In the eyes of many today, the existence of a hierarchy in the Catholic Church is a counter-witness to the Gospel. It shows that the church is just like any other social organization with a few bosses and lots of minions. Power lies in the hands of those at the top while those at the bottom of the pyramid are marginalized.
The church talks about the equality of the baptized. But really there is no equality. The church is just another institution of domination.
Or so the argument goes.
It must be said that the Catholic Church is among the most hierarchical of all established religions. But such hierarchy exists not for the development and hoarding of worldly power. Rather, it is the means through which Christ continues to act in the world today.
To be sure, ordination has sometimes carried with it worldly power and wealth. The priesthood has sometimes been seen as a way out of poverty and into a good education, rather than as a way of becoming one with the poor. And the priesthood and religious life have been stained by the revelations of sexual abuse in numerous locales across the Western world in the last decade. Such stains are not new -- church history is rife with examples of faith being polluted by power.
The use of the priesthood for the pursuit and exercise of power, however, must be seen as an abuse. The hierarchy exists to serve the people of God and to build up the body of Christ, not to ride roughshod over the faithful. Throughout the church's history, reform movements have continually sprung up to renew the priesthood and religious life whenever the Gospel was too widely compromised.
Jesus told his followers to "call no one on earth your father" (Matthew 23:9). This remains essential advice. We must put no person above God. We are all here to serve God. And the pope carries the largest burden of service.
No one can ordain himself a priest. No one, no matter how inspired by God, can erect their own Catholic church, hang out a shingle announcing Mass times and start their own church community. The priest does not receive ordination on his own authority. He is called to act in the person of Christ and receives his ordination from a bishop who has himself received the fullness of the priesthood.
Christ promised to remain with us "to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20) and the sacraments of the church are a primary way that he is present to us. So the dispensing of God's gifts to all members of the body takes place through some members especially authorized to act in the person of Christ. Moreover, not anyone can authorize a person to become a priest. For someone to be properly authorized to act in the person of Christ, he must receive that office from someone else in a direct line of succession from the apostles.
The office into which one is ordained is that of teaching, governing and sanctifying God's people. The priest does not teach his own opinions; nor should he make up rules to suit his own desires; he does not dispense his own gifts like some ecclesial Santa Claus. Again, he acts in the person of Christ.
The main ministry is that of sanctifying God's people -- leading them to holiness. The ministries of teaching and ruling exist for higher end of sanctifying. Being ordained does not necessarily make the priest holier than the laity. But it does give him the ability and responsibility to lead people closer to God.
One adult catechism puts this succinctly: "the essential activity of the church is its spiritual life: its believing, hoping and loving, and its services of teaching and shepherding that nourish such life in Christ. All the external structures and activities of the church exist to serve the spiritual purposes" (The Teaching of Christ, fourth edition, pp. 158-59).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church strongly emphasizes the dimension of priestly service: "Entirely dependent on Christ who gives mission and authority, ministers are truly 'slaves of Christ,' in the image of him who freely took 'the form of a slave' for us" (no. 876). The minister is called to lose himself so Christ can teach, govern and sanctify.
The hierarchy thus exists to be a ministry of service, not power. "Whoever wishes to be greatest among you must be your servant," Jesus told the Twelve (Matthew 20:26).
Indeed, our church is now striving to replace symbols of power with those of service. Gone is the papal tiara with which popes had been crowned since the Middle Ages. Gone too are the footmen who used to carry the pope on his throne around St. Peter's Square. The pope now signs his documents as "the servant of the servants of God." For the hierarchy exists not to dominate, but to serve.
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