Posted by: Thomas Richard | June 15, 2012

An “Inert Laity” – Crucial Misstep to Religious Irrelevance

Servant of God Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary in Dublin in 1921.  He coined this phrase “Inert Laity” as early as 1948.  He wrote, “An inert laity is only two generations removed from non-practice. Non-practice is only two generations away from non-belief.”

The phrase “Inert Laity” is a troubling one, intentionally so.  “Inert” is a word I first heard in high school chemistry class, referring to molecules that are “chemically inactive” – they do not interact or react with other molecules.  One might say that the molecules are “fine as they are, thank you.”  One might say that the molecules have all they want or need in themselves, or maybe they (if they had a mind, that is) are afraid of opening themselves to or risking themselves with some sort of union with another.  Some dictionary synonyms are similarly troubling when applied to human persons.  Synonyms of “inert”: dead, dormant, idle, inactive, inoperative.

My second introduction to the word came the next year in physics class.  Physical objects have a property called “inertia” – they have a “resistance to motion.”  They don’t want to move.  They are fine where they are.  Can you see where this is going?  To speak of a church with spiritual inertia  is to speak of a contradiction, because Church exists to be a movement in the world – a movement for change, for repentance, for renewal, for rebirth and for new life in Christ open to all men and women.

Sadly, tragically, a church that has become spiritually inert is most probably also blind to the blaring contradiction of being an inert agent sent for the purpose of interaction, sent to be an agent of world-wide change.  One would expect the problematic inertia to be that of the world to which the Church was sent!  One would not expect the problem to be one of sterility, or impotence, within the Church herself.

Let’s look again at Frank Duff’s troubling observation: “An inert laity is only two generations removed from non-practice. Non-practice is only two generations away from non-belief.”  If I may try to fill in the missing steps of the sequence leading from inertness to unbelief, I will suggest the following as “Generational Steps to Complete Irrelevance” for the Church:

1. the reference generation: an inert laity
2. the next generation: a merely loyal laity
3. the next generation: a non-practicing laity
4. the next generation: an ungrounded, confused laity
5. the next generation: an unbelieving laity

1. The Inert Laity.  What a mess!  Here, the contradiction begins.  In this “reference generation,” the laity attends Mass but not with the “full, conscious and active participation” that Vatican II reminds us is our right, our privilege and our duty.  They attend; they do not participate.  They receive the sacraments, but not with right disposition and thus not in such a way for the sacraments to bear fruit in them.  They do not seek out adult catechesis because they do not need it, nor have interest in it.  They have no interest in growing in prayer.  They are inert, and thus the work of the Church as Church cannot pass through them to the world.  They are inert, and thus the light of Christ cannot shine through them to the dark world around them.

2. The Merely Loyal. The “children” (whether physical or spiritual) of the inert laity suffer the darkness passed on to them.  That next generation is still “Catholic” but only outwardly.  Their bond to the Church is merely one of convention, habit – a loyalty no deeper than convenience and family identity.  If asked, “What religion are you?”, they respond “Catholic” not really understanding what that means beyond a label like “American” or “Democrat” or “member of the Rotary” or “Red Sox fan.”  Their attendance at Mass is not seen as crucial, but nice when they can fit it in.  Their adherence to the teachings of the Church – those teachings that they know of or understand – also are determined by the convenience or inconvenience that would follow.

3. The Non-Practicing.  In the next generation to follow the merely loyal, even the occasional but irregular attendance at Mass on Sundays is seen as irrelevant to their lives.  If asked by a poll-taker or for hospital admissions, they would out of habit say “Catholic,” but would not themselves know what that might or ought to mean.  They are non-practicing both outwardly and inwardly; the name is without significance to them.

4. The Ungrounded and Confused. In the generation that follows the non-practicing, the light of Christ entrusted to their ancestors is extinguished in them.  There remains no moral compass to them, even that given them through the Natural Moral Law has been so weakened and abused by the surrounding and darkening culture, that now wrong may as well be right – it is all relative, all depends on the individual, all seems “natural” and possible.  The religious sense, the hunger for the transcendent, the supernatural, the divine is all but lost – mixed and dimmed in the moral and intellectual and spiritual confusion of their roots.

