Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yves Congar on the Monarchical Episcopate and Tradition

Are priests and bishops necessary? Yes, and at least by historical necessity if nothing else

A theologian with the hands and wrists of a farmer. Yves Congar, O.P. (1904-1995)

One of my first jobs coming out of college was in the Audio-Visual Department at Polaroid’s corporate headquarters in Cambridge, MA. I maintained an image library, and assisted with product photography and the production of multi-projector slide shows. Great fun.

During my tenure there I became close friends with the staff photographer, who had about twenty years with the company. Among other things, he used to entertain me with stories about a year he once spent on hiatus, working as a “bodyguard” in Muhammad Ali’s extended entourage. We worked cheek-by-jowl every day and talked about all sorts of things, including religion. He was a Pentecostal at the time.

It would be more accurate to say that it was an internship rather than a job. I was getting paid peanuts. Even though it was a lot of fun, eventually I had to move on and do other things in order to earn a real living, but my friend and I stayed in touch periodically over the years.

A couple of years ago he called on the phone and informed me that he was no longer a Pentecostal, but was now a member of the Church of Christ, which, as he described it, “was the original church founded by Jesus Christ.” “Oh no, here we go,” I thought… When I demurred and mildly suggested that my church was the one that was actually founded by Jesus Christ, well, I was regaled with an earful about how the Roman Catholic Church was a man-made institution founded by Pope Boniface (which Pope Boniface, I’m can’t quite recall… perhaps it was a reference to Boniface VIII, on account of his bull Unam Sanctum, which declared “that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff”), and thus, no true church at all. We got into a long heated discussion about the primacy of Peter, praying to Mary and to the saints, purgatory, “thou shall not call any man father,” the sins of priests, etc, etc…

I actually felt rather badly for him, because I had the sense that he had been declared by his church community to be a “discipler,” which means that he had a certain quota that he needed to make in terms of winning converts. In having to deliver his speil to me, of all people, he must have been pretty desperate... When I told him in a later conversation that the Church of Christ was not the original church, but traces its origins to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in 1832, it didn’t go over too well with him.

In any case, one of the things we debated in the first call was the three-fold ministry of bishop, deacon, and priest, and what precisely was meant by the New Testament’s Koine Greek terms of “presbyteros” and “episkopos.” We discussed whether or not the Catholic priesthood was a biblically valid form of ministry.

The debates to be found over it on the web are lively to be sure, but a passage that I found particularly useful in discussing the question, and for that matter, how scripture, tradition, and church history interplay in general, was written by the great French theologian Yves Congar OP in his book The Meaning of Tradition.
We can look finally at the Church herself and her ministries. What has been handed down in writing on this subject is certainly considerable, and infinitely precious, but it is also fragmentary and sporadic. It is well known that the word “Church” itself occurs only twice in the Gospels (MT 16:18) and 18:17) and that 1 Peter, while it deals at length with the idea, does not mention the word once. As for the ministries, they are mentioned more from an ethical point of view, with regard to the binding nature of their exercise within the community, than that of their organization. It is significant and worth noting that the same is true of the ordination rituals. But the scriptural evidence is of a nature to provide endless discussion, and in fact there has been so much argument over its exact meaning that a critical reader of the Bible can always produce reasons for doubting a given piece of evidence, for dating it differently, for attributing it to another writer who was stupid or biased, and so on. What are the “presbyters” and the “episcopos”; what is the origin of their institution?

The Church could not wait until the critics were agreed among themselves; she had to live. She lived her own life, which had been handed down to her as such, before the texts and together with them, in the texts and yet not limited to them, independently of them. She did not receive her life from them. She was the Church from the time of the apostles and not the product of their writings; she used these writings, not following them word for word, as a pupil copies an exercise imposed from outside, but treating them as a mirror and yardstick to recognize and restore her image, in each new generation.

Tradition, as understood in this paragraph, is the communication of the entire heritage of the apostles, effected in a different way from that of their writings. We must try to define it more precisely and describe the original way in which it was done…. It could well be compared to all that is implied by the idea of upbringing as opposed to instruction. We do not bring up a child by giving him lectures in morality and deportment, but rather by placing him in an environment having a high tone of conduct and good manners, whose principles, rarely expressed as abstract theories, will be imparted to him by the thousand familiar gestures that clothe them, so to speak, in the same way that the spirit informs the body and is expressed by it.

