Mark Shea: Models of the Church: Peter and the Church of Office

Reading Time: 4 minutes
St Peter depicted in iconography. IMAGE: Pixabay/Dimitris Vetsikas

Part 3 of Mark Shea’s series on Models of the Church

Most people, when they think of the Church, think of this model of the Church first and, unfortunately, last.

This reductionist approach sees the Church, not as the entire Body of Christ in union with the bishops and Peter, stretching back through time to the apostles and forward into eternity embracing all the saved in heaven and earth, but simply as the hierarchy.  It is like reducing a human body to its skeleton.

Now the Church of Office is a vital part of the Body of Christ, like the skeleton.  But like the skeleton, it exists for a purpose, not for itself.  Nor is it the most important model of the Church.  That model is the Marian model of discipleship, for which the Church of Office exists and without which the Church of Office does not matter a whit and has no point.

…a charism of “infallibility”… does not mean the bishops are extra brilliant and good any more than the presence of lifeboats means a ship is unsinkable.

Just as the law is made for man and not man for the law, just as the state exists for the good of the citizen and not the citizen for the state, so the Petrine Church of Office exists for one reason: so that the Disciple can know, love, and serve God.  If it is not doing that work, it is wasting its time.

The function of the Church of Office is nicely summarised by Paul: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:12–13).

The interesting thing about the ordained office is that its primary function is to act as custodian of the Tradition and the Tradition is not so much a body of doctrine (though it is that too) but the Person of Jesus Christ himself.  What is first and foremost being handed down to us is Jesus himself, present in our neighbour, in his people, in word and sacrament and, above all, in the Eucharist.

What is not being handed down to us is the personal charisma, holiness, and goodness of the priest, bishop, or pope.  Jesus deliberately set it up this way so that nobody would for one moment suppose that a bonehead like Peter was anything other than a jar of clay and not the treasure.  Peter, to be sure, eventually becomes a holy man too.  But his life makes clear that this is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, not his own doing—and the same is true for us.

What this means for us is that the Tradition is not falsified by the sins of clergy any more than a math equation is falsified by the fact that your math teacher cheats on his taxes.  The Tradition does not originate in the personal goodness of a priest or bishop, but in Jesus Christ himself.  A sinful cleric is as subject to judgment as everybody else and if he fails in his office he will bear a heavier penalty than most because those to whom much is given, much will be required.  Meanwhile, Jesus’ counsel to us is “Follow thou me” (John 21:22).

The Church’s Magisterium is promised a charism of “infallibility”.  This does not mean the bishops are extra brilliant and good any more than the presence of lifeboats means a ship is unsinkable.  On the contrary, precisely the point of infallibility is that the Church, including the episcopacy, is staffed exclusively by sinners and fools who would lose track of the Tradition in ten seconds but for one thing: the Holy Spirit (and him alone) prevents that from happening.

The task of the Church of Office is to teach, sanctify, and govern the faithful.  That is something nobody can do without the help of the Holy Spirit.  It involves not just handing down information, but communicating the life of the Blessed Trinity through word and sacrament, as well as kindling into flame the sanctifying gifts and charisms of each and every disciple so that they can take their place in the Body of Christ and live as saints, building up that Body and in turn sanctifying the world.

This means that the Church of Office must not just look back to the apostles, but more and more deeply into the Tradition to apply it to the mission of the Church.

And that means that Peter needs John and the Church of Contemplation.  Of which more next time.

Related: