Church As an evolving life-system: bottom-up as well as top-down organization

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 18:16).  Throughout most of its long institutional history, the Roman Catholic Church has prided itself on the stability of its mode of operation.  Decisions by and large have been made from the top-down: from the Pope and Vatican officials to the regional bishop with his staff and finally to the pastor of the local parish and his staff in dealing with individual parishioners. This hierarchically ordered structure of authority guarantees fidelity to Church tradition, a sense of corporate unity here and now, and a stable outlook for the future. The Church has thus been favorably compared to the way that large international corporations like General Motors are organized.  But these same international corporations in recent years have in many cases altered the traditional relation between management and labor so as to involve their workforce more personally in the day-to-day running of the company.

Has this also happened within the Catholic Church to-date? The answer would seem to be both yes and no.  The documents of Vatican II, especially the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) seem to encourage greater participation of the laity in the work of the Church.  But a careful reading of those same documents indicates that, while the laity are encouraged to spread the message of the Gospel to the modern world in and through the way that they live their professional lives, lay participation in decision-making within the Church is still quite restricted.  Admittedly, given the growing shortage of priests in the United States and Western Europe, pastors of local parishes have been obliged in many cases to turn to lay people, both as employees and as volunteers, for assistance in running the parish. Likewise, parish councils that regularly meet with the pastor to set the goals of the parish as a whole are much more common than in the past.  But the pastor in most cases still reports to the bishop and episcopal staff, and the bishop is still accountable in the first place to the Pope and Vatican officials.  The traditional institutional structure of the Church is thus still firmly in place. But greater lay participation in the life of the Church, especially at the parish level, might still be possible if one starts thinking of the Church in a new way—namely, as a corporate life-system whose ongoing mode of operation is determined more from the bottom-up than from the top-down (as in the past).

But what then is a life-system?  A life-system is an ongoing unity of dynamically interrelated parts or members that are aware of and responsive to one another.  For example, a human being has multiple parts or members (heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys, muscles, skin, etc.) that are in different ways alive and responsive to one another. St. Paul appealed to this common sense experience 2000 years ago (1 Cor. 12: 14-26).  Human institutions (political, economic, social and religious) can likewise be considered life-systems because their members are human beings responsive to one another.  Thus, while human beings and other species of plant and animal life are individually constituted life-systems, institutions of various kinds are corporately organized life-systems. The value of the term “life-system” as opposed to the more generic term “system” is that life-systems gradually evolve in their ongoing mode of operation, but inanimate or purely mechanical systems (e.g., automobiles and washing machines) do not. The latter are deliberately designed to work one way and not any other way by engineers and mechanics.

Accordingly, the advantage in thinking of the Church as a dynamic life-system is that it allows in principle for greater participation by the laity in the governance of the Church.  For, within a life-system changes in the way that the parts or members relate to one another and to their external environment eventually lead to changes in the overall mode of operation of the entire life-system. On the contrary, thinking of the Church simply as an unchanging institutional entity leans toward maintenance of the status quo. Lay members of the Church more or less expect decisions to be made from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up. That is, in their minds Church policy is normally determined by the Pope and Vatican authorities who then communicate to bishops around the world their directives; the bishops in turn communicate to pastors in local parishes what will be considered Church policy in the future.

But then the laity are seldom, if ever, involved in the way that Church policy is determined even though some of these policies may have a significant impact on the way that the laity live their personal lives or conduct themselves in public life.  Furthermore, only three options would seem to be available to lay members of the Church by way of response to seemingly one-sided policy decisions: either to submit to the authority of the Church as a matter of blind obedience, irrespective of the cost to oneself and one’s family; to ignore wholly or in part the new Church policy; or to stop attending Mass and being involved in the life of the parish on a regular basis.  None of these options would seem to promote what Pope Francis recently called “the joy of the Gospel” in living out one’s Christian vocation. Furthermore, there could also be more serious consequences for the continued well-being of the Church if lay members continue to feel that they have little or no role in the decision-making process within the Church.  A psychological gulf in outlook and life-style could possibly open up between clergy and laity with potentially negative consequences for growth in vocations to religious life and the priesthood. Likewise, lay members of the Church may well find themselves torn between two value-systems, both of which would seem to require their active participation. For personal or pragmatic reasons they may well end up surrendering to the overall value-system at work in civil society and thus give minimal witness to the Gospel message in their dealings with non-Christians.

