The Church as Institution

1. The church as immutable institution

In his chapter on the "Church as Institution" in Models of the Church," Avery Dulles presents extreme institutional positions, some of which which have been corrected but not all. For instance:

"We teach and declare: the Church has all the marks of a true Society. It is so perfect in itself that it is distinct from all human societies and stands far above them." (Vatican I)

"The Church of Christ is not a community of equals in which all the faith have the same rights. It is a society of unequals because there is in the Church the power from God whereby to some it is given to sanctify, teach, and govern, and to others not."

"The Church is a unique type of school—one in which the teachers have the power to impose their doctrine with juridical and spiritual sanctions."

According to Robert Belarmine, "The members of the Church are those who profess the approved doctrines, communicate in the legitimate sacraments, and who subject themselves to the duly appointed pastors."

According to canon law (in the codes of both 1917 and 1983), basic Catholic institutions exist by divine law or divine institution, e.g. the existence of the church, of the papacy, and lay-clergy differences (canon 113, 145, 207, 330)

What is striking here, in the examples given above, in the writings of Avery Dulles, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, is that the church as institution is always described in juridical or ontological terms as it was common in the 19th century and before, that is, in a fixist way that stands in opposition to today's conception of social institutions as man made and open to change.

2. Institutions in the social sciences

Broadly defined, institutions are patterns of social behavior which can be found not only in laws, but in customs, mores, traditions, and all forms of social life. Thus Thanksgiving is a typical American institution: it is a holiday, the occasion of family reunions, and celebrated with typical of American food. A major characteristic of all institutions is that they can change. One does not have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving day. Federal and State laws can be changed and the U.S. Constitution can be amended. The basic American philosophy is that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." This principle applies to all American social organizations and is generally accepted abroad.

Naturalists do not see the colonies of bees and aunts as immutable by natural or divine law as Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) did. The basic law of nature is evolution and change from birth to death. Anthropologists study the social forces that shape and change traditional societies. History is the study of change over time. Sociology was defined by Durkheim as science des moeurs, as the science of mores which are in constant transformation. He studied institutional patterns in suicides, the division of labor, and the development of religion. Sociological specializations range from the study of laws to the study of fads and fashions, all of which change over time.

When our contemporaries reject institutional Catholicism, they reject a church defined in fixist, juridical, and ontological terms, in the name of a modern conception of institutions understood as man-made patterns open to change. Of course they know that not all things change, but they reject as oppressive the view that nothing can change.

3. The church as dynamic institution

The fixist and juridical view of the church applies mainly to the hierarchical structure of the church but much less to parish life. While local structures may be defined canonically, the patterns of behavior within parishes can vary enormously. Hence pastors have the opportunity to create dynamic and vibrant parish institutions.

Here are three outstanding examples of institutional change in parishes.

1. In Guatemala a parish has created about 200 small communities (involving more than thousand people) that meet weekly for prayer, meditation, and evangelization. The priest says about 100 open-air Masses per year in all kinds of neighborhoods (streets, garages, parking lots, etc.) on weekdays, and they are well attended. The Sunday and weekday liturgies are inspiring. The parish grows by about 15 to 20 percent per year.

2 The Sunday Mass at St. Sabina in Chicago takes 2 to 3 hours, and the homily lasts about 45 minutes. There is constant interaction between the celebrant, the choir, and the assembly. Singing and dancing are enthusiastic. The spirituality is one of social justice. The transformations accomplished by this parish in its neighborhood are remarkable.

3. A more radical initiative was taken by the diocesan synod of Poitiers, France, in 1993. It introduced local communities in replacement of traditional parishes. A Christian community must fulfill at least three functions: announce the gospel, pray, and serve those in need; three lay volunteers are sought out to fulfill these functions. A community also needs a treasurer to take care of material things, and a liaison person for contacts with the priest, the diocese, and city hall; for these two functions persons are selected by a public vote. When a local community has these five volunteers it is assigned a territorial space, preferably not the traditional parishes, and a priest to serve them. Volunteers serve for three years, renewable only once. The first communities were created in 1995; by 2003 there were 220 local communities. The experiment was proposed, never imposed. The idea caught fire: when given responsibilities people are transformed. The church is its people, not its clergy, nor its geographical or administrative structures.

4. What can change

In the analysis of 13 declining and 9 growing Protestant churches in Canada it was found, as expected, that in growing churches (as measured by increase in church attendance) both the clergy and the congregation scored high on conservative theology. Growing churches also favored more modern forms of worship. Here are the data. Use drums, electric guitars, visual projections, video clips, or organ often or always:

                              Growing churches           Not growing churches
theology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . conservative. . . . . . . . . . . . . . liberal
drums. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .78 %. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 %
guitars. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .89 %. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 %
visual projections. . . . . . . . . .100 %. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23 %
organ. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 %. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77 %

Regression analysis showed that the forms of worship were as important or more important for church growth than theology. A church may not be able to change its theology but it can change its forms of music, and thus foster growth in attendance. (Any teenager could have told you that!)

5. What not to change

Ethnic minorities (Vietnamese, Haitians, Latinos, some Italian Americans etc.) usually do not want liturgical change. They may be most happy with traditional devotions and the church as institution. There are some great and vibrant traditional parishes. In many places the church as institution functions well; liberals should not interfere there.

6. What should change

Most Catholic institutions are built on the foundations of the Council of Trent, and these foundations are taken to be unchangeable and immutable. For instance: the theology of the seven sacraments as sources of other-worldly graces with little effect in this world, the structure of power borrowed from 17th century enlightened despots by divine right, clerical nominations granted as favors without public hearings, the concentration of executive, legislative and judiciary powers in the hands of popes and bishops, the delegation of power over the liturgy to unknown Vatican committees working in secret, much of official sexual morality, and not least, the teaching that Jesus was not a female which prevents women from being ordained.

In the summer of 1968, in a casual conversation in Washington, DC, a priest expressed the opinion that, before the end of the century, the pope will wear a gray business suit. This opinion did not seem exorbitant back then, fifty years ago.

WHAT CAN BE CHANGED AND WHAT CANNOT? Please identify in the church outstanding patterns of behaviors (institutions) that are free from the traditional fixist and ontological framework. Some may be found in religious education, others in outreach, others in social justice, others in vibrant liturgies, others in music and art, others in small groups, others in spirituality and adult education, others in the parochial schools, others in Latino ministries, others in conferences and discussion meetings, others in remarkable homilies, others in bible studies, others in... (fill in the blank and give an example).

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