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Ministry in the Church, by Gregory Baum from 'Women and Orders'

Ministry in the Church

by Gregory Baum

from Women and Orders, pp 57-66, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

In this century a significant change has taken place in the Catholic understanding of divine revelation. There has been a shift from an extrinsicist to a more immanentist understanding of God’s self-communication in history. Instead of regarding revelation as the communication of new truths added to human life from without, theologians have come to look at revelation as the clarification and specification, through the experience of Israel and above all the person of Jesus Christ, of God’s redemptive selfcommunication operative, in a hidden way, in the whole of human history.

Revelation and Ministry

This shift also affects the understanding of ministry in the Church. An extrinsicist understanding of revelation has led to the view that Jesus as the divine founder of the Church created an apostolic ministry and that his disposition in regard to the subsequent ecclesiastical government was to remain unchanged throughout the ages, independent of the culture in which the Church lives and the needs of the Christian people. Here the act of revelation is regarded as the communication of divine truth or the granting of sacramental gifts from a place outside of history, namely God’s eternal abode. Jesus as the divine founder has provided the Church with an ecclesiastical hierarchy and an organizational pattern that are to remain valid for all times.

If, however, the revelation in Jesus Christ is not extrinsic to world history, if in fact it clarifies and specifies the redemptive presence of God in the lives of men, then the ministry in the early Church, created by Jesus and the apostolic community, reveals what leadership in the Christian community ought to be like and hence has normative value for all times. The ministry of the early Church does not reveal a definitive organizational pattern to be followed by the ecclesiastical ministry in later centuries, but it presents the Church with revealed norms, valid for all times, by which the organizational patterns of ecclesiastical ministry must be tested in each age. Among these norms are a Christian understanding of authority, a Christian ideal of regional pluralism and apostolic unity, and a Christian conception of service, fellowship and participation. The apostolic community provided the Church of the future with evangelical norms for Christian ministry, and it is in the fidelity to these norms that the Church’s apostolicity consists.

The New Testament also presents various styles of Christian leadership, all of which are obedient to the common norms. We read that the apostolic activity concerned with spreading the Gospel and protecting its unity was accompanied by various offices, such as teaching, prophesying, baptizing, presiding at worship, and various forms of diaconia (service). In the New Testament period these offices were exercised by different people in the community. What counts in the subsequent ages of the Church is not the material fidelity to the structures of the early Church, but the formal fidelity to the norms guiding the ministry in the early Church and to the variety of functions exercised in it.

What follows from this is that the Church in every age is free to adapt its religious leadership to the socio-political ideals of the age and to reorganize its ministry to meet the needs of the Christian people - as long as this religious leadership seeks to incarnate the normative values revealed in the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of the apostolic Church.

This shift in the understanding of divine revelation has been accompanied by new historical research, undertaken by Catholic scholars, regarding the ministry in the early Church. While Catholics used to defend the view that Jesus appointed twelve apostles and that these in turn ordained bishops to be their successors, Catholic scholars have now come to realize that this schematic presentation of apostolic ministry contains a significant symbolic message, but in no way corresponds to the actual historical events. In the first place the New Testament speaks of disciples Jesus sent out to preach, which were not among the chosen twelve (cf. Lk 10:1), and later gives the names of apostles, commissioned to spread the Gospel, which were not among the twelve (cf. Rom 1:1, Gal 1:1, Act 14:4, 14). The churches described for us in the Acts of the Apostles and other books of the New Testament reveal a great diversity of ministry and ministerial offices, from the highly authoritarian government of the Jerusalem Church to the largely communitarian churches founded by St. Paul.

The monarchical episcopate, which has become a distinguishing mark of the later Church, is not original: it is due, rather, to a development, taking place at different speeds in various parts of the Church, which united the diverse offices exercised in the community in a single person, the bishop. The idea that Jesus appointed twelve apostles and these in turn ordained bishops as their successors has symbolic meaning, but it does not describe what actually happened.

Catholic theologians believe that the gradual historical development that led to the monarchical episcopate was tested by the evangelical norms of Christian leadership and accepted by the Christian community as due to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but they are bound to hold, on the selfsame principle, that this development could continue. The Church is not bound to the governmental structure it has inherited. The Church retains the freedom to adapt its ministry to the socio-political ideals of its age and to modify its organization to serve the needs of the Christian people, as long as it remains faithful to the divinely revealed evangelical norms to which this ministry remains ever subject.

We conclude that the Church’s ministry is truly apostolic not because of its material fidelity to an ecclesiastical structure of the past (of the apostolic age, or the post-apostolic period in which the monarchical episcopate developed) but because of the formal fidelity of its institutional leadership to the divinely revealed norms given by Christ and the apostolic witness.

Ministry as Revelation

While this more immanent understanding of divine revelation relativizes the inherited ecclesiastical ministry from one point of view, from another point of view it gives it greater significance and power. For according to the new approach, the Christian Church and its ministry are truly revelatory. Through the Church and its ministry God continues to address the human family. As the Church is to reveal what authentic human community is to be like, so the Church’s ministry is to reveal what leadership and authority are to be like in a truly human community. Since the world is damaged by sin and partially subject to the powers of darkness, since the human family is internally divided by conflicting interest groups and worldly authority only too often operates according to a master-slave model, the community of Jesus is to reveal what the true destiny of the human family is and what leadership is like that does not violate human dignity. The Church is to be different from secular society. Jesus said to his disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). He also said: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and that their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26). The ministry in the Church has, therefore, a revelatory or prophetic function: it reveals the oppressive character of worldly authority and it presents an ideal of leadership that serves the true needs of the people.