For this reason, I propose here that the model of Church as an evolving life-system with organization from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down should be taken seriously, not as a replacement for the traditional hierarchically organized structure of authority but as a needed complement to the latter. That is, the laity should be encouraged to take a more active role in the internal life of the Church, beginning at the level of the parish but not ending there.  Lay delegates  should be also be present and their opinions heard within diocesan councils that were previously reserved for the bishop and pastors of parishes.

Likewise, Vatican consultations on issues pertinent to the life of the Church should have informed lay participants who can offer advice based on practical experience rather than simply on pure theory.  Finally, future Ecumenical Councils of the Church should have “periti” (experts on various issues) drawn from the laity as well as ordained members of the Church.  There are, for example, many competent lay theologians to be found in today’s Catholic Church; so their advice should also be sought in advance of a decision affecting the whole Church.

Elsewhere I have argued that an overall systems-oriented understanding of the God-world relationship makes very good sense, given the broad acceptance of an evolutionary approach to reality within Western society.  But to develop that line of thought is clearly beyond the scope of this short essay. Yet one can at least say that conceiving the Church as a dynamic life-system could then be seen as an integral part of a much broader cosmic vision: namely, the world as imago Dei, the finite image of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit as co-constituents of an eternally pre-existent divine life-system.

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  1. Peter Sloan on October 21, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Fr. Bracken,
    I agree with your diagnosis and prescription in principle. But I personally feel the prescription isn’t nearly medicinal enough. You write that a ‘psychological gulf in outlook and life-style could possibly open up between clergy and laity with potentially negative consequences for growth in vocations to religious life and the priesthood’ as if those were its most harmful repercussions. A gulf HAS ALREADY opened up. Witness the present day lacunae in my archdiocese of Washington. Therefore, nothing short of a rehabilitation of the words “vocation” and “hierarchy” to include notions of lay persons finding proper fit in the divine life system of the church begins to be enough.
    Until then, earnest and kind-hearted members of the clergy who prescribe that the voice of the laity be heard and taken seriously are apt to be surprised that these prescriptions are experienced as condescending.

  2. William E. Lowry on October 17, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Fr. Bracken. Bravo on citing ANW. I think his “Process and Reality” presents a comprehensive solution for problem solving, as you so eloquently have suggested. The “Institutional” Church must take greater heed of the need of the sheep. For example, if you’re going to be an effective shepherd, ya gotta smell like the sheep. The elegant attire of the Church hierarchy, which far surpasses the jeans and sandals of most congregants, doesn’t lend itself very well for compromise. I will close my comment with an appropriate quote from “Jack”, i.e., C S Lewis: “…nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly.” That goes for both the shepherds and the sheep!!

  3. Oliver Oviedo on October 17, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Dear Fr. Joseph,

    Thank you for your article. I found it both hopeful, and focused upon illuminating something constructive that is inclusive and that we can all strive to work toward. That you did it without vitriol or reflexively falling back into tribal group-think and confrontational tactics is a breath of fresh air. With all of the conflicts and controversies buzzing recently, it is hard to not run around in a panic shouting “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Thank you for not trying to tell me that the sky is falling.

    Sometimes I wonder if trying to effect progress with regard to advancing our societal structures is fundamentally incompatible with chronic conflict. Especially when the conflict focuses on dehumanizing the opposite side. It seems to me that the tendency to be outraged and intolerant is like the old wine skin, and the desire to move forward and heal wounds is like the new wine – the structure of the old is at odds with the essence of the new. When it comes to making progress and re-evaluating my way of seeing things, I have personally always found people who can talk about what they love and what is hopeful a lot more compelling than those that talk about what they hate and why they are dismayed in an effort to get a reaction out of me. A demonstration of compassion has always been for me more compelling than a demonstration of intolerance.

    My question to you is this: how might I best share your ideas with my own local pastor? I think that even without studying the philosophers you mentioned, anyone with a passing knowledge of post-modernist structuralism (Derrida, De Saussure, Wittgenstein, Foucault with regard to normative power, etc.) would see the merit of your arguments. As a molecular biologist, I think your metaphor of a living system is spot-on. I think that this sort of ontological perspective holds true on a biochemical level (even an atomic level really), holds true on a cellular and organismal level, and when applied sociologically it has the potential to bring into focus previously unexplored aspects of communal existence that we had taken for granted or overlooked. I like your approach because it is rational rather than emotional, and transcends the conventional & petty tribal affiliations in a way that invites us to think more deeply about what is actually happening. My pastor is originally from Barcelona, has a very strong personality, and is not the most patient when it comes to long or nuanced explanations. How might I best prepare to share some of these ideas with him?

