The Rights and Responsibilities of the Baptized


In June of 2011, the American Catholic Council gathered about 2,000 Catholics in Detroit to celebrate the spirit of Vatican II and renew energy for reform in the Church. Leading up to the Council, over a hundred local “listening sessions” were held to help shape the document, “Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” (CBRR), which was unanimously adopted by the Council. The CBRR was the product of many Catholics working together, using prior models and writings and, above all, allowing the sensus fidelium to be heard.

The First Year in Review

Francis’ first year in the papacy brings hope that there will be greater recognition in the Church of the rights of the baptized. As Francis himself says in Evangelii Gaudium, “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. … a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making… The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge. (EG, 102)

By using the CBRR and supporting documents and discussion guides, groups will be able to assist with the “formation needed to take on important responsibilities” that Francis calls for.

In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged; (EG, 120)

What’s Ahead

The Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (CBRR) comes from our theological reflection on what it means to be Catholics baptized into the Body of Christ as well as the experience and pastoral needs of the People of God in our day. The preamble to the delineated rights provides many insights into the development of this document. Additionally, there is significant support for these rights in the teachings of Vatican II and official Church documents such as the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Embedded in Book II of the current Code of Canon Law is a group of canon laws (#208-223) commonly referred to as “the bill of rights.” Fr. James Coriden, a canon law scholar writes, “The impressive list of rights and responsibilities of all the members of our church, placed dramatically at the very outset of the book on The People of God, possesses constitutional status. It has fundamental and constitutive import….These rights and freedoms are not peripheral or inconsequential… They go to the heart of the reasons for belonging to a church. They are central to participation in a Christian community of faith and love. They are to life within the church what freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process of law, suffrage and representation are to life as citizens. They are tantamount to what we are accustomed to refer to as constitutional rights.” Further, the introduction to this section of canon law expounds on the nature of the source of these rights, “…rights in the Church derive from incorporation into Christ through the sacrament of baptism and not from a social compact among individuals.” (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, p. 255) In other words, incorporation into the Body of Christ provides the basis for these rights and responsibilities.


We need a renewed awareness of the rights of Catholics to participate fully in all aspects of the Church: governance, liturgy, evangelization, sacramental life, ministerial leadership, and working for social justice. Encouraging a full exploration of the Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will assist Catholics in becoming familiar with this often neglected aspect of our Catholic tradition.

Start a Discussion

Use the document below, or download it from the website, to engage people in fruitful discussion and development of action plans for greater participation:


To be human is to have rights. These include life and freedom, together with rights necessary to sustain them: shelter and nourishment, health and work, education and leisure. None of these rights is absolute. One may not exercise them so that other people are exploited.

Citizens of the United States are particularly conscious of their rights, written into our constitution: speech and peaceful assembly, dissent and due process, the choice to believe or not, freedom of the press and protection from cruel and unusual punishment, voting and the presumption of innocence.

When one decides to become a Catholic, one brings all these human rights into the Church. The Church has a solemn obligation to protect these and not to violate them. When one is a Catholic in the United States, the Church is obliged to safeguard those rights which define what it is to be a citizen–unless they are incompatible with Catholicism. One must not be told that one becomes a Catholic at the cost of being less an American. We cannot declare that fundamental rights have no place in the Church of Christ.

We often hear that the “Church is not a democracy.” This is not true: ecumenical councils, papal elections and the election of religious superiors occur regularly. The first Ecumenical Council in 325 declared that no priest was validly ordained unless the community made the selection. Popes and bishops were chosen by the people at large. Fundamentally, Catholic doctrine maintains that the Spirit is given to all and that baptism makes every Catholic equal.

Distinctions between clergy and laity are functional and arbitrary. Their value is always subordinate to the baptismal equality which gives all Catholics the priesthood, the right to the Eucharist, and full status in the community. Christ did not preach a Gospel of privilege and priorities, of entitlements, and of lesser or greater discipleships. Christ did not proclaim that the Reign of God was made up of those whose right to speech or due process or presumption of innocence would now be curtailed.

The Reign of God has its charter in the beatitudes, its constitution in the Gospels, and its mission in the Great Commandments.

In light of these principles and precepts, we, mindful of our baptism, eager to be fully citizens of the United States and thoroughly Catholic, articulate this Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

1. Primacy of Conscience. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to develop an informed conscience and to act in accord with it.
2. Community. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in a Eucharistic community and the right to responsible pastoral care.
3. Universal Ministry. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to the community’s call to ministerial leadership.
4. Freedom of Expression. Every Catholic has the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to dissent.
5. Sacraments. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in the fullness of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.
6. Reputation. Every Catholic has the right to a good name and to due process.
7. Governance. Every Catholic and every Catholic community has the right to a meaningful participation in decision making, including the selection of leaders.
8. Participation. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to share in the interpretation of the Gospel and Church tradition.
9. Councils. Every Catholic has the right to convene and speak in assemblies where diverse voices can be heard.
10. Social Justice. Every Catholic has the right and the responsibility to promote social justice in the world at large as well as within the structures of the Church


A full list of resources is available on the ACC website.

Take Action

For a more detailed outline of possible discussion sessions, including questions keyed to each section of the CBRR, see the ACC website under “CBRR Listening Sessions”

This resource was compiled by:
American Catholic Council