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Reflections on Edmund Hill Ministry and Authority in the Catholic Church

Background: from a normative to a descriptive understanding of culture

As background to Edmund’s discussion we can ask exactly what is meant by Pope John XXIII’s inspiration behind his summonsing of the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-5), namely the idea of “aggiornamento”, bringing up to date. What is crucial here is the distinction between the classical idea of culture, a normative set of ways of thinking about things and of customs and values governing our society, and a descriptive idea of cultures, as the many creative sets of ideas and customs that express human aspirations. Without this distinction, which is supposed to show the error of exporting European-originated customs to other cultures under the guise of transferring the gospel message, the push of Vatican II for ecumenism and an open affirmative attitude to other religions, doesn’t make sense. But this acknowledgement, i.e. that the expression of genuine Christian faith can change over time and in different cultural contexts, introduces the importance of common and regional participation in such change (not just teaching but learning, on the part of Christian leaders).

The shift is momentous. It can lead people to say that there is no central Christian faith at all, nor a set of values to be objectively affirmed. This relativism would be a mistake, and leads to a “thin” procedural ethics of self-regarding individuals contracting on common principles. In contrast, what is appropriately affirmed by Christian ethicists is the founding human capacity for self-transcendence, the idea of the respect for human dignity as framing ethical debates.   Similarly the Christian message needs to be grounded in a universal cross-cultural human capacity, namely the capacity to participate in the life of God. We can already see what kind of leadership is needed if this latter sense is to be proclaimed and conveyed to the world: the capacity to participate…

The present structure of authority is a block to this development, in spite of what has been affirmed at Vatican II about cultural pluralism and openness to other religions. It doesn’t allow for the shift we are talking about here. What is embraced at Vatican II are the gains in moral outlook of the modern age, in particular the commitment to universal human rights; what is not embraced are the methods accompanying such gains.

The influence of historical and political changes
Hill is going to point to the influence of historical geo-political shifts in which the Church “places itself” differently, re-identifies itself. We can anticipate two of such factors can be noted:
(a) The assumption that the Greek Orthodox Church need not be taken into account in the Roman Church’s self-understanding and its canon laws; and
(b) The withdrawal by the nation-states of any necessary interest in the ecclesiastical structures, meant the Roman Church could gain more control over the appointment of bishops, hitherto done very much by regional bodies and ratified by the Church at Rome.

The idea of priesthood
Key to Hill’s book is the notion of priesthood. The Catholic idea of a priest is that of a sacramental office, not simply of a leader. This follows from a basic attitude to Jesus as more than simply a moral teacher (as for example Gandhi took him as).

But we can distinguish this idea as either

(a)     bound up with a premodern, essentially feudal, and pyramidical social structure with the king at the apex, the new nobles and manor lords in the middle, and peasant population at the bottom of the pyramid. The king’s authority is mediated by the feudal lords. This is paralleled in the church structure, where clergy mediates between God at the apex and the people at the base of the pyramid. 

(b)     the priest as animating the celebration of God’s grace of all participating Christians. The only mediator is Christ, who at any rate prays “that they may be in me as I am in the Father”, in other words abolishing his mediation in favour of communion.

Edmund Hill shows that the “sacramental” sense of the Catholic Church leader is actually one in which the priest represents or stands for, the idea of the whole Christian community, ordered or arranged so as to be the one expression of the Jesus-sign or Christ-sacrament.

We can now look more closely at his analysis of authority in the Church. He contrasts two models of authority, termed magisterial papalism and ministerial collegiality.

Magisterial Papalism
Under this concept of ecclesial authority the pope enjoys fullness of authority, and the bishops may very well be thought of as “the Holy Father’s representative”, for example, in Durban. The church is governed as if the Pope is like this, with the assistance of the curia/court, in which he appoints all bishops. He is an absolute monarch.

The “magisterium” and “hierarchy” are key terms. But “hierarch” means “high priest”. The idea is that our Lord made the church like this. The authority to govern and to teach (“magister”).
Sacerdotalism and clericalism are characteristic of this view. Sacred means apartness, i.e in the service of God. [We can see the Reformers noting that the clerical class seems to contribute nothing, among professionals. Or at least there seems to be a problem to the extent to which society becomes humanized, where it is that the “affirmation of ordinary life” – work, marriage - becomes prominent.]

Ministerial Collegialism
Under this conception, the Church is seen as a Church of Churches, not one uniform society divided into administrative units (= dioceses). Rather we have the Church of Corinth, the Church of Rome, and so on, united by a common faith and hope under the generous moderating influence of the Church of Rome. Governance requires mostly what are known today as Bishops’ Conferences.