5. The Unbelieving.  In the next generation that follows the ungrounded and confused, all connection to the supernatural is rejected as myth or dreams.  The soul is now deeply dehumanized in its self-understanding and is desensitized to its meaning and vocation.  The world is governed by “might makes right.”  The Church is a holdover from the Middle Ages, God is an absurd fantasy, truth is current science, goodness is arbitrary, beauty is carnal attraction, human life is an accident, and time is running out.

What will it take for the Church to wake up?  When will the alarm be heard?  The crucial step that ought not be tolerated is that dark misstep to inertness.  Vatican II called us all to “full, conscious and active participation” – inertness has no place in such a vital vocation as disciple of Jesus Christ!

The saints tell us of a process of growing in discipleship – of maturing in dynamic relationship with the Lord Jesus.  God intends us to grow in Him!  He sends us saints as examples, Scripture as inspiration, sacraments for grace and theologians to make them all understandable to us, so that we might see that God’s call to us is not impossible.  Holiness is not an impossible fiction.  Righteousness is not an impossible fantasy.  Sanctity is not only our vocation, but our privilege, our honor, and our duty.  God deserves no less, and we cannot be happy with less.  It is time to begin.  As St. Francis reportedly said, near his death, “Brothers, now let us at last begin!”


  1. Dear Thomas,

    How important it is for all of us to recognize this terrible reality of an “inert” laity! Thanks for adding your insights to those of Servant of God Frank Duff. May all who read this blog entry, ask, seek, and knock on the door of God’s Heart to receive, and find, and have the door opened, (cf Mt. 7:7-11).

    Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, let us gaze upon His Heart pierced for love of us. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your Faithful. Kindle in us the Fire of Your Love. Send forth Your Spirit. O Lord, and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.

  2. Very well written, Thomas. I made a copy and took it to the Chapel to read. I recognize many of our laity in your steps to Complete Irrelevance for the Church. We must pray for them as so many people prayed for me when I had slipped down to the “Merely Loyal” step many years ago. I guess that is what is reassuring to me; to know that it is possible to climb back up the “steps”. With God, all things are possible!

    • Hello Theresa – indeed all good things are possible for Him, and He is not finished with us yet, thanks be to God.

  3. Thomas,

    As you know I have been back in the church almost 2 years. In those 2 years I have learned that In the past I had no idea what being a Catholic meant. I was one that went to church on Sunday and that was it until the next Sunday.
    One of the reasons I drifted away was that I could not bring my self to live up to all the Church’s teachings.
    I came back because I received a strong message form God. I came back with a full commitment to the Churches Teachings.
    Also when I came back I found that at least 50% and probably more of the people who are still attending Mass on Sunday have made their own rules.
    An example is look at the % of people that receive communion and the very low % of them that go to confession. This indicates that they have changed the rule to their way of thinking. Another example is what % of the people who attend Mass on Sunday participate in other Church functions such as Daily Mass, Bible Study Groups, Group Rosary Sessions,Missions etc. 2 to 5 %?
    I listen to Catholic Radio all the time and I do not hear any concern about this.
    I do not hear any concern about this from our own Church leaders.

    Until I did a lot of reading and listening about what each part of the Mass represents. Your book included. As you and I talked about recently it would be great if those non believers and those that do not understand would just do some reading it would help.

    Enough Said.

    God Bless,
    Francis Forcione

  4. I read both blogs this evening. Well said. I felt God speaking to me and ministering through this blog. Thank you. Please pray for me and my family concerning this.

  5. I was born in 1957 into the faithful, modestly informed, modestly motivated Catholic world of South Louisiana. Let that situation be generational step 0. Then:

    1. an inert laity: 1968
    2. a merely loyal laity: 1972
    3. a non-practicing laity: 1978
    4. an ungrounded, confused laity: 1982
    5. an unbelieving laity:1988

    That is, it didn’t take 5 generations. It took one. That may sound dreadful, but I believe that a meaningful turnaround is in progress that may be just as quick. And if you are the sort of Catholic who frequents blogs named “Renew the Church,” may I propose that you get into the catechetical classroom and teach the young’uns what they can’t learn at home.

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