Barney asks: Perhaps you could define "the fundamental nature and mission of the Church as the Catholic Church understands it".

Barney Zwartz of The Age poses this question in the combox on his blog in response to my comment (see the combox of the post below).

In his own article he stated that “the institutional church needs a serious bout of self-examination as it heads into its third millennium” and that “the church can become far more democratic and open without compromising its core message of hope and salvation.”

The Church he is speaking of is the Catholic Church, although what entitles Barney to publically hold forth on what this Church should or shouldn’t do is beyond me, as he isn’t a member of it (except in the “real but imperfect” sense that all believers in Christ are, Barney being one of these).

His article essentially declares his agreement with the published opinions of the “three stooges” of Australian Catholic dissent–Geoffrey Robinson, Paul Collins and Max Charlesworth. All of these argue that the Church should get with the times, that she should dump unpopular disciplines and doctrines, that she should “restructure” along the lines of democratic societies, and that “the recommended changes concern not doctrine but how the church operates”.

NO, NO, NO, NO, I argue in response. The way in which the Church is structured, is a direct reflection of the fundamental nature and mission of the Church. The Church’s manifestation as an institution in the world is not a matter of barnacles on the ship’s hull, so much as leaves on the branches of the tree. The Church is not shaped like a statue being chipped away from the outside, but like a tree growing from the inside. Yes, the “enviroment” if you wish to call it that (the age, the culture, the mores of the times) has an effect on the way in which the Church grows, but may never be the IMPULSE for the growth. A tree branch may grow around an obstacle, but the growth comes from within the tree, not from the obstacle.

Which leads to Barney’s question: What does the Catholic Church understand her fundamental nature and mission to be?

The question is immense. The answer even more so. What simple response can be given?

I will limit myself to only those responses that I doubt either Barney, or the Three Stooges, could agree on–the points where I think they part company from the Church’s understanding of herself, since Barney has said that “Because, as I understand it, I think I do accept it.”

Yes, there are many aspects of the Church’s self-understanding of her nature and mission which which I am sure Barney (and Robinson et al.) are in agreement. This would include (for instance) the the Church as “the people of God”, and the Church’s mission to proclaim the “kingdom of God”, to bring God’s love to all people, to be witnesses to Jesus Christ etc.

But does it include these essential facts of the Church’s self-understanding:

1) The Church has its pre-existent, pre-Pentecost source in the Divine and Holy Trinity, and was established on earth by Jesus Christ in the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost.
2) That Christ established gifts and offices in the Church, among which was apostolic teaching office, the ministerial priesthood and the Petrine Ministry (the primacy of the successor of Peter).
3) That the Church is a single, universal, visibile society upon the earth, fully present in every local church, but in such a way that the universal Church is prior to each particular Church.
4) That the Church draws her very life, existence and mission from the Eucharistic sacrifice offered by the ministerial priesthood together with the baptismal priesthood.
5) That the Spirit leads the Church into all Truth, and that the Bishop of Rome and the bishops and Councils of the Church in union with him teach with the charism of infallibility
6) That the governing authority in the Church has been committed by Christ to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, and to them alone.

Well. Is that enough to be going on with? What about her mission? This is something that you won’t hear from the dissenting Stooges:

1) That Christ gave the Church the commission to proclaim the Gospel of redemption in his name to all nations
2) That there is salvation in no other name than the name of Jesus and that the only way to the Father is through him
3) That God has revealed objective and real knowledge about himself–real Truth–in the person of Jesus Christ and that the Church is committed to proclaim and teach this Truth and nothing else
4) That there is no salvation apart from the Church
5) That the whole Church–clergy and lay–are called to a new effort of evangelisation beginning with her own people
6) That the primary motive for this evangelisation is the love of Christ for the eternal salvation of all.

Once again, I could go on. But that should be clear enough why the Church is not much interested in democracy. Believe it or not, she is not much interested in “sex and power” either. While her members may at times be diverted from their core nature and mission, she herself remains focused. You mightn’t like it, but the “core mission” of the Church is to conform the world to Jesus Christ–not to conform the “Body of Christ” to the world.

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9 Responses to Barney asks: Perhaps you could define "the fundamental nature and mission of the Church as the Catholic Church understands it".

