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Chains that Bond: Creating the Future Church . Institutional and Ministerial Implications of the New Ecclesiology by Richard P. McBrien. Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Chains that Bond: Creating the Future Church

Institutional and Ministerial Implications of the New Ecclesiology

by Richard P. McBrien

New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry

Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 93 -95.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Richard P. McBrien is professor of theology at Boston College and Director of Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and has published eleven books on various aspects of Catholic belief and life. He obtained his Ph.D. in Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and has taught on many college and university campuses.

The Church understands herself today as People of God, and not simply as a hierarchically-structured society to which people belong and from which people receive spiritual benefits. She also understands herself as sacrament of Christ and of the Kingdom, which means that the quality of her faith, her hope, her love, and her commitment to justice and human rights enter into her very mission.

Certain institutional and ministerial implications follow. Most are obvious enough.

1. Ordination to the priesthood, or indeed to the episcopate, should not be denied now or in the future to qualified candidates simply because they are women, or simply because they are married, or simply because they would like to keep open the option of marriage. The repeal of the present exclusion of women from ordained priesthood without at the same time eliminating the requirement of celibacy would modify, but leave substantially unchanged, an unacceptable pastoral situation.

2. Ministry, furthermore, is a form of service to the Church which is not restricted to those who are ordained, whether or not they be women or married persons. Ministry for today and for the future must always be available in principle to every qualified member of the Church, laywoman or layman, religious woman or religious man, deacon, priest, bishop, or pope. The whole Church is People of God. Therefore, the whole Church is called to share in the Church’s mission and ministries.

3. Not all Christians, however, are called to ministry in the formal sense, i.e., as a service explicitly designated by the Church to assist in the fulfillment of mission. Indeed, Jesus himself was not a minister in the strict meaning of the word. Some church community has to call the Christian to service. That community might be a diocese, acting indeed through its bishop and diocesan pastoral council. It might be a parish, acting through its pastor and parochial council. It might be one of the many so-called specialized communities or agencies within the Church, acting through its representative officers and leaders. A “freelance” ministry, therefore, is inconsistent with every ministry’s fundamental purpose; namely, the advance of the mission of the Church, and the building up of the unity of Christ’s body (Ephe-sians 4:12).

4. Ministries for today and tomorrow will demand essentially the same basic qualifications: human wholeness, i.e., physical and psychic health, and Christian faith in its ecclesial wholeness. Beyond that ministries will always require, in varying degrees, the ability to communicate (insofar as ministry is for the sake of community); theological vision; social, political, and cultural awareness; a sense of, and gift for, effective public presence; and certain specific leadership skills; support (especially through encouragement), interaction facilitation (collegial style; promoting communication), goal emphasis (a sense of mission and a capacity to articulate it), and work facilitation (providing the necessary tools and resources).

In any case, there is to be no hiding behind “spirituality,” on the one hand, or, on the other hand, the individual’s own deeply rooted conviction that she or he has, in fact, “been called.” There are, and always must be, criteria by which to evaluate the candidacies of those who present themselves for ministry. A desire to serve is never enough, nor will it ever be.

5. If, as we all hope, the Church of the future becomes more collegial in her decision-making processes and in her style of leadership and governance, her ministries must be structured accordingly. A spirit of collaboration and cooperation must shape their exercise. An ability to work effectively with others, a readiness to listen, and an openness to change, even in the face of conflict and disagreement, will always be requirements of ministerial collegiality. On the other hand, collegiality does not exclude strong leadership, even the strong leadership of a single person. There is a naive understanding of collegiality which assumes that the more persons involved in making a final decision of whatever nature and kind, the more collegial the decision. They misunderstand not only the doctrine of collegiality, but the sociology of organizations and of authority besides. It is not the number of participants in a decision-making process that counts, but the quality of the participation and its representative character. There is some measure of truth in the oft-cited line: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

6. Because many of us have seen and experienced the abuse of institutional authority in the past and still today, we are often ambivalent about it. We know, at once experientially and in theory, how essential authority is for the effective mission of any community or movement. On the other hand, we shrink from authority’s exercise lest we commit the same sins, or be accused of committing the same sins, we have charged others with. The problem in today’s Church, and the challenge for tomorrow’s, is not that there is too much authority around, but that there isn’t enough real authority; not that there is too much power around, but that what power there is is badly used; and not that there are too many official ministries around, but that so many of them are too narrowly circumscribed in terms of personnel and scope.

7. But, of course, that still leaves open the question of how qualified persons are introduced into ministries of pastoral leadership. In the selection of such leadership, the Church of the future, indeed the Church of today, must employ public and broadly representative processes. This will require some form of advertisement of ministerial opportunities, an invitation to submit one’s application with all appropriate documentation and recommendations, an equal opportunity for consideration on the part of search committees or their equivalent, and a final decision based on published criteria, such as I suggested already in number 4 and number 6. Such a procedure would always be without prejudice to the distinctively Catholic understanding of Church, which requires some kind of supervisory input, in the case of certain ministries of pastoral leadership, from the bishop whose ministry is immediately concerned with the unity of the diocesan church, or from the Petrine minister, the Pope, whose ministry is immediately concerned with the unity of the Church universal.

8. By the same token, there must also be, and in the Church of the future there will be, criteria for the ongoing evaluation of ministerial performance and for limitations on length of service. In some cases, the ministry may have a set term which is not renewable. In other cases, the term may be renewable after a process of evaluation. And in other cases still, a limitation may be set on the basis of age and/or health.

9. Just as the Church understands herself as the whole People of God (laity as well as religious and clergy), so she understands herself as the whole Body of Christ (Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox, as well as Roman Catholics). For that reason, the ministries of the future will be more explicitly ecumenical in character, in exercise, and even in terms of the processes by which qualified persons enter and remain in ministry. Insofar as a particular ministry, in other words, enters areas of ecumenical overlap, some input from representatives of other Christian communities will be expected regarding qualifications, selection, evaluation, and termination. A sharing of responsibility and a concomitant sharing of resources make this pragmatically necessary. Our developing ecclesiology makes it also theoretically necessary.

10. No matter how the Church of the future looks and no matter how it is structured, it will always be the one community in the midst of the total human community which accepts and confesses the Lordship of Jesus Christ, which proclaims that faith in word and in sacrament, which embodies that faith in her total life of justice, love, and peace, and which applies that faith in an unstinting commitment to, and struggle for, the coming Kingdom of God.

Our criticism of the Church today has theological and pastoral substance only to the extent that such criticism is grounded in that vision of her future.

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