Education does not consist in receiving a lesson from afar, which may be learned by heart and recited, thanks to a good memory, but in the daily contact and inviting example of adult life, which is mature, confident of foundations; which asserts itself simply by being what it is, and presents itself as an ideal; which someone still unsure and unformed in search of fulfillment and in need of security, will progressively come to resemble, almost unconsciously and without effort. A child receives the life of the community into which he enters, together with the cultural riches of the preceding generations (tradition!), which are inculcated by the actions and habits of everyday life.
This is erudite and very well-appreciated. The passages about maturity and upbringing as opposed to instruction are very relevant for today in particular. Those of us in the laity who are still engaged with the Church are no longer content to be treated like mere children, and the words “we do not bring up a child by giving him lectures in morality and deportment, but rather by placing him in an environment having a high tone of conduct and good manners, whose principles, rarely expressed as abstract theories, will be imparted to him by the thousand familiar gestures that clothe them, so to speak, in the same way that the spirit informs the body and is expressed by it” should be heard by the institutional church in this time of scandal, and well-heeded... It would certainly make arguing with people like my friend a little bit easier.

Recently over 200 German-speaking theologians issued a memorandum entitled Church 2011: A Necessary New Departure, advocating not only for a married clergy, but also serious reflection and calls for change on areas pertaining to: Structures of Participation, Community, Legal Structure, Freedom of Conscience, Reconciliation and Worship. It reflects a recognition by the representatives of the "threefold ministry," or "monarchical episcopate," of what they are hearing from responsible members of the laity. I think Yves Congar would have agreed that the suggestions contained therein would represent a healthy adult understanding and living out of the tradition, if followed through upon.

Excerpts from the intro... I urge you to read it all:
Many responsible Christians, women and men, in office and unofficially, have come to realize, after their initial disgust, that deep-reaching reforms are necessary. The appeal for an open dialogue on structures of power and communication, the form of official church offices, and the participation of the faithful in taking responsibility for morality and sexuality have aroused expectations, but also fears. This might be the last chance for departure from paralysis and resignation.

Will this chance be missed by sitting out or minimizing the crisis? Not everyone is threatened by the unrest of an open dialogue without taboos - especially since the papal visit [to Germany] will soon take place. The alternative simply cannot be accepted: the "rest of the dead" because the last hopes have been destroyed.

The deep crisis of our Church demands that we address even those problems which, at first glance, do not have anything directly to do with the abuse scandal and its decades-long cover-up…. The renewal of church structures will succeed, not with anxious withdrawal from society, but only with the courage for self-criticism and the acceptance of critical impulses - including those from the outside.

The Church does not exist for its own sake. The church has the mission to announce the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church can do this only when it is itself a place and a credible witness of the good news of the Gospel. The Church's speaking and acting, its rules and structures - its entire engagement with people within and outside the Church - is under the standard of acknowledging and promoting the freedom of people as God's creation. Absolute respect for every person, regard for freedom of conscience, commitment to justice and rights, solidarity with the poor and oppressed: these are the theological foundational standards which arise from the Church's obligation to the Gospel. Through these, love of God and neighbor become tangible...


Julia said...

Thank you for your informative post. I didn't know the word "church" appeared only twice in the NT, but I've often wondered why homilists don't point out that the Greek "ekklesia" can be translated "assembly." Not only are we an apostolic church as Yves Congar emphasizes: "She was the Church from the time of the apostles and not the product of their writings...;" we are an "assembling" church. It always amazes me that all over the world Catholics and other Christians group themselves in thousands of small assemblies, for worship and other activities; for replicating again and again the Body of Christ. This is a vital part of our shared tradition.

Jeff said...

Hi Julia,

Thanks so much for visiting and for commenting!

I think he meant to stress that the term "ekklesia" was only used twice by Jesus in the 4 gospels. I've since noticed elsewhere that it is used 115 times or so in the NT as a whole.

But as you point out, the celebration of the eucharist in those small house churches was as vital as it is today. Amazing!