Thursday, June 14, 2007

Authority in the Church: Hierarchy Happens v.1.2

I have been hearing and seeing lots of moaning and whining recently both in some local parishes and on the Internet about the evils of hierarchy, almost always opposing hierarchy to "gospel values." Besides being untruthful about historical Christianity, such posturing is positively harmful. It leaves one with the false impression that somehow the hierarchy of the Church is immaterial to or not positively related to the grace which Christ came to pour out upon all humanity.

On this eve of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart I want to say again that the Heart of our Lord burns with love for all people. Out of this great love he has given us His Church, leaders and laity together. Those who attempt to drive a wedge between leaders and laity run the grave risk of, to use an old fashioned term (1 Timothy 1:19) "making shipwreck of their faith."

Here is a re-post of an article I wrote concerning hierarchy in January.

I totally missed posting on the Feast of St. Paul's Conversion or its minor next-day companion, the Feast of Saints Timothy and Titus.

I have two personal observations here.

First, Church hierarchy is biblical.

Long ago I worked for both Msgr Jerome Quinn (St. Paul Seminary) and Father Jerry Neyrey (University of Notre Dame). Both scholars were heavily involved in Pauline and Post-Pauline Biblical studies. So, I learned a lot about the development of lines of authority in the ancient church.

Speaking sociologically, at the time the apostle Paul died, the Church's leadership had already begun the long curving turn away from being a band of poor itnerant preachers. By the time the Pastoral Epistles were collated, long before the end of the first century, prosperous householders led settled clusters of stable communities. What we see in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers confirms this developmental arc.

The Pastoral Epistles and hence Paul's young proteges Timothy and Titus are two of the hinges on which this development turns. Paul has left these two younger men in charge of communties which he himself had helped found. His chosen metaphor for the Church, "Household of God" about says it all. They are to appoint as leaders good householders, able to rule their own families as they do God's Church.

From my own study I've come to the conclusion that while it did take some time for the external structures of authority to grow up, there seems to be no doubt that from the earliest days there was a nucleus of authoritative leadership in the Church. The author of the Fourth Gospel as much as says so when he has Jesus convey His Own power to remit sin and to teach authoritative truth to the Apostles.

So, I really don't buy into the modern pre-suppositions that somehow the Apostolic Church was an egalitarian group of believers who practiced democracy and that the Church then "descended" into a heirarchical authoritarian mess as it grew in numbers, power and influence.

If I did have a bumper sticker on my car it would probably read "Heirarchy Happens." Wherever two or three are gathered together, there will always be someone who leads and others who follow. So, get over it.

Second point, I work in the Catholic Church, with and among its local and regional leadership. I have been given the opportunity to observe firsthand how this episcopal heirarchy actually functions, with its threefold order of Bishop. Priest and Deacon.

To be honest, the system does have its problems, or, as we're taught to say here in Minnesota "issues." We can all laugh and cry together over "church stories" about how this cleric or that leader displayed massive insensitivity or gross stupidity.

However, I have to admit that despite its inadequacies, the Church's leadership does try to and often does end up being a gift given by Christ to the Body of His baptized believers. For all its foibles, the Church hierarchy points beyond itself to a deeper truth and greater goal for which it exists. Hierarchy does not exist for itself. Like Christ, and like all of His spiritual gifts and charisms, leadership is given for the good of the other.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar states (The Christian State of Life, p.12):

"Christ's primary intention was not to form a hierarchy, but to win men to that personal following of himself that leads to the reconciliation of the world with God by a renunciatory, even crucified, love: with him, they are to be "the light of the world."

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