Institutional Model of Church
Ecclesiology is the study and theory of what constitutes the Church. Cardinal Avery Robert Dulles, author of Models of Church, characterized the Council of Trent (medieval) paradigm (or model) of church as institutional /hierarchical, symbolized as a pyramid. This model defined the Church until Vatican Council II in 1965 redefined it as “People of God.” “Institutional model” might be defined in a contemporary religious encyclopedia as follows:
“Institutional model of church, aspects of: 1. Clericalism — views clergy, especially the higher clergy, as the source of all power and initiative; tends to reduce the laity to a condition of passivity, demanding docility and obedience, and to make the lay apostolate a mere appendage of the hierarchical apostolate; 2. Juridicism — views church authority in same way as state authority; tends to exaggerate the role of human authority and thus turns the gospel into a new law, characterized by excessive concern with legalistic formalities, to the neglect of the spirit and of service; 3. Triumphalism — dramatizes the Church as an army set in array against Satan and the powers of evil. This model seeks to save souls by converting them to Catholicism, sees the Church as “God’s kingdom on earth,” a “perfect society, a “spotless bride of Christ” etc. It tends to become rigid, doctrinaire and conformist, absolutist, authoritarian and supremacist. This model of church fostered a “circle the wagons” or “siege mentality” that developed after the Council of Trent, the Enlightenment, and French Revolution, and eventually formed its quasi pathological fear of modernism and communism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This model characterized the Church until it was changed by Vatican Council II (1962– 65).”
People of God Model of Church
The key to understanding Vatican II is best expressed in two phrases that characterized it, namely, the Church is semper reformanda (“always in need of reform”) and the Church is Populi Dei (People of God). These phrases reflect a new self-understanding of church that began to emerge at Vatican II, de-emphasizing the then existing institutional model of church, as a monolithic, unchanging, dogmatic, and insular institution, in favor of a less doctrinaire, more pastoral, more ecumenical and more egalitarian model. Leadership in the institutional model was hierarchical in nature with the pope at the top, then in descending order — archbishops, bishops, priests, religious, deacons and at the bottom, the laity. Those at the top “possessed” the truth; those below “received” the truth; the laity’s role was to be docile and compliant (i.e. to “pay, pray and obey”). Under the institutional model, church authority was absolute and not to be questioned; independent thought was discouraged and repressed. It should be noted that unquestioning obedience to evil authority and lack of self-generated initiative grounded in a well-formed conscience were among the primary causes of the Holocaust.
On the issue of authority, American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political commentator, Noam Chomsky has written:
“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”
One of the lessons of history is that religion can be a source of good or evil. Absolutist claims of religion, therefore, ought to be open to scrutiny, including claims that certain dicta be accepted “on faith.” When it comes to issues of moral ambiguity, after all, religion ought to be part of the solution, not the problem. “God is greater than religion,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Faith is greater than dogma.” In other words, God should not be confused with religion. It is rank human presumptuousness and arrogance to claim that God, who is beyond human comprehension, is the exclusive property of any one faith tradition — to the exclusion of others.
In contrast to the Institutional model, the People of God model views the Church as an evolving process, not a static entity, a process which employs evolutionary and relational modes of thought to define itself. This model recognizes that popes and bishops do not have a monopoly on divine truth; they do not receive supernaturally infused knowledge/ wisdom at their episcopal ordination or installation. Rather, all the faithful have a role to play in the process of determining divine truth, including the laity. Docility and passivity, therefore, are discouraged. All the faithful, through the sacrament of baptism, are expected to participate fully in Christ’s role of priest, prophet and king, not just the ordained. In the People of God model, church leadership is diffuse, not concentrated at the top. Sensum fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is required to validate doctrine, not an infallible decree from a pope subject to human foibles. This new model is better portrayed as a circle as contrasted with the institutional model’s pyramid.
When members of the clergy, who are likewise subject to human foibles, stray from core gospel values, they too should be held to account. The processive (progressive) nature of church is implicit in the expression ecclesia semper reformanda, namely, the Church will always be subject to renewal and reform because its members, from the pope to the laity, are human and sinful. The Church, in short, exists for the sake of God’s kingdom, but is not identical to God’s kingdom. It is, therefore, not the manifestation of the Kingdom on earth; it is, at best, an initial “budding forth” of the Kingdom. It is likewise not a perfect society, not a spotless bride of Christ, not the only means of salvation, or any other absolutist formulation. Under the People of God model, the Church, apart from faith in Jesus, is essentially nothing at all. Dogmas, creeds, and doctrines, together with structures, hierarchies and authorities, are merely ways by which the faithful articulate and organize their beliefs; constructs employed to express how the faith has been integrated into various moments of history.
The foregoing is an example of “process theology.” The People of God model is generally favored by Catholics who consider themselves liberal or progressive and rejected by those who consider themselves orthodox, traditionalist or conservative. The former believe, generally, that the Church should adapt itself to changing times and needs, while the latter believe the Church should adhere fully to the teaching authority of the pope, which, history amply demonstrates, is resistant to change. The former, in general, tend to concentrate on social justice issues like poverty, homelessness, hunger and lack of adequate health care; the latter tend to concentrate on social issues like abortion, birth control, human sexuality and same sex marriage.