Anyone who reads the papers or ministers in in the United States is painfully aware of the “calcified categories” of left and right in the Church. In the United States, for example, there are bishops debating whether President Biden may or may not receive holy communion while in Britain there are Catholics demanding to know how Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be married sacramentally after his two divorces. Underlying both questions—and many, many more like it—is the structure of the Catholic Church itself, i.e., how it derives its authority, how it manages itself in the present day, and what are the frontiers of reform. This is the branch of theology known as “ecclesiology,” and our Australian brethren have successfully identified this branch of the sacred sciences as the squeakiest of the wheels of the Pilgrim People of God.
In terms of ecclesiological crises, the circumstances surrounding the abuse of minors—ranging from the poor screening and formation of clerics to the behavior of ordained ministers to the mismanagement and cover-up by bishops—is the most serious ecclesiological issue facing this generation of Catholics, for it casts doubt upon the Church’s ability to manage itself and to carry out its mission effectively. The abuse crisis complicates the nature of the relationship of the priesthood to the laity of the Church, i.e., what powers accrue to the lay baptized person in terms of the care and holiness of the Church? It is worthy of note that general knowledge of the abuse crisis did not originate from any agency of the Church, but from civil courts in Texas and Louisiana in the 1980’s and, most famously, from the Boston Globe in 2002, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s 2018 investigation of the state’s dioceses.
When something goes this badly in a health care facility, for example, it is referred to by the facility and its investigators as “a signal event” which requires an analysis of what went wrong and what mechanisms within the institution need changing to prevent it happening again. America was witness to the recent mother of all law enforcement signal events, the murder of George Floyd, a year ago, and the country remains transfixed on how to prevent such miscarriages of due process in the future while preserving the effectiveness of the law-and-order establishment. Along the same lines, reformers within the Church continue to argue that the clerical culture of the Church prevents the transparency necessary to keep good order within the Church, and this concern includes matters of stewardship of finances and provision of necessary spiritual services. More specifically, the teaching of the Church that deacons, priests, and bishops are ontologically different [different in kind] as “other Christs” seems to provide cover for a “creeping infallibility” as one theologian put it, that obfuscates the need for lay wisdom and accountability.
Solving the ecclesiastical problem begins with a common understanding of the nature and structure of the Church. I suppose as Catholics we were all raised with the mental template that Jesus ordered a church and here it is, with a few historical alterations along the way. Hopefully, by high school faith formation one has digested enough of Scripture and history to grasp that the evolution from the upper room at Pentecost to the billion plus institution of two dozen rites has been quite a ride, and the Church’s self-understanding has evolved considerably over two millennia. By the time I undertook graduate theological studies [1971-1974] Vatican II had recently completed, having issued two documents on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium [“Light to the Nations”] in 1964 and Gaudium et Spes [“Joy and Hope”] in 1965.
The first essay of Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium opens with a history of those documents and how they have been received and treated over the years since the Council. The author of the essay, Tracey Rowland, discusses one of the most basic issues of the Church: the balance between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the Church’s juridical commission—still entirely clerical--of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ. [p. 3] Or, put another way, how is the balance struck between the Spirit’s presence of holiness in all the baptized faithful and the exercise of authority by its duly ordained leaders, the divine Spirit and an imperfectly human institution? To our question earlier, how a Catholic maintains faith in the authoritative structure of teaching in the face of scandal, Rowland quotes Dorothy Day’s quip that “though the Church does sometimes play the harlot she will always be her mother.” [from Day’s “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter,” 1967]
Rowland cites the descriptions of the Church in Lumen Gentium and observes that Vatican II never quite explains the marriage between the model of the Church as “The People of God” and the model of the Royal Priesthood. Vatican II did break considerable ground by introducing a new model or paradigm, that of the “people of God,” a significant break from the pyramid model of authority that has stood for centuries. One of the areas of conflict in catechetics and parish life is that most Catholic texts since 1964 have identified the Church as “the pilgrim people of God,” much like Moses and the Hebrews in the desert, collectively en route to a glorious future with Christ at the end of time. However, the uncertainty of pilgrim-hood runs counter to the immediate timeless structures of law and authority derived by the Church from its early association with the Roman Empire and later as master of Christendom from the medieval era.
Rowland and many of the other contributors of Ecclesiology highlight a trend throughout the second half of the twentieth century of Church teachings emphasizing the unity of the Church [Communio], dating to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis in 1943, summarized quite well here, and continuing through Vatican II and the papacies of Paul VI [r. 1963-1978], John Paul II [r. 1978-2005], and Benedict XVI [r. 2005-2013]. A Church without internal unity ceases to be a sacrament of the living Christ, although the maintenance of communio has sometimes been pursued with an excess of uniformity and suspicion of innovative doctrinal and pastoral contributions. Interestingly, Pope Francis [r. 2013--] has opted for a different term, “synodality,” to describe the dynamic of the Church. Pope Francis has convoked a worldwide synod on the meaning and exercise of synodality, which he hopes will result in a greater participation of all the baptized in the Church’s twin missions of holiness and service.
I will review Ecclesiology and the Beginning of the Third Millennium when I finish the book and return from vacation early in July. It is a difficult book at times and some of its contributors go off on esoteric tangents, but some of its essays are intriguing. The opening historical survey is best, and other good ones include a treatment on the nature of Confirmation and another, “Catholic, Inc.: On the Mechanized, Managerial Body of Christ.” If you would like an easier introduction into ecclesiology, I recommend Ecclesiology: The Church as Communion and Mission  by Morris Pelzel. This text was written as a 120-page overview. You can sample this book on its Amazon site. Those of you currently in ministry, education, and catechetics may wish to refresh yourselves on ecclesiology given the pope's plans for the next two years.
If he lives long enough, Pope Francis may put forward a new direction for ecclesiology in terms of how the Church thinks of itself and exercises its daily existence in the identity and service of Christ. A thrust in the direction of consultative governance would be resisted by many, though not all, bishops of the United States, particularly those who enjoy their power but do not enjoy accountability. The continuing strains in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which meets in a few days, are a festering wound in both the communio and synodal models of Church life.