Lesson 3: The Servant Church

I am going to lay out two dominant narratives that the Church has used to understand and identify herself in the past 500 years. More importantly, I am then going to suggest a new narrative offered by Vatican II. I hope you and I will keep in mind my belief that narratives always need correction and always are ongoing. In other words, I am doing this with a lot of humility, understanding that there are all sorts of nuances I cannot cover in this format.

I think the first outdated narrative could be entitled, “The Imperial Church.” It is associated with the Christendom of the Middle Ages that espoused a hierarchical institution that demanded obedience from its members and the world. This is a this-world community that presents itself as the one and only establishment that speaks for God. Its primary communication is fiat that judges heresy. The epitome of this church was probably caught in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors that attacked “the shameless lovers of liberty.” Having said that, it is important to point out that I do not identify the Imperial Church with the Roman Catholic. All sorts of other manifestations are found around us in our time.

I had a hard time labeling the second outdated narrative. I settled on Evangelical, but again do not mean to identify it only with those communities using the name in our time. I see it as a narrative going back to the Reformation that characterizes the Church as proclaiming an otherworldly message from God to hopeless sinners living in an evil world. It really does not need a community, because it focuses on a preacher channeling God’s word to individuals. It is epitomized by the anything-goes cheap grace of the evangelist who assures the penitent he is saved if he says a Jesus Prayer and sincerely means it from his heart. Of course, Karl Marx is quite right when he perceived it is opium that promises life after death to this needy world.

Convinced that Vatican II offers a new narrative, I tried to put it into some kind of summary statement by reading quickly through the Council’s documents. I seldom read anything quickly, but I did it this time in hopes that some recurring themes would jump out at me. And they did. Interestingly, even though particular documents might not have highlighted these themes they consistently appear throughout them all.

They speak of a Servant Church ministering to the world. This church is pictured as a visible community that provides an example of humility and self-sacrifice for humanity. In this community, the clergy are the servants of the laity who go out to serve in the world. Throughout the documents a major function of this service is to care for the weak and the poor.

The documents also constantly emphasize we live in a new age of human history that needs this Servant Church. They describe this new age as a “socialization” that is defined as an “evolution towards unity.” Although that unity takes many forms, it primarily means a world community featuring a new universal culture in which all parts are mutually dependent on each other. In this context, the Servant Church sees the whole human family as the family of God.

Although there are references to sinful actions and people, the overwhelming emphasis is on the dignity of the human person. Many scholars think the primacy of conscience has emerged as the dominant contribution of the Council. The Church is not described as the clergy offering the laity the means of grace so much as the laity being equipped by the clergy to serve God in the world. The hierarchy might consider themselves paternalistic fathers, but the consciences of the laity has become a challenge to that kind of authority.

Another prominent theme is unity in diversity. This recognition that one size no longer fits all permeates the work on church practices as bishops are allowed to determine what is needed in their locality. The most obvious examples are the vernacular liturgy and the acceptance of non-Roman Catholic as Christian communities. I had to laugh at one place where this was expressed as being “joined with us in some way by the Holy Spirit.”

Finally, I noticed the Servant Church was consistently pictured as engaging in conversation. The documents emphasized this was truly a dialogue in which both sides, often the church and world, enlighten one another through honest discussion. The pastoral language used by the Council reinforced this theme. It was never taken to mean that the Servant Church had nothing to say, but simply that she was one voice in a larger conversation about the common good. It was constantly stated that she spoke the Gospel that offered light for this world. This message was described as faith, hope, and love, although these virtues were usually stated as if everyone understood what they meant. Nonetheless, the Council called our wealthy society to account for leaving so many poor, sometimes with what I think is a patristic reminder to “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.”

Next week, I want to use this narrative to critique the reality television show that passes for actuality in our society.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Top