Models of the Church

The traditional four marks of the church (one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic) and how the Church is organized (universally, nationally, and locally) are understood and lived on a day-to-day basis by Roman Catholics in varied ways. History, theological perspective, as well as local culture and customs are only three of several factors that have generated various understandings of the purpose and responsibility of the church today.

These perspectives, which came to the forefront as a result of Vatican II, were formally described in a seminal book, Models of the Church, by Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles, SJ. In this monograph and a supplementary effort, A Church to Believe In, Dulles outlined several models to demonstrate the church's purpose and to understand her function.

Church as Institution

The longest standing and most traditional perspective on the church is to see it as a hierarchical institution. Geometrically this understanding can be modeled by a pyramid. The top apex of the pyramid represents the pope and the Roman Curia. Below this level, as the triangle broadens, lies the national and diocesan levels of the church. As the pyramid reaches its base and broadest point we find the parish level, including the role of the laity.

Church history clearly indicates that this model has been operative for the majority of the Christian era; the model continues to function today and is considered by many as the standard. The institutional model suggests that the church functions and serves its people best through strict authority.

The Church as Sacrament

The sacraments are special signs instituted by Christ that bring grace. While acknowledging the seven traditional sacraments, many Roman Catholics view the church itself as a sacrament, a sign to the world. As such the church must be a witness that brings the message of Christ to a world badly in need of his teaching.

This perspective holds the church to be the responsible agent of proper Christian life and belief. Such a perspective quite obviously holds great responsibility for the church. As possibly the primary sacrament, it must be a witness, through its daily decisions and policies, to the message of Christ as articulated in the Gospels.

The Church as Herald

Roman Catholicism is quite obviously a huge faith community with numbers and influence in every part of the globe. Its size, historical significance, and authority in the minds of many make it the perfect vehicle to speak on behalf of its members. As the gospel evangelists and St. Paul fearlessly and courageously preached and wrote about the message of Jesus and supported the fledgling church in its infancy, so the church today is asked to speak on behalf of those throughout the world who have little or no voice.

Additionally, the concept of herald requires the church to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Rather than concentrating on authority or serving as a sign, this model believes the church's greatest responsibility is to speak, even in the face of opposition, standing forthrightly in support of Jesus' message and for the rights of its members.

Liberation theology, rejected by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but nonetheless popular in Latin America where it was most manifest, stresses the models of church as herald and servant. Emphasizing outreach to the poor, this theology, influenced by Marxist principles, professes that the church must be an advocate for the oppressed and downtrodden in society.

The Church as Servant

A fourth operative model views the church as a servant. Using Jesus' words as its creed, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), this model understands the church's primary responsibility is to serve its people. In the post- Vatican II church, this perspective has been broadly touted by those who believe the church must be a strong advocate for the poor. Not only must the church speak on behalf of those who have no voice, it must actively serve the needs of its people, both spiritually and physically.

As a strong and economically prosperous institution, the church as servant seeks to emulate the life of Jesus, who constantly in a proactive way fed the hungry; cured lepers as well as the blind, deaf, and mute; and gave spiritual solace to those in need.

The Church as a Community of Disciples

The most contemporary church model offered by Dulles is that of a community of disciples. Instead of the geometric pyramid of the hierarchical model, this perspective sees the church in the shape of a circle. The church is not viewed as a top-down structure but rather as a community in which all people, whether they be popes, bishops, priests, religious, or laypeople, are no more or less important. Positions, ministries, and roles in the church will be different, but the idea that one is more important than another is rejected.

Many contemporary Catholics, products of the 1960s and its rejection of authoritarianism, are strongly attracted to this model. Vatican II's use of the term “people of God” as a metaphor for the church also speaks to this particular model. Additionally, this perspective stresses inclusivity rather than exclusivity, a concept that has many adherents today.

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