Monday, 17 December 2012

Lumen Gentium: On Hierarchical Structure


Following the coverage of chapters one and two of Lumen Gentium, let me now take a look at chapter three, which deals with the Church’s hierarchy, before then turning to the laity in chapter four. As before, if you are not a Catholic, I’d like to encourage you to read paragraph two of my post on Dei Verbum, the first of the sixteen Vatican II documents I would like to try and read during this Year of Faith.

So, after chapter one sketched out what the purpose of the Church is and chapter two covered how the “priestly community” that is the Church lives and relates to the rest of humanity, we now proceed to consider the Church’s hierarchy.

The starting point here (as everywhere else in Lumen Gentium) is Jesus who “sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church,” the purpose of their pastoral function being to “serve their brethren, so that [… they] may arrive at salvation[, ...] freely and in an orderly way.” To ensure that the bishops themselves, who serve the rest of the People of God, are “one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”

In the Early Church, “the apostles, by preaching the Gospel everywhere, and it being accepted by their hearers under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gather together the universal Church.” Since the Gospel that the apostles taught is meant for all time, their mission too needs to persist, which is why the apostles appointed successors. “They passed on to [them …], as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves” and called them to appoint their successors in turn. “Through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.”

“Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, […] presid[e] in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. […] In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, [… Jesus], is present in the midst of those who believe.” The “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” that the apostles received from Jesus was “passed on […] to their helpers by the imposition of hands, and it has been transmitted down to us in Episcopal consecration.” In addition to sanctifying, episcopal consecration “also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which […] can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” This to my mind is an important point as it underlines the centrality of communion among the members of the hierarchy of the Church (as among all of its members). While episcopal consecration is a gift to the consecrated individual, the powers it confers in terms of teaching and governing are contingent on the entire hierarchy of the Church and don’t ultimately reside with the single bishop. This is again very much modeled on how the Early Church operated: the apostles weren’t just an association of individuals, but a united body of Jesus’ followers, with Jesus in their midst. Lumen Gentium calls them a “college,” which already etymologically points to collaboration, since it derives from collega: “one chosen to work with another.”

“St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together.” Hence, “issues [are to be] settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered.” Nonetheless, “the college […] of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” The college of bishops, “insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ.” To my mind, the balance presented here between collegiality on the one hand and singular, individual authority on the other, and between variety and unity, are all modeled on the Trinity itself, where unity and distinction coexist and where there is a life that needs to be participated in rather than rules for mindless execution.

One of the main roles of bishops is preaching the Gospel, from which they bring forth “new things and old,[see Matthew 13:52] making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.” When “teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, [they] are to be respected by all as […] speak[ing] in the name of Christ.”

In this context, Lumen Gentium underlines the doctrine of papal infallibility, by again starting from Jesus, who “willed His Church to be endowed [with infallibility] in defining doctrine of faith and morals.” The pope’s infallibility manifests itself when he, “the head of the college of bishops, […] as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act […] proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” The resulting proclamations “of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are […] irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.” Seen within the above presentation of the Church’s hierarchy, there is nothing jarring or surprising about infallibility being attributed to the above proclamations. Furthermore the weight of responsibility they carry has meant a tremendously sparing use since this teaching first became dogmatically binding in Vatican I (see Pastor Aeternus).

Another of a bishop’s key roles is his being the steward of priesthood in the local church that he serves, “especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be offered.” “Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, […] administering it in accordance with the Lord’s commandments and the Church’s laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese.” Bishops are therefore there to transmit Jesus’ holiness: “By the ministry of the word […] and through the sacraments, the regular and fruitful distribution of which they regulate by their authority, they sanctify the faithful. [… B]y the example of their way of life they must be an influence for good to those over whom they preside, refraining from all evil and, as far as they are able with God’s help, exchanging evil for good, so that together with the flock committed to their care they may arrive at eternal life.” In all this they need to “remember that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant” (cf. Luke 22:26-27).

The above “job description” is brought together by emphasizing the Good Shepherd as the role model for bishops, “who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to lay down his life for his sheep” (cf. John 10:11). Bishops are then reminded that they too are “beset with weakness” and that this ought to lead them “to hav[ing] compassion on the ignorant and erring.” A bishop is “not [to] refuse to listen to his subjects” and needs to “take care of [his flock] by his prayer, preaching, and all the works of charity, and not only of them but also of those who are not yet of the one flock.” The faithful in turn “must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all may be of one mind through unity.”

Having presented the role of the bishop, Lumen Gentium proceeds to introduce priests and deacons, to whom a bishop “hand[s] on […] various degrees of participation in [his] ministry.” Priests, who “are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power[, …] are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship.” “They exercise their sacred function especially in the Eucharistic worship or the celebration of the Mass[, …] acting in the person of Christ.” Priests “believ[e] what they have read and meditated upon in the law of God, teach what they have believed, and put in practice in their own lives what they have taught.” Finally, priests are also called to “wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.”

Chapter three then ends with a presentation of how deacons figure in the Church’s hierarchy. “[S]trengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and […] priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God.” The list of a deacon’s duties then is to “administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.” In other words, this looks to me like almost everything that a priest is ordained to do, expect for celebrating the Eucharist. Lumen Gentium then states that “[t]he diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy [… and] be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state.” Raising the diaconate to a permanent state (as opposed to a transitory one that those preparing for the priesthood received towards the end of their studies) and opening it to married men was a big deal and something contemplated for the future during Vatican II. Today, fifty years later, it is great to see that - at least in some countries - this vision has become reality.

The end of the third chapter brings us to the point where the Church, initially presented as the link between God and humanity and then fleshed out in terms of how it operates, has had its hierarchy presented in greater detail. Like in its previous chapters, here too there is a constant balancing act (that was also present in Dei Verbum), which attempts to present the transcendent, divine and perfect, incarnate in the weak, human and limited. Instead of being a cause for frustration and disappointment, humanity is lifted up and called to participate in the life of the Trinity, while remaining conscious of its limitations. Instead of being obstacles, these limitations are opportunities for compassion and for the overcoming of separateness. To my mind this chapter too is a source of joy and I look forward to reading about the laity next in chapter four.