The Roman Catholic Church is almost 2,000 years old and has grown over the centuries to include people of every nationality, every culture, and every kind of social system. With such a long history and diverse membership, it can’t be any wonder that the Church has evolved into the complex structure it is today.
As such, the Church can sometimes appear to be an intimidating institution to some who are quick to throw up their hands in frustration and give up on trying to figure it all out. Impatient to learn the whys and wherefores, or to take into account common sense and human nature, the very size and scope of the Church has often given rise to discomfort regarding organized religion.
But the reality is that no group of more than a handful of people has ever come together without becoming organized. How else could its members accomplish anything? Or once accomplished, preserve its gains? The truth is that without organization, any group, be it a nation or a religion, will remain weak, in-cohesive, and eventually lose track of its founding principals.
For the Catholic Church however, a schematic of its structure can be easier to understand than outsiders might believe and having one, could make it easier to navigate the internal currents of ongoing trends and debates.
On paper, such a schematic can best be considered in two dimensions: vertical and horizontal.
Vertically, the Church presents a simple structure with the Pope at the top, the cardinals next, bishops afterward, the priesthood, and finally the laity at the bottom. But just because the Pope is at the top of the structure, it doesn’t mean he’s any more important than the laity at the bottom. One of the Pope’s descriptives after all is “the servant of the servants of God” as demonstrated each year when he washes the feet of selected faithful in imitation of Christ.
From different sections of the vertical dimension, the Church extends horizontally with various religious and intellectual pursuits; philosophical and theological thought; establishment of religious orders and institutions such as schools, hospitals, and charitable endeavors; and day-to-day religious practices and popular movements emanating from every level of a vibrant, dynamic community.
But as with any other group comprised of human beings, Catholics will have their disagreements and heated controversies. Whatever intellectual ferment there might be however, is always conducted within the clear boundaries defined by the Church’s Magisterium, or the unchanging deposit of faith made up of sacred scripture and Tradition.
With that in mind, what are some of the deep currents forming the undertow of Catholic life today? What issues are being discussed, what groups are being formed, that stand the best chance of influencing the culture of the Church in years to come?
Much of the vigor in the modern Catholic Church is emerging from the laity with new groups and movements cropping up everywhere and quickly gathering thousands of members scattered around the world. Take the Focolarini movement for example: made up of single men and women living in separate communities who pool their belongings in order live Jesus’ request “That all be one.” Over the years since the movement began, it has grown beyond its Catholic roots to include members of many other faiths.
Like Focolarini, the Emmanuel Community sprang from the laity with thousands of members across the globe. Served by clergy but primarily made up of ordinary people, they answer God’s call to holiness while living in the world and holding evangelizing events around the globe.
Hermeneutics of Continuity
Far from the ground-level activities of such groups as Focolarini and the Emmanuel Community, scholars continue to wrestle with the effects of Vatican II by way of the Hermeneutics of Continuity which maintains that there was no disruption in basic Church teachings as a result of the council. The Hermeneutics of Rupture, championed by liberal reformers, claims the opposite but a recent letter written by Pope Francis clearly supports Continuity.
Theology of the Body
A major topic that will continue to resonate within the Church and beyond is the Theology of the Body, developed by John Paul II over 129 lectures. These teachings seek to counter the objectification of the human body by modern society and restore its place as a God-centered creation.
Preferential Option of the Poor
A key teaching of the Church that has resulted in its being drawn into the realm of secular politics is the preferential option for the poor, the basis for its stance on social justice issues. With its basis in the teachings by Jesus that emphasize the need to care for the poor, the Church is likely to continue its involvement with such non-spiritual issues as immigration, welfare, and income inequality.
The Seamless Garment
With the sanctity of life still threatened by modern society, the idea of a Seamless Garment that opposes any kind of killing of human beings be it by capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, or abortion is likely to remain as a major theme in Catholic circles.
Communion and Liberation
A free association movement, the Communion and Liberation has no official enrollment for members. Those interested simply read and follow the weekly catechesis as spelled out in its School of Community for their formation. The group simply proclaims the idea that the Christian event is the foundation of authentic personal liberation with members urged to become active partners in the Church’s mission in every area of society.
Catholic Charismatic Movement
Around since the late 1960s following Vatican II’s call for a new Pentecost, the Catholic charismatic renewal is attractive to some believers who crave more avenues for expression of their faith outside of weekly Mass attendance.
Perhaps the most well known (and successful) of the new movements arising from the laity, Opus Dei emerged from the Spanish Civil War and is comprised mostly of everyday Catholics who continue to live at home or with their families. Having since spread around the world, members believe that everyone is called to holiness and that simply living an ordinary life can be a path to sanctity.