... the real meaning and purpose of "hierarchy", from Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, an Interview with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 1997):
We Are the People of God
The term "people of God" is understood today as the idea of an autonomy vis-à-vis the official Church. The motto is "we are the people", and what the people says has to be done. On the other hand, there is also the expression "vox populi, vox Dei". How do you understand this term?
If we are theologians and believers, we listen first to what the Bible says. In other words, we ourselves can't invent the major concepts: "Who is God?" "What is the Church?" "grace", and so forth. The gift of faith consists precisely in the fact that there is a prior given. The term "people of God" is a biblical one. The biblical use is thus also normative for how we might use it. It is first and essentially an Old Testament term; the term "people" comes long before the era of nations and is connected more with the clan, with the family.
Above all it is a relational term. More recent exegesis has made this very clear. Israel is not the people of God when it acts simply as a political nation. It becomes the people of God by turning to God. It is the people of God only in relation, in turning to God, and in Israel turning to God consists in submission to the Torah. In this sense, the idea of "people of God" in the Old Testament includes, first, the election of Israel by God, who chooses it for no merit of its own, despite the fact that it is not a great or significant people but one of the smallest of the peoples, who chooses it out of love and thus bestows his love upon it. Second, it includes the acceptance of this love, and concretely this means submission to the Torah. Only in this submission, which places Israel in relation to God, is it the people of God.
In the New Testament, the concept "people of God" (with perhaps one or two exceptions) refers only to Israel, that is, to the people of the Old Covenant. It is not a concept that applies directly to the Church. However, the Church is understood as the continuation of Israel, although Christians don't descend directly from Abraham and thus actually don't belong to this people. They enter into it, says the New Testament, by their descent from Christ and thereby also become children of Abraham. Thus, whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the people of God. One could say that the term "Torah" is replaced by the person of Christ, and, in this sense, the "people of God" category, though not applied directly to the new people, is tied to communion with Christ and to living like Christ and with Christ, or, as Saint Paul says, "hav[ing] the mind of Christ" (Phil 2:5). Paul goes on to describe the "mind of Christ" with the words: "He became obedient unto death on the cross." Only when we understand the term "people of God" in its biblical usage do we use it in a Christian way. Everything else is an extra-Christian construction that misses the real core and is, in my opinion, also a product of arrogance. Which of us can say that we are the people of God, while the others perhaps are not.
But regarding the statement "we are the people" I would add a very practical consideration. The "we are the people" functions as the premise for the conclusion "we decide." If, for example, in Germany all the members of a certain association got together and said, "We are the people, and therefore we decide that now it is thus and so", all the people would just laugh. Every nation has its institutions; everyone knows that it's not the town council but the parliament, in other words, an institution that really represents the whole, that votes on federal laws. And in this way not just anyone is the comprehensive "we" of the Church with the corresponding authority to make decisions, but only everyone together is this "we", and the individual group is this "we" only insofar as it lives in the whole. It would, in fact, be completely absurd even on the purely popular understanding of democracy if groups pretended to vote about the whole themselves. A parish council or a diocesan forum should take in hand its affairs. But it cannot claim to decide the affairs of the universal Church as such.
In the Church, there is another element in addition to the example given us by the law of the state (which also has significance for the Church), namely, the fact that the Church lives not only synchronically but diachronically as well. This means that it is always all — even the dead — who live and are the whole Church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the Church. In the state, for example, one day we have the Reagan administration, and the next day the Clinton administration, and whoever comes next always throws out what his predecessor did and said; we always begin again from scratch. That's not the way it is in the Church. The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints. Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way.
But of course there is also a continuity of the state that is independent of individual presidents.
Correct. What I said just now was a bit exaggerated. It's also the case in the state that not every government starts all over again from the beginning. Each of them is in the great tradition of the state and, being bound to the constitution, can't reconstruct the state from zero, as it were. So what holds for a state holds also for the Church, only in an even stricter and more far-reaching way.
Now, there are "we are the people" movements that no longer group themselves around the traditional laws, rules, parliaments, but simply go off on their own.
In the state, you mean? Yes, yes. In that sense, the phenomenon is also nothing peculiar to the Church. But these popular democratic movements show us that this really doesn't work in the state. The Soviet Union began like that. The "base" was supposed to decide things via the councils; all were supposed to take an active part in governing. This allegedly direct democracy, dubbed "people's democracy", which was contrasted with representative (parliamentary) democracy, became, in reality, simply a lie. It would be no different in a Church made up of such councils.
The slogan "we are the people" is also attractive because in our most recent past it proved to be successful in the protest movements in the former East Germany.
That's quite true. But in that case the people obviously stood behind it. By now, the consensus has fallen apart again. It was sufficient for a great protest, but it's not enough for the positive task of governing a commonwealth.
Sacred Rule and Brotherhood
Why must the Church continue to operate even today with authoritarian methods and be organized according to "totalitarian" structures? Many people have the idea that democratic models could be possible in the Church, too. It's argued that you can't sue for democracy and human rights in society and then leave them at the door of your own house. You can't go around demanding a sense of fellowship and then operate yourself predominantly with accusations of guilt, laws, and a pointing finger.
