The online mass we followed Sunday, celebrated by popular televangelist and Catholic apologist Bishop Robert Barron, included a homily about the first reading from Acts 6, the very passage I wrote about in a 2018 post titled Rationale for a lay awakening. I almost couldn't sit through it. Not only did the bishop miss what seems to me the key point—a point that has become all the more central and urgent during the current crisis, when the Sacramental life of the Church has been virtually suspended by secular authorities with the meek acquiescence of the hierarchy—he effectively denied it by mis-emphases.
He began by describing the issue in the passage as one of division. The Greek Christians were complaining that the Hebrew Christians were getting preferential treatment in the distribution of aid to widows. This kind of division, the bishop said, is the devil attacking the Church from within. He compared it to the tension we find today between conservatives and liberals. "Some prefer a classical style, others are more open to modernity, if you will" (I'm paraphrasing).
The main theme of the passage, though, as he interprets it, is that the Church is not a democracy; it's wholly governed by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. And a major responsibility of the bishops down to this day is to create unity.
I realize that to many this interpretation is unobjectionable. After all, division is a perennial problem in the Church, and bishops do have governing authority. For those like me though, who are alive to the scourge of clericalism currently ruining our communion, it's exactly the wrong message to draw. I'd go so far as to say that in its application to the concrete need of the moment, it's so wrong as to be almost abusive. (I don't mean it's deliberately abusive. I have no doubt at all of the bishop's sincere good intentions.) It's abusive in the way a sermon on the virtue of obedience to a black congregation would have been during the Civil Rights Era.
I'll try to explain, though if you've ever raised a sincere grievance with a Catholic leader (think of those who tried for decades to sound the alarm about the Legion of Christ) and been admonished for "causing division" or "creating scandal," you probably get what I mean intuitively.
First, the problem brought to the attention of the Apostles in this passage isn't one of division, rather it's injustice. The Apostles weren't being asked to settle a squabble; they were being asked to rectify a wrong. And what was their response? Did they tell the Hellenist Christians to stop complaining and causing division? Did they tell them they were allowing the devil to foment disunity in the Church? Did they remind all present that they are in charge; that the Church is not a democracy?
On the contrary.
1) The Apostles took the problem seriously. They implicitly granted that it needed addressing. Further, they recognized that they themselves lacked the time and calling to address it properly. Their calling was to bring the ministry of the Word to the whole world, not to manage the practical affairs or adjudicate the internal disputes of the local churches.
2) Part and parcel of the Apostles' recognition that what today we might call parish administration was beyond their calling was an acknowledgement that such administration naturally belonged to the competence and calling of the local body of believers. So, what did they do? They gathered the disciples together and proposed that they select leaders from among themselves. In other words,they called for elections. And then they "handed over responsibility."* They let go of control. And they did it religiously, in faith. They trusted the people of God. They were confident in what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work." They understood that it is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each through baptism and confirmation, who brings about unity in the Church. The Apostles serve His unifying purpose by recognizing and fostering His work in and among the believers.
Another way to describe the event is to say that at this seminal moment in the life of the Church, the Apostles introduced the democratic values of self-standing, free elections, and lay co-responsibility into church governance. In dramatic contrast to the highly hierarchical roles-and-rules-based society of Ancient Rome and Ancient Judaism, the Apostles sought to embody in practical policy the new dogma that, in Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female," rather, all are equal, and all are one.
I know from experience that I have to qualify here: Equality doesn't mean sameness. The passage does nothing to diminish the special authority of the Twelve. Rather, it clearly distinguishes what we can now recognize as two fundamental modes of Christian ministry: clerical and lay. Both serve the common good; both come from the Holy Spirit; both share in Christ's redemptive mission, and each relies on the unique excellences of the other for fulfillment and fertility. They are complementary modes. The laity taking up the responsibilities of administration in the Body of Christ frees the clergy to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. And through that priestly service, the laity receive the divine grace they need to accomplish their work as a specifically Christian ministry.
Nor do I mean to suggest that the Pauline principle of "neither Jew nor Greek..." eradicates all vestiges of hierarchy in the Church. Clearly there remains a hierarchy within the clerical vocation. Further, the Apostles hold a primacy and authority over all believers, particularly in what concerns the Word, i.e. the scriptures, doctrines, sacraments, preaching. Nevertheless, when it comes to the ordinary affairs of any given community of believers, we find in Acts 6 the Apostles deferring to their lay brothers and sisters who are local and locally known. They recognize that they are the ones with the gifts, the ken, and the charisms to lead, organize, manage funds, distribute charity, adjudicate wrongs, solve problems, etc.
Please note: this vital feature of life in the early Church is almost completely missing in the status quo. As things are, the clergy own all the property and all the decision-making power, while the laity as a matter of practical fact are regarded as subordinates.
"The Church is not a democracy," said Bishop Barron more than once. Okay, true. But neither is it a monarchy. The New Testament, as I read it, offers no warrant for the situation we're in today, which so far from being excessively democratic is actually excessively monarchical. Pastors are de facto kings (however benevolent) of their parishes, while the laity have no franchise at all. (I'm not speaking here of subjective intentions, but of objective facts.)
If the Church were as it should be—that is, if it looked more like it does in Acts—we would find it has elements of various systems of human government, while transcending them all. It transcends them because the Church is not primarily a secular polity. Rather, it's a divine family. And the institution that models it most fully, according to both Scripture and theology, is same one that images the inner essences of the Holy Trinity, viz., marriage—a reciprocal union and communion of self-giving, other-receiving love.
So, to bring my case to a close for the moment:
What ails us in the Church right now is not wide-scale rebellion against the due authority of the bishops. The opposite is much closer to the truth. We are dealing with the disastrous effects of centuries of clericalism: paternalism, patronage, abuses of power, scandal, cover-ups, financial mismanagement, etc. One consequence is that bishops and priests are far too preoccupied with money, management and administration, to the point that they are, inevitably, "neglecting the ministry of the Word." Another is that the laity are frustrated, infantilized, passive, disaffected, demoralized, and disengaged.
The good news is that there's a remedy for all this given in the example of the Apostles in Acts 6. It lies in the devolution of power and responsibility in and for the Church to the local believers. Instead of a situation where the successors to the Apostles are having to "neglect the word of God to wait on tables", we can move into a solution that "pleases everyone." Instead of bishops working to create unity by enforcing a conformity of mediocrity under their stretched-thin direction, we can unlock the agency and charisms of the vast majority of the faithful and watch a beautiful, fruitful, true communion emerge under grace.
I keep saying I have ideas for what this means in practice. I do, but I am slow. They are tricky to articulate, and I am easily discouraged. Please pray for me.
* I'm using the NIV translation: "we will hand over responsibility to them." The translation of the same verse in the lectionary reads: "we shall appoint [them] to this task." The former seems to me to capture better what is actually going on, but I lack the linguistic chops to say which is a better rendition of the original text.