  1. Schütz says:

    In the combox on his blog:

    Barney says: Thank you for an excellent summary. You are right, I do not accept it all. I certainly do not accept that the Roman Catholic Church is the only church, coterminous with the church universal, and salvation is found only in her – but, I gather, this once-infallible teaching has also “developed”.

    Yes, it has developed. You note that I said “no salvation apart from the Church”. The Church is the instrument (“sacrament”) of salvation for all people, whether they are within its visible boundaries or outside it. In this sense, we would not want to assert that salvation is “coterminous” with the Church’s visible boundaries, and certainly do not say that salvation may only be found by those who are visibly members of the Church. But in anyone’s salvation, in a way perhaps known only to God, the Church is instrumental.

    Barney says: But I do believe in a church universal, which is the company of all those who belong to Christ.

    The question you must ask yourself, Barney, is “Is this a purely spiritual community? Or is it not an incarnate body as our Lord was?” The Church is, after all, the Body of Christ, and Christ was not the invisible man!

    Barney says: You must be aware that the Petrine primacy is hotly debated, and highly political – and always was.

    The way in which the Petrine ministry is exercised is hotly debated (and Pope JPII even invited Christians of other communions to enter into this debate WITH us), although there is strong and ancient support for the Roman claims. But there is a growing consensus about the need for a Petrine Ministry in the Church, and the fact that Christ intended such a ministry, in the ecumenical dialogues today.

    Barney says: And you are right – I cannot accept points 4-6. But, as you know, I am not a Catholic.

    Which is precisely my point to you, Barney. How can you offer advice to us about how we should be going about our business when you don’t accept the basic premises of what our business is? I should point out that I forgot to include in the “mission” list what I included in the “nature” list, namely, that it is part of the Church’s mission to daily offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Kind of requires a “priestly caste” (or, preferably and properly, a “ministerial priesthood”) you know?

    Barney says: Now, my challenge to you. Accepting for the sake of argument your description of the church, what about the fact that laypeople helped elect the pope for the first 1000 years and that the church had married priests for the same time? There are married priests in the Catholic church now. Not everything is so fixed and eternal as you imply. Popes have often changed how papal elections are to be conducted.

    I am not as ignorant of history as you seem to think, Barney. You may not know that the times when “lay people elected popes” were not high points in the history of the Church. The results were rarely satisfactory–and were usually very much more orientated on politics and power (and sometimes even sex!) than they are today! You should read up on the history of the papacy in the ninth and tenth centuries. The election of the pope by Cardinals actually safeguards the ministry of Peter. Only moderns ignorant of their history would think that the papal office would be enhanced if it was a “democratic” election “by the people”.

    Barney says: These are areas that are open to discussion and development – or should be. Why shouldn’t laypeople help elect the next pope? It can leave the church’s self-understanding intact. Why should Vatican bureaucrats be almost entirely priests? Saying Mass is seldom part of the role.

    The governing and teaching role in the Church go together and generally belong to the authority of bishops. Where bureaucracy involves authority and governance, it must be in the hands of a bishop. However, as we see by one or two recent appointments in the Vatican, even very senior non-governing roles can indeed be exercised by lay men and women.

    Barney says: And re bishops as repository of wisdom, the church has certainly accepted wisdom from non-bishops over the centuries, many of whom were canonised. None of the Scripture-writers were bishops – unless you want to make that claim of Peter.

    I don’t think I suggested that Bishops are “the repository of wisdom” in the Church! God help us if that is the case! No, but they do exercise the apostolic teaching office in the Church. We can’t change that. It was instituted by Christ.

    Barney says: As I said, it is how the church operates that should always be open to examination. You could still hold your high view of the church and accept my suggestions – it seems to me.

    Of course the Church can change many things about the way she exercises her ministry and carries out her mission. But such changes are generally not “revolutionary”. The examination is generally done by the whole church over long periods of time, and are rarely the result of one person’s (or even “three person’s”!) “suggestions” as to what they think the Church should do. And the question is never “What can we get away with changing to make the Church more palatable?” but “How can we more faithfully carry out the mission that has been entrusted to us?”

  2. Past Elder says:

    Holy Moly, that non-existant invisible church just crept in the back door! Oh crap, but just like everything else Roman, it’s only there because Rome says so and only to the extent Rome finds non-disputed elements in it. Rome, first, last and always.

