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God and Structures

01/15/2019 7:24 PM | Anonymous

Author: Paul Lakeland, Fairfield University

In Commonweal of November 1, 2018, James J. Heaney wrote an excellent piece, “Our Myth, Their Lie: Clericalism, Not Heresy, Caused the Crisis.” Writing from the perspective of the Diocese of Minneapolis, Heaney argued forcefully if not particularly originally that the true foundational problem revealed by the scandal of sexual abuse is that of church structures that enable the abuse. As he sees it, clergy in general and bishops in particular have been engaged for decades in a systematic effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the laity, pretending to address the problem while doing everything they could to minimize or even ignore it.

Whether Heaney is right or wrong in calling foul, he is certainly correct that some of the structures of clericalism have seemed to exacerbate the problem. And so he calls for structural change, really for the wholesale rethinking of many ecclesial structures. But here is where my question arises. In making this case Heaney comments that “portions of the church’s structure are divinely instituted, so their reform is neither possible nor desirable. But most of the details were dreamed up by humans. Those can change.” But is it really the case that there are any church structures that are divinely instituted? Sure we have ministry and ministerial leadership, but the form has changed over the centuries. Sure we have the Eucharist, but that isn’t exactly a structure. Nor are the sacraments in general, though they of course have structures, but the structures themselves aren’t divinely instituted.

If my assumption here is correct that there are in fact no divinely instituted structures, though there are obviously structures, most of which have changed over time, then the right question to be asking about church structures is not which can or should be changed, but: given that gospel, sacrament and church are the foundational realities of the Catholic tradition, what structures do we need at this moment in history to help proclaim the gospel, celebrate the sacraments and live a fulfilled life in the faith community? What kind of ecclesial community do we need to imagine into being that will do for our age what different structural instantiations of gospel, sacrament and church have done in previous ages? If we ask this kind of question, then defending the vitality of gospel, sacrament and church cannot be accomplished by asserting the unchangeable character of the structures that have surrounded them in the past. Structures are of their nature quite changeable.

If this is correct then the requirement for church reform in any age, and certainly in our own, is a spirit-filled imagination, full of excitement and devoid of fear. The wrong approach to reform is to ask what minimal changes we need to make to address what we take to be the principal problems of the present day. Unfortunately, when the ills are structural, it is imprudent to leave reform to those who live within the dysfunctional structures. Here, indeed, is a moment for the sensus fidelium.

So, are there any “divinely instituted” structures, and if not, what next?


  • 01/19/2019 10:59 AM | Daniel Finn
    “The majority of actors are the dead.” Auguste Comte’s adage was not demographic but sociological. His point helps us understand the character and manner of impact of the social structures within which we daily live, whether my parish or workplace, whether my city’s traffic system, the Roman Curia, or the couples book club I will attend next week.

    Put most simply, critical realist sociologists understand a social structure as a system of relations among (pre-existing) social positions. The social structure we call a parish comprises many such relations among positions: pastor and parishioner, celebrant and congregant, parishioner and parishioner, congregant and director of music, etc. Each one of these relations between social positions existed long before any of the current occupants of those positions entered into them.

    And each relation generates restrictions and opportunities for those who enter into the related social positions. Consider the relation of preacher and congregant on Sunday morning. That relation generates restrictions against interruptions, which are why you will likely never raise a hand to ask a question of the homilist, even though you might readily do so if your dean were explaining something to the faculty. Some restrictions have formal penalties for violations, but most don’t (e.g., the ban on questions is sufficiently enforced by the threat of others’ disbelieving faces).

    Thus, the first insight that sociology offers us about social structures is that we retain our freedom within structures even though they regularly alter our choices.

    Second, no one ever invents a social structure from scratch. The founders of Google, Harvard University, Cicero’s Roman senate, and your parish all well knew what that particular structure “should” be like, even if they also intended some change. As sociologist Margaret Archer puts it, “Agential power is always restricted to re-making, whether this be reproducing or transforming our social inheritance.”

    So, Paul Lakeland asks: are there any “divinely instituted” structures?

    According to the OED, the verb “institute” means “to set up, establish, found, ordain; to introduce, bring into use or practice.” The word bears the connotation that the thing instituted was not there before the act of institution.

    If this is true, structures can’t be divinely instituted because social structures are never instituted in the first place. The word “institute” creates the wrong impression. The relation of priest or pastor to parish member is different today from 600 or 1600 years ago, but even Ambrose modeled his De Officiis Ministrorum on Cicero’s De Officiis. This relation, so fundamental to what the Church is, was never invented or instituted. It developed.

    Are social structures divinely instituted? Perhaps “divinely shaped” is better. The Spirit is active in every age, inspiring the faithful. The structures we call parish, diocese, the Holy See – all evolved from earlier social structures. Many are the actors, long dead, whose creative, Spirit-guided efforts gave shape to the structure we call the Church.
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