The Church with its authority structure, its bishops and priests, churches, schools and other organisations like Cafod is viewed as an institution and judged as such. While it may be viewed in the light of holiness, generosity and care many might point to the less favourable characteristics which it shares with other institutions. Institutions in society have changed enormously in the last three hundred years and attitudes to them have changed dramatically in modern times.

The main institutions in society were based on male authority dictating to those below them in a social system where everyone knew their place and in large measure accepted it. Women were on a second level when it came to leadership and power, only allowed to influence things indirectly. They had the shape of a pyramid with a small exclusive elite controlling them. At the base level were individuals of low status with little education and freedom, well used to being told what to do or how to behave. The elite and upper strata took on the responsibility of setting the ideals and values which were claimed to be necessary for the smooth running of society.

There were challenges to this kind of social organisation from the 15th century but they gathered strength especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. People became better educated and more conscious of their freedoms and rights, demanding to have a say in these power structures which dictated how they should live. Thus there has been a huge shift from a social order that has been hierarchical, vertical in structure and deferential to one which is more horizontal, accepting of equality, dialogue and an emphasis on communities and individual needs. Those institutions which operate under this new order have been increasingly accepted, those which still operate more within the old order no longer gain respect and are increasingly criticised and rejected. In recent times these changes have happened at an ever increasing pace.

The Church as an institution has tried to hold on to the old order in its structure, procedures, type of leadership and understanding of authority and as a result is gradually losing its place in our culture and our society. The Second Vatican Council began to address this situation but in so many ways has yet to be implemented. Pope Francis is seeking to revise its thinking but is facing resistance from some significant voices within the Church. The Church needs to be organised, to have a structure but one that reflects is true nature. The life of faith does not seek status or wield power over others. It needs to be embedded in an institution which listens, engages, enables, enters into dialogue, offers a respectful critique, counters courageously and at times simply keeps its own counsel.

Every institution has the capacity to be a source of good and also to be a source of violence. The Church as an institution has contributed greatly to education, healthcare, community life and the wellbeing of countless people. However, it has not been sufficiently aware of the dangers that all institutions face in the abuse of power. Any hierarchically structured institution has the capacity to mobilize powerful forces to scapegoat or destroy those who do not act in accordance with the status quo or who raise a critical voice and needs to have mechanisms to prevent this. For religious institutions there is the danger of identifying their way of working with God’s will. Paul Tillich terms “the sin of religion” as “the identification of God’s will with one’s own.” The institution is a means, a vehicle, a scaffolding; it is not the way, the truth and the life.

It seems that we are experiencing a massive purification of the institutional dimension of the Church and what remains will need to take on a new shape. Although Pope Francis is beginning to reshape some of these structures he points clearly to where the new beginnings must come from – a renewed understanding of the purpose of the Church to preach the Gospel and ‘make disciples of all nations’. We need to find effective ways of doing this. In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ he says we need ‘to abandon complacent attitudes’ and invites everyone ‘to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and method of evangelisation in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory’. [33]

New structures should not be devised from above but should develop to encourage and support effective and successful ways of making disciples.

(Based on Faith-Life, Church and Institutions, Michael A Conway, The Furrow September 2017)




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