    BTW, did you have a nice 478th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession? I did — got called an apologist for crypto-papists on a Lutheran blog and a hatemonger on a (newly) “Catholic” one, conciliar of course! God bless me sideways then blow me out the door.

  3. Schütz says:

    Hmmm. “Hate-monger”… No, I don’t think that suits you, PE. “Intemperate”, “tactless”, “bombastic”, “impolite”, “illogical”, “unreasonable”, “foul mouthed”, “one-eyed”… Any of those. But I would never judge you as a “hate-monger”!

  4. eulogos says:

    I think I remember that there is a book called The Catholic Church, (or Catholicism?)the corporate destiny of mankind.
    That says it all as far as mission and goal goes.

    With Adam’s fall not only was there a disruption within each man, but also all of mankind shattered into disparate groups. The Church is the new Adam, into which all of the scattered bits of humanity are called. And that Church subsists in the Catholic Church, by which I mean all those churches in union with the Bishop of Rome.
    Other Christians belong to some degree to the Church in the ways described in VII Decree on Ecumenism.
    Susan Peterson

  5. Past Elder says:

    Well golly, Dave, I didn’t know you thought that well of me!

    I thought Christ was the New Adam.

    Oh I forgot, Christ is the Catholic Church.

    Everything is the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church, the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church.

    BTW, I agree that the election of popes by cardinals does safeguard the papacy, from at least being overtly traded for like a barrel of oil.

    Now why didn’t Christ think of that? Thou art Peter, and upon the papacy I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not overcome it, being safeguarded by a college of cardinals.

  6. M. M. Regan says:

    “Now why didn’t Christ think of that?”

    Sometimes ‘human arrangements’ have their place, Past Elder.

  7. Past Elder says:

    Who said they didn’t?

    The problem is in taking them as either divine or equal to the divine arrangements (based of course on their being actions of the Catholic Church) rather than human arrangements themselves.

  8. teajay says:

    “That the governing authority in the Church has been committed by Christ to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, and to them alone.”

    That is probably the most important, and misunderstood, element of the Catholic Church that critics miss. You can only hand on to others power that you yourself have. That’s how secular democracies work – the people give up their power (or some of it) to those that govern them (it is a primary assumption of secular democracies that each individual has an ‘inherent’ sovereignty.) For the CC, God never gave doctrinal power to people in general so how can people in general give it to their religious leaders by electing them? And this is a central doctrine, not a peripheral administrative rule. It’s only through one or more bishops giving their power to their successors that the Church’s doctrinal power persists. (And bishops trace their power to the Apostles and the Apostles to Christ.)

    It would, of course, be possible to ‘elect’ bishops in the CC but the election would not in any sense transfer power to them, it would always be subject to ratification by bishops who would then transfer doctrinal power to the selected individual. That explains how apostolic succession (as it is currently understood) is consistent with the past practices of ‘electing’ bishops and popes (such elections were always subject to ratification by power bearing bishops.) It’s probably more accurate to call these incidents ‘popular selection’ of bishops and popes rather than ‘election’ which is often understood to involve a transfer of power.

    (I’m not using precise terminology here, by ‘doctrinal power’ I mean the authority that bishops are understood to possess.)

  9. Past Elder says:

    Well, let’s see. First we were taught that it’s actually better that we use a Bible translated from St Jerome, because he was closer in time, sources and tradition to the Apostles than we could ever be, and was a saint to boot.

    But then we had a development of understanding, and we found out how wrong that all was, got all ecumenical, and started translating “from the original languages”. And we found, in the Jeeusalem Bible notes to Titus that the episcopoi were not yet “bishops”, and that the word indicated the duties of the officers designated presbyteroi, the same office. But we learned that this office, assisted by deasons, developed into our priest/deacon structure, and the Apostles over several communities gave way to an episcopus over several communities rather than one in each community, with priests related but separate.
    And now we’re just collegial as all hell.

    Which boils down to: as long as it’s the Catholic Church it’s the same even if it’s different.

    Not sure if that’s in the New JB — the feminist one since we had another development of understand and found out how bloody sexist poor old Alexander Jones was.

    Can’t wait to see what’s “Catholic” next!

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