Notice

A Question of Rights

Church as Hierarchy or Communion

By James E. Biechler

As a Catholic, the main problem I have with the ARCC Charter of Rights is its underlying assumption that lay people in the Church are equal to the clergy. My understanding is that Christ established the Church as a hierarchical society. Doesn't that mean that the clergy are superior to the laity?

--W.L.B., St. Charles, MO

The Code of Canon Law states: "In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one's own condition and function" (Canon 208). ARCC's Charter of Rights is in perfect accord with this canon and goes further in spelling out its implications. ARCC's Charter is based more on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council than upon the Code of Canon Law. A good case could be made for the fact that the Code is not always in agreement with the teachings of Vatican II. A significant number of theologians and canonists have commented on the retreat from Vatican II which the Code "canonized."

Few New Testament scholars today would agree that Jesus "founded" a "hierarchical" church. The distinction between "clergy" and "laity" was surely unknown to Jesus. One thing upon which there is growing agreement among scripture scholars is that Jesus was an egalitarian, a man who actually disregarded the social and religious obstacles to interpersonal equality. He associated with riffraff, ate with sinners and the socially unclean, accepted women and took them seriously even when they wanted to discuss theology. He practised open commensality in a society which placed great importance on discrimination at table. He even talked seriously to Samaritan divorcees.

So, if you want to make a case for hierarchy you will have to base it upon something other than the life and teaching of Jesus. That means that you will have to settle for something less than a divine basis for hierarchy and its clergy-laity distinction. You will have to regard hierarchy as a historical product, a social construction, a politically pragmatic structure of human invention. After all, that's what hierarchy is in all the other cultures around the world. That's what hierarchy is in America, too. Only here it is implicit in the culture whereas in the Church it is explicit and theologically legitimated. The culture of India is an interesting study for comparison with Catholic ecclesiastical culture. The French anthropologist Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus, a study of the Indian caste system, indirectly clarifies major features of Catholic ecclesiastical culture, which, like the culture of India with its distinction between brahmin and non-brahmin, is based upon the separation of two major classes, clergy and non-clergy. And, like the Indian distinction, the former represents the pure, the latter the impure. The word "caste" is derived, via Portuguese, from the Latin "castus," meaning "chaste." One of the main reasons for clerical celibacy is to keep the clergy "pure." This is the pure Catholic class, while the laity, usually married and therefore sexually involved, are the not-pure, the impure.

ARCC's main problem with hierarchy is twofold. First, and most importantly, hierarchy and communion are essentially antithetical and incompatible. There can be no true commensality between the pure and the impure. True commensality can exist only if the pure and the impure transcend, and thereby neutralize, those social categories. In India the high-caste brahmin, thought to be such by the divine order of things, may not eat with the non-brahmin. Catholic Eucharistic theology traditionally emphasized the union between Jesus and the communicant; communion between priest and people was a non-issue. In fact, traditional liturgy highlighted the radical distinction between the people and the priest who stood apart from and above them at Mass. So the true commensality of the Eucharistic meal, the primary remembrance of Jesus's own commensality, has been mostly subordinate to the ritual message of hierarchy and separateness. The Second Vatican Council made a step in the direction of transcending the divisiveness of the clergy-laity dichotomy in the Church by its introduction of the term "People of God." But by 1983, when the revised Code of Canon Law appeared, the forces opposed to the reforms of Vatican II managed to have the term relegated to mere nominal status in a title (Book II) and a few canons. So far, Vatican II's "People of God" is a term of no structural significance, despite the enthusiasm it once engendered among Catholics. The liturgical reforms inaugurated by Vatican II have done something to change the ritual message of hierarchy and lay subordination, but true Eucharistic commensality and communion await further structural (constitutional) reform in the Church.

Another major problem with hierarchy, in ARCC's view, is that no matter how many pious statements one makes about baptism creating a true equality in the Church, all this "equality" is negated by assertions of the divine establishment of inequality, namely, hierarchy. You don't have to read much of the Code of Canon Law to discover what kind of an inferior being a lay person is in the eyes of the ecclesiastical ruling class. That this inferiority is God's idea must surely strike us as blasphemous. If we could get ourselves to admit that human beings created hierarchy as a mode of social organization, our liturgy and ceremonials might come to be characterized by a humility emulating that of our Savior. And maybe then, formed by such a liturgy, we could begin the long journey toward true equality in the Church, that is, toward the end of racism, sexism, clericalism and pompous posturing of every kind.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America.

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