Two church models

Image: Mario Wallner


Conservatives insist and persist in the old structure of a hierarchical and pyramidal Church, full of privileges

In the current Roman-Catholic Church, two models of organizing the community of the faithful are confronted. Said in easy-to-read language: the model of a Church-society of the faithful and a Church-communion among all the faithful.

The Church-society of the faithful is organized hierarchically: pope-bishops-priests-lay people. The organizing concept is the “sacred power” (sacred powers) exercised by those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders: the clergy. The supreme power is in the head, in the Pope, it is distributed among the bishops and to a lesser extent in the presbyters, excluding lay men and women because they have not been invested in the sacrament of Holy Orders.

As can be seen, it is a society of unequals: on the one hand, the clergy with power and with the word and, on the other, the laity without power and without the word. It was explicitly said by Pope Gregory XVI (1831-846): “No one can ignore that the Church is an unequal society, in which God has destined some to be rulers and others to be servants. These are the laity, that are the clergy”. Pius X (1903-1914) was even more explicit: Only the college of pastors has the right to direct and govern. The masses have no right other than to allow themselves to be governed like an obedient flock that follows its shepherd.”

It can be argued whether this model conforms to the gospels and the practice of the historical Jesus. But it's dominant these days.

The other model, the Church-communion of all, found expression in thousands of base ecclesial communities (CEBs), especially in Brazil, Latin America, the Caribbean and other parts of the Christian world. Due to the general lack of priests, lay people, men and women of faith, completely helpless, took up the task of carrying forward the message and practice of Jesus. It is important to note that generally it is the poor and the faithful who gather in communities of 15-20 families around listening to the Gospel, read, discussed among all. In its light the problems of life are discussed. Then there are creative celebrations and practical consequences are drawn for everyday life. They are the base, in a double sense: social (popular classes) and ecclesial (lay men and women).

The structuring axis is “communion” (communio/koinonia) among all who feel equal, brothers and sisters. Everyone participates without exception. Logically, not everyone does everything. That is why they distribute the various services (which São Paulo calls charismas) among themselves: who takes care of the sick, who catechizes children, who teaches literacy, who prepares celebrations, who articulates with other movements, who is responsible for coordinating that everything flows and the unity of services is maintained for the good of all. Everything is circular, typical of the community spirit.

Here, a new way of being Church emerges – close to the Church of the beginnings, as witnessed in the epistles of São Paulo, when the faithful gathered in the houses of this or that person. It is said among the members of the CEBs: it is a Church that is born from the faith of the people by the Spirit of God. Theologians and bishops who were inserted in this way of being Church coined the expression: ecclesiogenesis: the genesis of a Church or the re-inversion of the Church of Jesus and the apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is no discernible conflict between the two models: those in the CEBs want bishops and priests within the communities, and many bishops and priests support and are part of this way of living the evangelical faith. The only tension and, at times, conflict is between those groups of bishops and priests who have not made the option for the poor people and their ecclesial expression in the base communities and persist in the pyramidal character of the Church-society.

In any case, here emerges a Church that is not an organization but a living organism, always open to new ways of communicating and living the Gospel, united with life and in dialogue with everyone, but especially with the oppressed and impoverished in their struggles for liberation.

I have the clear impression that Pope Francis, when proposing the theme “A synodal Church: communion-participation-evangelization” for the Synod of Bishops in 2023, has in mind the experience of the Basic Ecclesial Communities that he knows well and that have been so well exposed at the CELAM Conference in Aparecida, whose document he was the main editor. The Pope understands the Church to be “constitutively synodal”, “a Church in permanent synod”, that is to say, a Church that goes beyond its hierarchical structure, but understands itself, in line with Vatican II, as Church-people-of-God. For him, it is essential to listen and give voice to those who never had a word and were never heard in the Church: lay men and women. It is about “listening to the people”, “listening to the totality of the baptized”, always starting from below, from the local, the parish, the diocesan and reaching the national, the continental and the universal.

When celebrating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod, he was blunt: “Synodality is a dynamic of fruitful circularity…a dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions”.

This is not an aspiration or a desideratum. This vision is already lived and developed by thousands of Ecclesial Base Communities and seriously ecclesiologically grounded by Latin American theologians. Synodality is equivalent to ecclesiogenesis, the reinvention of the Church's way of being based on the faith of the great poor and believing majorities under the inspiration of the Spirit of the dead and risen Jesus.

Pope Francis takes a concept from tradition, the Synod, and extends its scope beyond the episcopate, to the whole Church, starting from the bottom, from those who were made invisible and considered “mass of customers” (Pius X): lay Christians , men and women.

Universal synodality represents a reform of the structures of the Church from within and from below, through the work and grace of the Pope's spiritual discernment. He listened to the course of history and the universal yearning for communion and participation in the destiny of our history and that of Mother Earth, ecologically threatened. The Church becomes synodal and communion in response to this desire.

Now we understand better why many are opposed to Pope Francis, as he leaves behind that vision that made the clergy a faction within the Church and transformed it into a function (a charisma) of service together and with all the people of God . Conservatives insist and persist in the old structure of a hierarchical and pyramidal Church, full of privileges that are hardly justified in the face of the historical Jesus and the Gospels.

A path has been opened. We must walk it and consolidate it. Only in this way can the Church more easily become dewesternized and globalized.

*Leonardo Boff he is a theologian. Author, among other books, of Church: charisma and power (Vozes).


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