I taught a course in Ecclesiology, or the theology of the Church, last month. I hadn’t treated the subject in a lot of years, so I purchased a 2015 work to fortify and update myself, A Church with Open Doors, eds. Richard R. Gaillardetz and Edward P. Hahnenberg. Open Doors is a collection of essays from specialists in the field featuring a variety of attempts to square a circle. [Incidentally, I was surprised to see that this specialized text was available through Walmart. Who would have thought?]
In the present day, the field of ecclesiology is wrestling to put meat on the bones of Vatican II’s general mandate that the laity enjoy greater participation and responsibility in the Church. The Council is now over a half-century away in the rear-view mirror, and what progress has been made has been the result of necessity: the declining numbers of clerics and particularly religious women has made the mind and the muscle of lay baptized Catholics a near sine qua non in the execution of the Church’s mandate to teach and serve the poor. The overall consciousness that a Catholic should be doing something meaningful in his or her parish besides showing up is a tangible result of the Council, one that is often overlooked.
For all of that, one can hardly say that Paragraph 91 of the Catechism--a definition of the power and office conferred upon all the Baptized and Confirmed to guard and pass on the Tradition—applies to the present-day operational governance of the Church at any level. When you begin the study of ecclesiastical authority, you find that the “models” of structural authority can be divided into two groups: (1) the clerical-monarchical structure of authority centered with the office of the papacy, the Bishop of Rome, and (2) a whole bunch of other ones promoted by various constituencies who sense exclusion from Church teaching and governance in matters of profound importance to and impact upon their lives.
Gaillardetz et.al. break down the writings and theories of how lay Catholics might be best incorporated into the Church as para. 91 describes. A common complaint across the board is a kind of one-sided authoritarian “cookie cutter” approach to all continents, peoples, domestic ethnic and cultures, etc. A news story that slipped under the radar in June was Pope Francis’ angry exchange with the priests of a Nigerian diocese who rejected an appointed bishop from another diocese because he was not of their tribe. I noticed that some bloggers accused the Nigerian priests of racism, but Floridians complain about new pastors who are new to American culture, too. Attempting to redefine the Church in terms of its cultural diversity is a task long overdue, though I am not equipped to spell out what a new framework would look like.
What captivated my interests most profoundly in Gaillardetz’s survey was the essay from feminist theologian Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM. It is no exaggeration that some of the best innovative Catholic theology today is being produced by women, particularly women religious; Hinsdale cited twelve published scholars in her essay. Feminist theology is not monolithic; its scholars are branched into several subsets, the most basic being the question of the meaning of gender itself as a definitive categorization of the human species. Hinsdale describes the influence of Pope John Paul II’s writings on the nature of men and women in such documents as Christifideles Laici (1988).
The pope writes in CL that “The condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman [sic] in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundations for masculinity and femininity with the intent of clarifying woman’s personal identity in relation to man, that is, a diversity yet mutual complementarity, not only as it concerns roles to held and functions to be performed, but also, and more deeply, as it concerns her make-up and meaning as a person.” Aside from its length, there is an offensive imbedded clerical and male superiority in the very language of the text. The ancient scientist Archimedes, the inventor of the lever, is remembered for his “give me a place to stand and I can move the world. John Paul states that he already has a place to stand when preaching to “woman:” from the clerical and magisterial assurance of manhood; woman finds identity in her complementarity with man.
John Paul II is not the only pontiff to speak to women as if they were somehow a population of outsiders drifting about looking for Catholic identity. Vatican II’s language was hardly inclusive, and even Pope Francis frequently speaks of the Church as addressing women—as if women are not part of the Church now and do not already enjoy the gifts and powers referred to in para. 91. Feminist theologians continue to work to address an ecclesiology built upon the assumed preeminence and predispositions of cleric males. One tack in this effort has been the consideration of the ordination of women. This is a matter too complicated to address here, but I have often wondered if ordination is not seen as the only path to an assurance of female self-identity and respect within the Church.
An intriguing chapter of this book is called “Liturgical Ecclesiology,” which draws heavily from the Orthodox theology of Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist. Susan K. Wood examines the works of current Orthodox theologians who, quite frankly, have a better grasp of the full implications of the initiation sacraments. The Orthodox tradition has always spoken of the initiation sacraments (Baptism, Anointing, Eucharist) as “an ordination of the royal priesthood to participate in the Eucharistic assembly…an ordination of “laics,” understood as all the members of God’s people…. Thus, the Church consists of those who are ordained…. Theologically, there can be no lay people in the Church.” (p. 143)
The Orthodox stance is foreign to the Roman Catholic ear, but it is true that for centuries the Roman Church has regarded Baptism as a remedial sacrament—the forgiveness of original sin—more than as a consecration of the Holy Spirit and a change of identity. Ironically, the official language of the Sacrament of Orders in the Roman Catholic Church speaks of an ordained cleric as “ontologically changed,” or “changed at the core of his being.” It may be that in a future age the Catholic Church may return to its own roots—which the Orthodox Church has preserved—of revering the initiation sacraments with a primacy of identity within the Church. Para. 91 opens the door to that possibility…but it remains a long way to Tipperary.