Is Hierarchy Harsh?

Clericalism is a terrible thing. It is the attitude that clerics are automatically better people and everyone else is less for not being one. It manifests in several disturbing ways, not only in a stuck up cleric who views certain tasks or people as beneath him or himself as entitled to special treatment. It also shows up in non clerics who put priests and other “holy” figures on pedestals and overlook their sins and shortcomings, and in others who view themselves as not really Christians, or at least second class Christians unless they “do something” at Mass.

These actions all tend to lead to a likewise evil, but opposite reaction; clericalism leads to anti-clericalism. What? This is the attitude of egalitarianism, presuming that everyone is not only equal in value, but identical in role and ability. It irons flat the blessed diversity with which God created us; He has made us distinct for our good, according to His wise plan.

Both of these poisonous assumptions corrupt hearts, killing the love inside them and hardening them to the love which actually flows to them from Jesus’s Sacred Heart, not only in a special way through the ministerial share in His priesthood, but also in a special way through the baptismal share in His priesthood.

With either attitude, one might easily go looking for biblical support and claim Acts 6:1-7 as proof that the priesthood of the clergy was a short lived thing that died with the Apostles but which the Church continues to prop up as a tool of oppression. It even seems to make villains of the Apostles, “It is not right for us to serve at table.” they say, as though it were beneath them, or at least that’s how many clergy act today.

Again, any manifestation of clericalism is evil, whether arrogant or pusillanimous, ambitious or avoiding, held by a clergyman, or a layman. The question isn’t, though, whether it’s bad for people to act badly, but whether God or we act badly by utilizing a hierarchy to govern the Church. And in this, one would be hard pressed to find a more anti-clericalist (or anti-anti-clericalist) scene in scripture.

Let’s examine. First of all, the Apostles did not say it was beneath them to serve at table, they indeed were there at table when Jesus washed their own feet and told them to do likewise! Rather, they said, “it is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.” It’s not that service is bad or second rate, it’s just not the primary job Jesus commanded them to do, and Jesus has harsh words for those who do the secondary even to extremes while neglecting the primary (see Mt 23:23).

As good as it is to serve the poor, it is not the highest good (after all, “you will always have the poor with you.”), it is by far most important to obey God, who is God of all, including you and the poor, and the one, “who for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” Phil 2:13, and “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God gives the growth.” 1 Cor 3:7 (see also Heb 13:21). Jesus himself says, “I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you can do nothing.” Jn 15:5.

Second, this is not a tale of hierarchical arrogance, neither from aloofness to their charges’ problems, nor a presumptive, top-heavy policy. They did not ignore or belittle or push away the problem of the community, neither did they show a vote of no confidence and attempt to centralize everything to themselves, reducing the Church to themselves and everyone else as mere consumers or beneficiaries. Instead, they used their God-given authority to recall to attention and clarify God’s will and plan for the Church they were entrusted to shepherd; to be the Body of Christ. Therefore, they helped it to grow and develop (in a way, at the expense of their own job description). They recognized that the Church had grown bigger than they could manage on their own, they couldn’t do everything themselves, nor should they. Other, “reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” should be approved by the people and appointed to this part of their fatherly task.

Thirdly, this was unanimously agreed upon. The Church is not a democracy, it is a family. A royal family. The royal family, since its head is the King of kings. A good king is a father to his people, and Christ is perfect in every way. Thus, his appointed officials, His chosen men, are supposed to act likewise, and to serve the people given to them, which is why we call them father: Christ gives us new life through their cooperation with Him. They are men because that is what Christ chose, and He chose men in order to best help show us how He loves us and gives us new life without any change or loss to His perfection. He completely gives Himself away, doing the Father’s will, and we creatures, if we would be born again, if we would have new life, receive His love. He does not change, but His Bride, the Church grows and changes, not in her essence, but in the sense of development. She grows as new members are added and grows in understanding as she continually contemplates her Lord and carries on his work of salvation.

Fourthly, this is one of the earliest parts of the radical opening of God’s blessing and favor. It is hard to convey just how big a deal it is that God incorporates the Gentiles into His People, the Church. The Gentiles aren’t only the next door neighbors of Israel, they are every neighbor, and every other country, person, and culture in the world through all of time. Prior to this and other early moments, that is, in a word, prior to Christ Jesus, the only people of God any where, were the Jews, the people God had picked Himself, for His own mysterious purposes, to be His own. Now, He unfurls the masterstroke of His plan: with Jesus’s Incarnation, entering the world and history through the Jews, He fulfills all the promises He made to them and opens final salvation to all people: not merely freedom from enemy countries, but freedom from sin and death. These new chosen men, leaders among the elect, chosen people of God, the New Israel, the Church, are not excluded or relegated to the bench of the team, looking on, they are given full participation, control, and authority within the Church; very rapidly, even within the Apostles own lifetime, the Church will be mostly Gentile by numbers, including their successors.

Lastly, even if this does not convince of the humility rather than the ham-fistedness of the Apostles and ongoing hierarchy of the Church, consider the last line, “even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” There is something special about the role of priesthood, even in the Old Testament as these priests were. Though we should not put the men up on pedestals, we do rightly stand in awe of the choice of God to raise men up to such great roles. They do not deserve it, no mere human can, and yet, God in His Goodness and Wisdom chooses to work this way. We would very sensibly think that those men called to fill a position so close to God would be the first to recognize and most eager to follow whatever direction God chooses to go. It says a lot that therefore that these men’s conversion and their numbers are described with surprise. It says that God’s word, the scriptures, are realistic: just because men are chosen to be priests doesn’t make them holy. Rather, acting as everyone ought, following the call He gives them, whatever it is, is what makes them holy. Acts 6:1-7 does not show priests riding over everyone, must less the Apostles lording it over them, against Christ’s orders, but complementary community action, each member of the Body coordinating with each other because they are each animated by the Spirit according to their God-given place in the Body.

The hand cannot say to the head, I do not need you, nor can the head do everything. If all the body were one part, there would be no life, there would not even be a body. But thanks be to God that He is always present and working in and through His Church in all her diverse members; according to His wise order, “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ps 139:14.