First, to the word "hierarchy". The correct translation of this term is probably not "sacred rule" but "sacred origin". The word arche can mean both things, origin and rule. But the likelier meaning is "sacred origin". In other words, it communicates itself in virtue of an origin, and the power of this origin, which is sacred, is, as it were, the ever-new beginning of every generation in the Church. It doesn't live by the mere continuum of generations but by the presence of the ever new source itself, which communicates itself unceasingly through the sacraments. That, I think, is an important, different way of looking at things: the category that corresponds to the priesthood is not that of rule. On the contrary, the priesthood has to be a conduit and a making present of a beginning and has to make itself available for this task. When priesthood, episcopacy, and papacy are understood essentially in terms of rule, then things are truly wrong and distorted.
We know from the Gospels that the disciples argued about their rank, that the temptation to turn discipleship into lordship was there from the first and also always is there. Therefore, there is no denying that this temptation exists in every generation, including today's. At the same time, however, there is the gesture of the Lord, who washes the feet of his disciples and thereby makes them fit to sit at table with him, with God himself. When he makes this gesture, it is as if he were saying: "This is what I mean by priesthood. If you don't like that, then you are no priests." Or, as he says to the mother of the Zebedees: The prior condition is drinking the cup, that is, suffering with Christ. Whether they then sit at the right or at the left or anywhere else, that has to remain open. So that this is another way of saying that to be a disciple means to drink the chalice, to enter into a communion of destiny with the Lord, to wash another's feet, to lead the way in suffering, to share another's suffering. This, then, is the first point, namely, that the origin of hierarchy, in any event its true meaning, is not to construct a structure of domination but to keep something present that doesn't come from the individual. No one can forgive sins on his own initiative; no one can communicate the Holy Spirit on his own initiative; no one can transform bread into the presence of Christ or keep him present on his own initiative. In this sense, one has to perform a service in which the Church doesn't become a self-governing business but draws her life again and again anew from her origin.
A second general preliminary remark. The word "brotherhood" is, to be sure, a fine word, but we oughtn't to forget its ambiguity. The first pair of brothers in the history of the world were, according to the Bible, Cain and Abel, and the one murdered the other. And that is an idea that also occurs elsewhere in the history of religions. The mythology surrounding the origin of Rome has the same thing: Romulus and Remus. It also begins with two brothers, and one murders the other. So, siblings are not automatically the quintessence of love and equality. Just as fatherhood can turn into tyranny, we also have sufficient examples of negative brotherhood in history. Even brotherhood must be redeemed, as it were, and pass through the Cross in order to find its proper form.
Now to the practical questions. Perhaps there really is too much decision making and administration in the Church at the present time. In reality, office by nature ought to be a service to ensure that the sacraments are celebrated, that Christ can come in, and that the Word of God is proclaimed. Everything else is only ordered to that. It ought not to be a standing governing function but have a bond of obedience to the origin and a bond to the life lived in this origin. The officeholder ought to accept responsibility for the fact that he does not proclaim and produce things himself but is a conduit for the Other and thereby ought to step back himself — we have already touched on that. In this sense, he should be in the very first place one who obeys, who does not say, "I would like to say this now", but asks what Christ says and what our faith is and submits to that. And in the second place he ought to be one who serves, who is available to the people and who, in following Christ, keeps himself ready to wash their feet. In Saint Augustine this is marvelously illustrated. We have already spoken of the fact that he was really constantly busy with trivial affairs, with foot washing, and that he was ready to spend his great life for the little things, if you will, but in the knowledge that he wasn't squandering it by doing so. That would, then, be the true image of the priesthood. When it is lived correctly, it cannot mean finally getting one's hands on the levers of power but, rather, renouncing one's own life project in order to give oneself over to service.
Part of that, of course — and here I am citing Augustine again — is to reprimand and to rebuke and, thereby, to cause problems for oneself. Augustine illustrates this in a homily in the following terms: You want to live badly; you want to perish. I, however, am not allowed to want this; I have to rebuke you, even though it displeases you. He then uses the example of the father with sleeping sickness whose son keeps waking him up, because that is the only chance of his being cured. But the father says: Let me sleep, I'm dead tired. And the son says: No, I'm not allowed to let you sleep. And that, he says, is precisely the function of a bishop. I am not permitted to let you sleep. I know that you would like to sleep, but that is precisely what I may not allow. And in this sense the Church must also raise her index finger and become irksome. But in all this it must remain perceptible that the Church is not interested in harassing people but that she herself is animated by the restless desire for the good. I must not allow you to sleep, because sleep would be deadly. And in the exercise of this authority she must also take Christ's suffering upon herself. What — let's put it in a purely human way — gives Christ credibility is, in fact, that he suffered. And that is also the credibility of the Church. For this reason she also becomes most credible where she has martyrs and confessors. And where things go comfortably, she loses credibility.
• Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the Dogma of Infallibility and the Truth of the Gospel (December 7, 2010)
• The Works of Benedict XVI
• Salt of the Earth - Audio Book on CD
• God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time
• The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church
• Order Light of the World (hardcover) at www.ignatius.com
• Light Of The World - Downloadable Audio File
• Light Of The World - Electronic Book Download
• Light Of The World - Audio Book on CD
• Luz Del Mundo - Spanish Edition (Paperback)
• The book's Facebook page
• The book's site, www.LightOfTheWorldBook.com
• The book's blog, "Light of the World" Official Blog