Barney Zwartz of The Age poses this question in the combox on his blog in response to my comment (see the combox of the post below).
In his own article he stated that “the institutional church needs a serious bout of self-examination as it heads into its third millennium” and that “the church can become far more democratic and open without compromising its core message of hope and salvation.”
The Church he is speaking of is the Catholic Church, although what entitles Barney to publically hold forth on what this Church should or shouldn’t do is beyond me, as he isn’t a member of it (except in the “real but imperfect” sense that all believers in Christ are, Barney being one of these).
His article essentially declares his agreement with the published opinions of the “three stooges” of Australian Catholic dissent–Geoffrey Robinson, Paul Collins and Max Charlesworth. All of these argue that the Church should get with the times, that she should dump unpopular disciplines and doctrines, that she should “restructure” along the lines of democratic societies, and that “the recommended changes concern not doctrine but how the church operates”.
NO, NO, NO, NO, I argue in response. The way in which the Church is structured, is a direct reflection of the fundamental nature and mission of the Church. The Church’s manifestation as an institution in the world is not a matter of barnacles on the ship’s hull, so much as leaves on the branches of the tree. The Church is not shaped like a statue being chipped away from the outside, but like a tree growing from the inside. Yes, the “enviroment” if you wish to call it that (the age, the culture, the mores of the times) has an effect on the way in which the Church grows, but may never be the IMPULSE for the growth. A tree branch may grow around an obstacle, but the growth comes from within the tree, not from the obstacle.
Which leads to Barney’s question: What does the Catholic Church understand her fundamental nature and mission to be?
The question is immense. The answer even more so. What simple response can be given?
I will limit myself to only those responses that I doubt either Barney, or the Three Stooges, could agree on–the points where I think they part company from the Church’s understanding of herself, since Barney has said that “Because, as I understand it, I think I do accept it.”
Yes, there are many aspects of the Church’s self-understanding of her nature and mission which which I am sure Barney (and Robinson et al.) are in agreement. This would include (for instance) the the Church as “the people of God”, and the Church’s mission to proclaim the “kingdom of God”, to bring God’s love to all people, to be witnesses to Jesus Christ etc.
But does it include these essential facts of the Church’s self-understanding:
1) The Church has its pre-existent, pre-Pentecost source in the Divine and Holy Trinity, and was established on earth by Jesus Christ in the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost.
2) That Christ established gifts and offices in the Church, among which was apostolic teaching office, the ministerial priesthood and the Petrine Ministry (the primacy of the successor of Peter).
3) That the Church is a single, universal, visibile society upon the earth, fully present in every local church, but in such a way that the universal Church is prior to each particular Church.
4) That the Church draws her very life, existence and mission from the Eucharistic sacrifice offered by the ministerial priesthood together with the baptismal priesthood.
5) That the Spirit leads the Church into all Truth, and that the Bishop of Rome and the bishops and Councils of the Church in union with him teach with the charism of infallibility
6) That the governing authority in the Church has been committed by Christ to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, and to them alone.
Well. Is that enough to be going on with? What about her mission? This is something that you won’t hear from the dissenting Stooges:
1) That Christ gave the Church the commission to proclaim the Gospel of redemption in his name to all nations
2) That there is salvation in no other name than the name of Jesus and that the only way to the Father is through him
3) That God has revealed objective and real knowledge about himself–real Truth–in the person of Jesus Christ and that the Church is committed to proclaim and teach this Truth and nothing else
4) That there is no salvation apart from the Church
5) That the whole Church–clergy and lay–are called to a new effort of evangelisation beginning with her own people
6) That the primary motive for this evangelisation is the love of Christ for the eternal salvation of all.
Once again, I could go on. But that should be clear enough why the Church is not much interested in democracy. Believe it or not, she is not much interested in “sex and power” either. While her members may at times be diverted from their core nature and mission, she herself remains focused. You mightn’t like it, but the “core mission” of the Church is to conform the world to Jesus Christ–not to conform the “Body of Christ” to the world.