    Lastly, I am greatly encouraged by your cosmic, even Incarnational (in the Franciscan sense) theology. As a scientist, this has always been the theology that most makes sense to me – that is to say a theology which embraces the ordered entirety of everything over all time (i.e. the Cosmos) in a way that gives meaning to human existence within it via spiritual relationship. That you connect this with a Trinitarian perspective is very interesting and inspiring. I will have to read more of your work!

  4. Donal on October 17, 2018 at 6:42 am

    Dear Joe,
    I think there are organizations that are much more evolutionary and hope-encouraging to chose as models for comparison with the church’s hierarchical model than the typical large modern corporations. I would refer anyone to look at the work of Frederic Laloux when considering an alternative living, vibrant system for organization.
    I believe discussion about the role of laity misses the point. The church is the people. Hierarchy is at best irrelevant but sadly, as we have seen, mostly toxic and harmful. Power corrupts, again and again.
    Laloux’s research offers 3 wonderful breakthroughs experienced in the organizations he studied: self-management (no job descriptions, no bosses), wholeness – be your whole self not a role (uniforms, not to mention canonical dress or clerical garb would be out of place) and evolutionary purpose – not extensive strategic planning dominated by professional planners removed from the life of the organizations. Those who work to provide the services are supported by trainers, advisers etc. Decisions lie with those involved and affected by the decisions. Anyone else is in a supportive role. These organizations have minuscule head office. A headquarters the size of a city (not to mention constituted as a state!) would be unthinkable.
    Best wishes

  5. Mary Pat J on October 9, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    I think back to Fr. Thomas Keating’s discussions with Ken Wilber (Integral Theory) about the Church and all World Religions needing to be a conveyor belts (around 2006-08) and how optimistic I was. I realize cultural awakening is a slow paced process, but the division in the church at certain aspects of the administrative end seems dry and lacking awareness of the call to deeper awakening. While I respect your position, and realize I lack understanding of all the perspectives you are considering, it’s painfully hard for me to not see the Church as condescending. I am very encouraged by Pope Francis, and am grateful for his graced posture of patience. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I believe your individual sincerity, but as a simple retired nurse who has worked in many areas with people from various backgrounds, eg. cultures and levels of poverty and wealth, I feel the Church values it’s power more than the call to deeper genuine evolutionary growth. A systems oriented-understanding of the God-World Church is upon us. Our understanding of Church remains confusing, but the evolutionary systems orientation is progressing, the metaphorical train has been picking up speed for a while now. All of our souls are traveling together, aware or not. As I now write this I realize my words are coming from the preface of Leonardo Boff’s 1979 book; Liberating Grace. He writes his metaphor of the train in memory of –Guilbert of Tournai, Franciscan, died 1288, De mondo addiscendi. He quotes: “Qui ante not scripserunt
    Non domini nostri
    Sed duces fuerunt

    I am aware that Liberation Theology had it’s flaws, yet it was the biggest wake up call in my lifetime, and the birth of a renewed awareness of the Gospels call to Social Justice. Evolutionary Christianity is here, we are called to a deeper awareness of being vessels on this planet, our earthly home.

  6. John Earle on October 5, 2018 at 11:54 pm

    It does indeed seem like process philosophy/theology fits with an evolutionary perspective and a metaphysics of becoming but is there any movement in that direction in the church? Other than Chicago and Claremont are there any Jesuit universities that are heading in that direction?

    • Joe Bracken on October 6, 2018 at 2:33 pm

      Dear John: As a quick response to your question, I would say that there are individuals at Catholic colleges and universities around the United States who promote a process-oriented approach to reality, but I am not aware of any centers for process thought at any of them. In Catholic circles, some form of Neo-Thomism as represented by Karl Rahner or Bernard Lonergan seems to be still in place.

      • John Earle on October 9, 2018 at 2:28 pm

        Dear Father Bracken
        Your evolving life systems top down bottom up approach is refreshing and encouraging. Especially for those who still love the church. A church that still seems to be grappling with modernity to say nothing of post-modernity. Which of your books would you recommend (for a beginner)that maybe synthesizes Whiteheadian and Teilhardian thought and spirituality? Maybe one that also transcends and includes Thomism and neo-Thomism(or would that be asking too much?). I’ve read Father Hosinski’s “The Image of the Unseen God” and of course Sr. Ilia’s works
        Thank you for your contribution.


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