In most Catholic theological reflections on ministry in the Church, this revelatory aspect has been neglected. Even Vatican Council II, while reminding us that all authority in the Church is meant to be a service, does not examine whether the present hierarchical ministry in the Church reveals the oppressive character of much of worldly authority and provides models for a more human type of leadership in keeping with the freedom of God’s children. Since the present age is deeply troubled by oppressions of various kinds, by authoritarian governments, and by exploitations and injustices committed by legitimate institutions, since, in other words, today more than ever “the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them,” the revelatory witness of the Church regarding what leadership is meant to be according to the evangelical ideal has become an urgent political necessity. Today more than ever before, the prophetic role of the Church’s institutional structure is an essential part of its mission in the world.

This revelatory role of the Church’s ministry demands that it respond to the socio-political ideal of the age and adapt itself to the needs of the people. Unfortunately, the inherited viewpoint in the Catholic Church has been that the ecclesiastical ministry is a fixed and unchangeable hierarchy independent of temporary political ideals and that it is up to the Christian people to adapt themselves to the workings of this hierarchical structure. The primary given is the hierarchy, to which the people must conform their lives. While an extrinsicist understanding of divine revelation was able to defend such an ecclesiological position, contemporary theology has made us more critical and taught us to demand an ecclesiastical ministry that regains its prophetic role.

Hierarchy as Caste

The fixed and immovable view of the hierarchy has led to a situation where the ecclesiastical government in the Catholic Church no longer corresponds to the moral ideal of the age. While in modern society we regard the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers as a moral requirement for any government, in the Catholic Church we still have a government where the three powers are united in the same men. The men who make the laws are the ones who execute them, and even the ones who judge whether they have been adequately applied. According to the evolution of the socio-political ideal and according to contemporary moral theology, such a concentration of power must be avoided in a truly moral society.

More than that, the Catholic Church presents itself as an organization ruled by monocratic power, i.e., the entire Church and each unit within the Church are ruled by a single person. On every level, government in the Church is “a one-man show.” While Catholic theologians used to defend this as an act of fidelity to the apostolic institution and thus linked it to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as the one ruler of his people, contemporary theology has come to see that such a material understanding of fidelity undermines the prophetic function of the Church’s ministry. A ministry that is identified with monocratic power no longer reveals the oppressive character of much worldly authority and no longer projects forms of leadership for present society that offer genuine service to the human community.

Since people today have become aware of the oppression of women through the various cultural and religious traditions of the ages, and since the kingdom proclaimed by Christ promises us deliverance from all the elements of oppression, the Church ought to reveal through its ordained religious leadership that men and women are destined to be equal. The ordination of women to the priesthood would restore a prophetic quality to the Church’s ministry, educating people to discern the injustices in present society and presenting them with an ideal for the participation of women in the life of society.

These remarks on the revelatory character of the Church’s ministry make us aware how much the ordained ministry has become a caste in the Christian Church. Ordination divides the Christian people into priests and non-priests. Not only does the sacramental hierarchy fail to reveal the ills of worldly power and propose more human forms of leadership, but it has over the ages become a separate body with special powers and privileges, visibly distinct from the people in style of life, clothing and form of address, introducing the master-servant relationship into the Christian Church and preventing the people from participating in the decisions that affect their lives. To the extent that the ordained have become a caste, they give a counter witness to the New Testament ministry in apostolic succession. Instead of bringing to light the oppressive elements in worldly power, an authoritarian caste within the Church legitimates similar caste formations in the rest of society and gives symbolic support to authoritarian forms of government.

How can this clerical caste system be overcome? How can the ecclesiastical government in the Catholic Church be brought into conformity with the evangelical norms, revealed in the New Testament and valid for the ministry of all ages? According to the proposal of many theologians, the ecclesiastical ministry in the Church must (a) become pluralistic and diversified, (b) reach out for a cooperative mode of exercising authority, and (c) develop a fraternal (and sisterly) style. This was indeed the plan of Vatican Council II, at least on paper. It recommended regional diversity and pluriformity of ministry; it proposed a new ideal of team responsibility and collegial action; and it stressed in a new way that the brotherhood created by faith and baptism is intensified rather than interrupted by ordination. But the ideals of Vatican II are far from being realized in the actual life of the Church.

Ministry and Fraternity (Sisterhood)

Contemporary Catholics have become particularly sensitive to the fraternal (and sisterly) dimension of the Christian life. Their religious experience convinces them that God is graciously present in authentic fellowship, so much so that friendship and equality become for them distinguishing marks of the Church. Class, caste, gender and power divide people in society; yet in the Church, Christians look for a brotherhood that transcends these structures of domination. Contemporary Catholics feel uncomfortable when the men who exercise authority in the Church reveal by their self-presentation - their language, their gestures, their style of arriving at decisions, etc.- that they regard themselves as princes or lords in the community and accept the master-servant relationship as a proper mode of human association in the Christian Church. Lords undermine their own authority in the Church. Catholics are ready to listen to a brother (or sister) who has been placed in a position of authority, but they have begun to suspect that the authority exercised by a master in the Church, however legitimately, does not serve the kingdom of God.

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