That as Christians the first role of culture in providing models of higher self-realization that result in higher culture is evident enough. The Church has done well to preserve the Gospel in a way that invites its members to take on more Christ-like identities and realize more Christ-like actions in more Christ centered communities
At the same time, I would have to argue from history and from experience that religion, and specifically Christianity, has too often been corrupted precisely to prevent spiritual, intellectual, and moral development in the individuals in order to subordinate individuals to the interests in various political, economic, educational, and yes, religious institutions. If I have a purpose in this blog it is precisely to speak up against those voices that have corrupted the Christian message. Sometimes I do this by serious critique. Sometimes by ridicule. Sometimes by pointing out historical data or contemporary facts. Sometimes by anecdote. But I am sincerely concerned that our religious faith, the most important gift we have because it is the only gift that ultimately gives meaning to our existence, is too often manipulated for unworthy purposes.
It is crucial for us to distinguish between “the Church” and the Institution which governs that Church. This is not to say that the hierarchy is not a constitutive part of the Church, but the Pope and the College of Bishops, much less the Roman Curia, do not by any means exhaust the theological reality of “The Church.” The hierarchy is a constitutive part of the Church, but only a part of the Church and only one facet, as it were, on this incredibly beautiful jewel. And it is perhaps the most flawed facet on that jewel. I gladly accede to the dogma that the Church is founded by Christ. That is a theological statement, not a historical one, and the corresponding historical statement is that the visible institutional form that Church, and explicitly its leadership, has taken is the product of historical development. Historically, we cannot claim that Jesus sat down with Peter and gave him the floor-plan of the basilica or advised him on how to set up the Curia Romana. The Petrine ministry can be found in certain interpretations of passages in the Gospels but that does not mean that Jesus of Nazareth historically established the papacy as we know it. The papacy is clearly an evolutionary phenomenon. The “papacy” of Sylvester I at the time of Constantine, the papacy of Leo I a century later, that of Gregory I two centuries after that, that of John XII in the 10th century, of Innocent III in the 13th century, Paul III in the 16th, Pius IX in the 19th and Benedict XVI today are each remarkably different institutions because they occurred in very different historical situations and at different points along what we might even call a dis-continuum of development.
Something similar can be noted for the episcopacy. It seems to have taken several generations of the faith for the Episcopal-presbyteral-diaconal model of Church ministry (note, I don’t choose to say “leadership” or “authority”) to emerge. Being a bishop was a very different experience, vocation even, for Saint Augustine in the fifth century than it was for Thomas Becket in the twelfth. It was different for John Carroll in 18th century America than it is for Carroll’s contemporary Baltimore successor William Lori. For that matter, the “priesthood” (better, “presbyterate”) of Hippolytus in the 3rd century is a very different ministry than for Thomas Aquinas a millennium later, for Edmund Campion in Elizabethan England, John Vianney in post-revolutionary France, and a suburban Chicago curate today. Sorry, the contemporary term is “parochial vicar.” But I don’t want to digress too far. We can look at the instability of institutional models at another time. I want to focus on the reality that the Church, institutional and every other form, in its periods of greatest health has facilitated spiritual maturity among its members from the hierarchy down through those of us who comprise the lowerarchy. Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Jerome, Campion, Vianney, Innocent, Fisher, Carroll, Chrysostom weren’t peacocks who preened before the mirrors of their self-importance. They were pastors who were focused not on their power or authority—much less on their silk robes and pom-pommed hats, but on shaping the spiritual depths of the souls entrusted to them. We too have seen shepherds in that model—Dom Helder Camara, Bishop Topel, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, O wait, he isn’t one of ours. Pity. And there are many fine priests who fit this model too. But we need to hear more from them than from those who, like the pharisees of Jesus day, bind heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and never lift a finger to ease the load.