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Sons of thunder: ‘We want power’

October 15, 2015
Sister Maria Catherine, OP

Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a lot of confusion about power in the American church. To some Vatican II became an opportunity to “restructure” the distribution of power in Catholicism. They are motivated by desire for power (pride) or because of past abuses (fear). But Christ gives his apostles an innovative picture of authority.

In Cormac Burke’s book “Authority and Freedom in the Church,” the Opus Dei canon lawyer gives a surprisingly cogent and logical paradigm of how the church understands her hierarchy. Using a pyramid, Burke describes the world’s viewpoint: God is at the top of the pyramid, the pope, bishops, and clergy are just underneath God. At the bottom lie the laity and the “unwashed masses.” He explains, “Everyone agrees that the advancement of the laity was a main aim of Vatican II. For those who conceive the church in terms of the pyramid, advancement of the laity can appear as a straightforward matter ... It simply means raising the laity ‘upward’ into the structural level of the hierarchy.” However, this perception insinuates that anyone “at the bottom” pursues holiness as mere advancement up the pyramid. With this model in mind, many have indicated that promotion up the ranks is the authentic means of renewal in the church.

In the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that the brother’s desire is misconceived; Jesus has power, but more importantly he possesses authority. Authority calls for “free acceptance” from subjects in contrast to power, which implies physical force. Ruling entails sacrifice, “Can you drink the cup …?” Burke says, “Authority in the church does not imply privilege, much less domination. It implies mission; it implies service.” A pyramid that more truthfully reflects the church’s hierarchy (from the root for “sacred order”) also begins with Christ at the bottom where his grace and example support the clergy. The laity come just above the clergy on the pyramid, then the world. The Father retains his position at the top. Vatican II’s revelation is that the laity are called to evangelize the world; the clergy exist to support the laity in this mission. Although there is more that can be said theologically about the interrelatedness of each vocation in this image, this is the outline of Burke’s thesis.

Taking Burke’s thesis as a point of departure, I have noticed that one of the reasons the hierarchy exists that is often neglected, is for the laity’s safety and protection. As such, each level in Burke’s pyramid prompts sacrifice: Jesus sacrifices himself, the clergy lay down their own lives (as Christ did for the church) to support the laity, who make sacrifices appropriate to their vocation (possibly time, comfort, and/or money, etc.) to witness to the world. God, too, is reaching down through the world, the Christian faithful, and clergy to embrace his Son, who is reaching up through the clergy, laity, and others to his Father. In this rightly ordered hierarchy based on loving service, all people are truly a part of the eternal exchange of love between the Father and the Son.

Even though James and John’s question appears direct to the point of rudeness, Christ responds according to the true paradigm of authority, “What do you wish me to do for you?” He responds ready to serve. In the end, James and John give their lives in service to the church. Christ’s love transforms their desire for recognition to satisfy their heart’s deepest longing– in the eternal exchange of love between the Father and his Son.

Sister Maria Catherine, OP, is a perpetually professed member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She is fresh from teaching high school English in San Francisco, and is pursuing her master’s in theology at Ave Maria University in Florida.

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