisdom of God, already given to it.
When Congar posits the idea of God’s unitary plan, he is referring to the divine economy wherein the Kingdom of God is not dissociated from the world but, instead, consists in understanding the Kingdom as the final restoration of the true meaning of creation by virtue of Christ’s salvific plan. Although the world as we know it, the “secular” order in which we all live, must pass through a cleansing fire wherein the good is separated from the bad and many of the things that have reigned throughout history will be vanquished, “beneath these blissful changes there remains a substantial identity of subject . . . that which is to be changed is the same earthly cosmos with which we are associated as much in the order of the new creation as in that of the old, wherein we have to complete it.” The world to come is the world as we know it but transformed, purified, and freed from the bondage of decay, corruption, and the reign of sin and death.
As odd as it might seem at first glance, the relationship between the vocation of the laity and the final eschatological reality hangs together by an authentically Catholic understanding of the nature of the secular order. “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature,” the Second Vatican Council Fathers asserted. When understood in light of the context outlined above, this potentially controversial statement correctly captures the “lay difference.” While some of the laity are called to minister in the name of the Church and to collaborate closely with the sacramentally ordained, the vast majority of the Catholic lay faithful are called by God through their baptism and confirmation not only to live in the secular realm but to light it on fire with the light, love, and truth of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit.
It is one thing to simply state that the Catholic lay faithful are characterized by their secular nature, but what does this actually mean and how does it appropriately express itself? The Council Fathers were superb on this account by providing an inspiring vision of the lay vocation:
The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer (§31, emphasis mine).
Notice here the “small c” catholic scope of the lay vocation; from the exercise of one’s profession to one’s personal and family life, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, all of the laity—whether rich or poor, man or woman, young or old—are called to participate (not each individually but all collectively and according to one’s personal vocation) in the temporal affairs of the world and to serve as a midwife for the birth of the Kingdom of God therein, acting as a spiritual leaven and light.
This does not mean that the Catholic laity ought to feel pressured into serving corrupt regimes or harmful institutions, or participating even materially in any evil whatsoever. But, what it does mean is that the world, as a whole and in all of its individual “parts,” stands in need of redemption and re-orientation, whether one works for that from within or without, whether it is done so quietly and is so insignificant in the eyes of the world that only God could ever know or value such a thing. While it is meritorious to work for the positive transformation and development of large-scale institutions and initiatives, which have the power to affect the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people, the calculus of Christianity operates differently.
At the end of the day, it is the love, mercy, and truth with which one lives one’s life, serves others, stewards creation, and re-configures the social order that determines its value and ability to survive the cleansing fire. It is the spiritual sacrifice that we make of our lives, gathering into our arms the temporal order within which we live through a right and merciful use of its goods, that is most fittingly offered through Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father in the holy sacrifice of the Mass that is finally capable of ushering in, even now, the new created order to come:
For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Together with the offering of the Lord's body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God (§ 34).
None of this makes sense outside of the context of an eschatology that recognizes that heaven is more than the mere “place” where the angels and the saints reside, more than even the blessed state of the beatific vision. The secular nature of the lay vocation matters because the body and the temporal order matter and endure with some semblance of continuity of substance into the eternity of the new creation. The laity’s unique vocation to consecrate the temporal order to God is senseless jabber if that same temporal order has no place in the age to come. The world is meant to be consecrated to God because only this consecration reveals its deepest and truest meaning, releasing it from the stranglehold of the dominion of sin and death. But, if the Church fails to consistently proclaim this eschatological vision of the new heavens and the new earth, then the Church’s appreciation for, and laity’s vocation to, the world goes out the door with it. The latter cannot intelligently persist without a clear awareness of the former.
If the Church misconceives the multi-faceted nature of “the world,” of the secular, and its deepest meaning and its final end, then the very mission of the vast majority of Catholics is maimed from the very start. This need not be the case; the Church just needs to keep the last things first and the rest will fall into place by the grace of God.
 I wish to bracket out the question of the universal salvation of all people here, which would require a more extended and nuanced account, since, unlike the created order as a whole, human persons have the capacity of free will and self-determination which the created order as a whole, as non-personal, has not.
 Joseph Ratzinger, “The Christian and the Modern World” in Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, ed. by Michael J. Miller, trans. by Michael J. Miller and Matthew J. O’Connell (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011): 162-180.
 Ratzinger, “The Christian and the Modern World,” 168.
 Ibid., 169.
 Yves M. J. Congar, Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of Laity, trans. by Donald Attwater (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1965), 84.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 86.
 Cf. Ibid., 87-93.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 89.