By Paula Ruddy
The Progressive Catholic Voice belongs to a coalition of reform groups in the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, called the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, started in April, 2009. It is now September, 2009, and we are active and growing.
The Strategic Planning Task Force in the Archdiocese has been conducting its investigation and consultation about parish reorganization since April also. Its statement that its work is “mission driven” has inspired us in the Coalition to think about the Church’s mission.
What is the mission of a Christian church? How is the Roman Catholic Church organized to carry out its mission as a Christian church? How does the culture within the local church reflect or serve the mission?
I am going to try to say how I have been thinking about it, and I invite anyone with clearer insight or questions or other views to respond.
The Roman Catholic Church fits into the larger circle of the Christian Church, and the Christian Church fits into the larger still circle of religions of the world.
All the religions of the world are reaching out for some connection to ultimate meaning, all in various ways. So are we.
The Christian Church believes that ultimate meaning to be revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and the community that grew up around him in the first century after his death. The good news of Jesus was that the Creator God is one, is loving, and intends the elevation of all humanity into Godhead. It is a vision of equality, inclusion, and reciprocal love. This insight has been carried down through all the evolutionary stages of culture to our own time. And in our own time, it is expressed in multiple religious cultures, Christian or not, and always limited by the developmental stages of the believers.
The Roman Catholic Church is a Christian church. It is supposed to be a community of believers who carry the message of God revealed in Jesus to the world. It is a matter of proclaiming that message as well as being a living sign, in our own communities, of what it looks like to be Christian. Christians take humanity where they find it, in themselves and others, and lift it up, as Jesus did, the hungry, the lame, the outcast, the searching mind and heart.
I take that to be the mission of the Roman Catholic Church just as it is the mission of every Christian Church.
That is the general context of my understanding of Church and its mission.
But I would like to think more specifically about the organization of the Roman Catholic Church and how it fits with the Church’s mission. The argument contains two main ideas.
The first idea is that the Christian message is manifested, or not, in individual communities. Each community is supposed to be mission-driven, that is, to be a sacrament in itself.
In the Roman Catholic Church we have an episcopal structure rather than a congregational one. That is, the geographical Church is divided up into dioceses, each with a bishop at its head, and further divided into parishes. All of these dioceses and parishes are united by institutional elements in common. The Roman diocese is looked upon as the unifying head diocese. But the Christian message is to be manifest in each individual parish and diocesan community as it is in the whole global Roman Catholic community. It is a nesting of smaller and smaller units, but the Christian message is manifest more or less fully in each unit. Each parish and each diocese has the same mission as the Church as a whole.
The second idea is about how the bishops, the clergy, and the lay people divide up the jobs within the community. I think that how they conceptualize their roles determines how the community manifests the mission of the gospel. See what you think.
First, consider this description of the division of labor: The bishop and the clergy of the diocese are charged by their ordination with the running of the institution, the diocesan and parish machinery. They have the authority to administer the local community. The lay people have the responsibility to support the diocesan and parish with funds and to carry the message of the gospel into the world. The job of the bishop and clergy is to teach and prepare the laity, set policy and regulations, maintain the parish structures and administer the sacraments so the laity will have opportunities for growth in the spiritual life in order to carry the Christian message to the world they live in, the Church’s mission. The ordained supply support services, the laity fulfills the mission.
Then consider this description: the bishop and the clergy and the laity are all charged with the same mission by their baptism, to create the community that manifests the love of God for humanity. There are different ministries within the community, but all have the responsibility to participate in the spiritual (intellectual, moral, and empathic) growth of the whole community, to govern themselves, and to make the community organization supportive of the Christian mission. The whole community is focused on the mission.
Although the first description sounds workable, when you think about it you see that it unfortunately leads to abandonment of the Church’s Christian mission to the world altogether.
Since the power and the money are in the hands of the bishop, supported by the clergy, and their job is maintaining the institution, maintenance tends to become the mission of the Church; its mission is its own continued existence and power. The authority and importance of the office of bishop becomes exaggerated, the authority and importance of the office of sacramental minister, reserved to celibate males, becomes exaggerated. A clerical culture becomes the antithesis of the gospel message of equality, inclusion, reciprocal love. Doctrines develop to justify the maintenance of the status quo of the organizational structure. With a power imbalance like this in favor of the organizational elements, the organization becomes an end in itself.
The laity’s work in the world becomes the means to maintain Church buildings, clergy lifestyles and images. They have no power to demand accountability. Depending on the bishop and clergy for teaching about the mission, for policy guidance, for spiritual formation, the laity has not been trained to think of itself as responsible for its own preparation to be the sign of Christ’s message in the world. Nevertheless, they are left to absorb what Christianity they can from the homily on Sunday and from the modeling of the clergy. Lay people in many parishes have picked up the role of education but have no power to develop the magisterium of the Church for the continuing growth of the community.
On the other hand, if you think about the second description of how the local church could be organized, the power is distributed among all the community members, each serving a role. Some are ordained to serve as pastoral ministers, some as sacramental ministers, some as administrators, one as bishop, but all are responsible for the mission, which is to build a community of equality, collegial participation, sharing of ideas and values, all with the intent to show by its life how God loves the world. In other words, the organization mirrors the message.
So my argument is that the way we see ourselves as members of a Christian community with a mission makes a difference to how we carry out the mission. First we have to know the mission and then we have to conceptualize ourselves as a team to carry it out with power equally distributed among the team members according to their roles.
Moving from the set of ideas in the first description to the set of ideas in the second description is a cultural change. Cultural change is possible if we set about it intentionally. Think how we have gone from a smoking culture to a non-smoking culture within 20 years. .
The hearts and minds of the Catholic people have been moving in the direction of reforming our Church’s clerical culture for some time now. The goal of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform in its plans for a Synod on September 18, 2010, is to think of practices for ourselves and our fellow Catholics to bring about intentional cultural change in service of our Christian mission.
Come join us or give us constructive criticism. Both are welcome.