“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.