Churches are “brotherhoods” – here church authority is important but purely functional, not sacred: there is no ecclesia docens and ecclesia discerns. Rather, as Hill says: “Teaching involves, means, implies, arguing, questioning, disagreeing, criticizing, being convinced, being criticized, learning.” (p.8)

Authority is seen as service. This means people should be able to choose their servants – as Anglicans choose their bishops for example. And everyone must be involved in legislating, on the principle that if it effects you, you should be consulted.

There is no doubt which version is the more authentic – we can see this by looking at: the NT evidence; church history; the notion of the ordained ministry; and the two encyclicals, Pastor Aeternus (1870) from Vat I, and Lumen Gentium (1962) from Vat II.
  1. The NT evidence.

    This is crucial to the argument. However I want to leave his discussion of this, at the moment: ironically, the familiarity to us of the material makes it more difficult to see the implications for our current understanding of authority in the church. As Catholics are well aware, just because it’s not in the NT does not imply that it can’t be part of the essence of our faith.

  1. History of the Church

    From 325 the Constantine Period. Here the danger arose of Christianity becoming simply a civil religion of the Roman Empire. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, treats him as the 13th apostle.

      There was a loss of the fund of authority enjoyed by all the faithful:

a)      The church came to be seen as a single universal institution, and so ordinary   people had more difficulty in being heard, unless this was going to be structured in.

b)      The clergy were regarded as sacred persons, and conversely, the laity as profane (for example, loss of the privilege of being able to teach).

c)      The clergy were keen to limit the authority of the state (i.e. of the lay) functionaries: so only the clergy could ensure the Church’s liberty. (Note a similar situation in Poland under Soviet Communist Rule.)

The period 888-1049 was a period of the degradation of the Roman church. When this was eventually restored, the Roman church found itself simply head of the Latin church, no longer concerned with the Eastern Church.

3.   The Ordained Ministry

      Order = arrangement. So with ordination the church is set in order, arranged. This ordering is a sacramental act: the Church in its unity with Christ, is a kind a sacrament of the unity of humankind and of union with God, and a means to this unity and union.

      It is not a sacrament for the benefit of the individual but grace conferred on the church. Edmund Hill quotes St Augustine:
      “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The former is a title of duty, the latter one of grace.”

      So the clergy is for the Church. They need to teach, etc, pass on the faith. But the crucial question is: What is the Church for? (What is it set in order for? Not individual salvation, simply.)

      The answer is: for the salvation of the world. (The Church, and not just bishops and clergy, is an instrument for the kingdom of God). The Church’s task is to promote justice and peace in the world, and to give an example of truth and love. So for example working for reconciliation and unity amongst Christians.

      This means:
i)                 evangelization of unbelievers
ii)                promotion of justice and peace
iii)               reconciliation among divided Christians.

So, Hill argues, the clergy’s role is that of encouraging and enabling fellow Christians, the whole Christian community of the Church, to meet their responsibilities to the ‘not-Church’, the world.

And this can’t be done by an authoritarian method of leadership, but only if there is a ministerial authority of service of, not over, the authority shared by all the faithful:
      “an authority which will elicit by encouragement, by respect, by consultation, by genuine and humble listening, the resources of inspiration and initiative that all the faithful can contribute to this common threefold task of the Church.” (p. 54)

The Priesthood
Two different terms are being translated:
In the NT, the words, presbyter and episcopus, meaning, elder and overseer.

But our term priest means something more like sacerdos, or hiereus (not terms used in the NT at all to describe Christian leadership).

      The confusion is because the eucharist was soon seen as a sacrifice, presided over by a sacerdos. But this means we de-sacralize the laity.

      Whereas the presbyter and episcopus don’t have that implication, there is no laity except everyone, all the faithful, the people of God.

      (Clearly, this is what Vatican II’s idea of the Church as the People of God tries to restore. But the implications for authority in the Church are not drawn, at least not drawn clearly enough.) Edmund writes:

      “I suggest it is the essential function of ministers as priests (but I am not to be taken as defining ministers as priests) to represent and ‘activate’ or ‘enable’ the priestly, sacerdotal power of the community of the faithful as a whole. It is the community as a whole, not just the bishop or presbyter, which properly offers the sacrifice of the mass in other words sacramentally participates in the sacrifice of Christ.” (p.59) But it needs to be enabled, set in order, to do so by the representative action of the minister.

The idea of mediation
    The minister shares his role of mediation with all believers, not just with ordained ministers, and on a principle of identification or communion, not on a principle of Platonic, hierarchical participation. This obviously shows itself in the communion with the saints in heaven, and Blessed Mary. They intercede with Christ himself, not by exercise of a sacred office. All Christians mediate for others in Christ, not in addition to Christ, lay people for clergy as much as clergy for lay people. This is the communion of the saints: not a hierarchy of the saints!

4.   1870 – Pastor Aeternus, and 1962 – Lumen Gentium

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