Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hierarchy and unity

Vatican II gives a very hierarchical account of unity in the Church:

This collegial union is apparent also in the mutual relations of the individual bishops with particular churches and with the universal Church. The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation [principium et fundamentum] of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.(Lumen Gentium 23)
The unity of each local Church is grounded in the one local bishop, and the unity of the bishops is grounded in the one pope. Unity at each level comes not from mutual agreement, but from a subordination to a single individual who serves as the principle (principium; recall the archai of Greek thought) of unity. This principle of unity has authority, as the preceding section of the text tells us. In the case of the bishops, this is an authority dependent on union with the pope. (The Council is speaking synchronically. One might also add a diachronic element whereby the popes are unified by Christ, whose vicars they are.)

A hierarchical model of unity is perhaps not fashionable, but it neatly avoids circularity problems. Suppose, for instance, we talk of the unity of a non-hierarchical group in terms of the mutual agreement of the members on some goals. But for this to be a genuine unity, the agreement of the members cannot simply be coincidental. Many people have discovered for themselves that cutting across a corner can save walking time (a consequence of Pythagoras' theorem and the inequality a2+b2<(a+b)2 for positive a and b), but their agreement is merely coincidental and they do not form a genuine unified group. For mutual agreement to constitute people into a genuine group, people must agree in pursuing the group's goals at least in part because they are the goals of the group. But that, obviously, presents a vicious regress: for the group must already eist for people to pursue its goals.

The problem is alleviated in the case of a hierarchical unity. A simple case is where one person offers to be an authority, and others agree to be under her authority. They are united not by their mutual agreement, but by all subordinating themselves to the authority of the founder. A somewhat more complex case is where several people come together and agree to select a leader by some procedure. In that case, they are still united, but now by a potential subordination rather than an actual one. This is like the case of the Church after a pope has died and another has yet to be elected. And of course one may have more complex hierarchies, with multiple persons owed obedience, either collectively or in different respects.

This, I think, helps shed some light on Paul's need to add a call for a special asymmetrical submission in the family—"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22)—right after his call for symmetrical submission among Christians: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). Symmetrical submission is insufficient for genuine group unity. And while, of course, everyone in a family is subject to Christ, that subjection does not suffice to unite the family as a family, since subjection to Christ equally unites two members of one Christian family as it does members of different Christian families. The need for asymmetrical authority is not just there for the sake of practical coordination, but helps unite the family as one.

In these kinds of cases, it is not that those under authority are there for the benefit of the one in authority. That is the pagan model of authority that Jesus condemns in Matthew 20:25. Rather, the principle of unity fulfills a need for unity among those who are unified, serves by unifying.

There is a variety of patterns here. In some cases, the individual in authority is replaceable. In others, there is no such replaceability. In most of the cases I can think of there is in some important respect an equality between the one in authority and those falling under the authority—this is true even in the case of Christ's lordship over the Church, since Christ did indeed become one of us. But in all cases there is an asymmetry.

Here is an interesting case. The "standard view" among orthodox Catholic bioethicists (and I think among most pro-life bioethicists in general) is that:

  1. Humans begin to live significantly before their brains come into existence.
  2. Humans no longer live when their brains have ceased all function (though their souls continue to exist).
There is an apparent tension between these two claims. Claim (2) suggests that brains are central to our identity as living animals. Claim (1) suggests otherwise. But there is a way of seeing the rest of the human body as hierarchically subject to the brain that allows one to defend both (1) and (2). For there is a crucial difference between the state of the embryonic body prior to the brain's formation and the state of the adult body after the brain's destruction. In the embryonic case, there is a developmental striving for the production of a brain to be subject to. This is like a group that has come together to select a leader, and they are already unified by their disposition to be subject to the leader once selected. In the case of an adult all of whose brain function has ceased, even if there is heartbeat and respiration (say, because the news that the brain has ceased to function hasn't reached the rest of the body, or because of electrical stimulation), there is no striving towards the production of a brain to be subject to. This is like a bunch of people whose leader has died and where there is neither disposition nor obligation to select another: the social group has effectively been dissolved.


Dan Lower / KKairos said...

In the case of an adult all of whose brain function has ceased, even if there is heartbeat and respiration (say, because the news that the brain has ceased to function hasn't reached the rest of the body, or because of electrical stimulation), there is no striving towards the production of a brain to be subject to.

I'm experiencing a bit of confusion. Though I think I know what you mean here, what's the difference between that and a persistent vegetative state?

Nick said...

The thesis of this post is at the heart of why there is no "visible" Church in Protestantism. Instead, as the classical Protestant confessions teach, the Church is invisible, being comprised of only those who are true/elect Christians, and the church only becomes "visible" *accidentally* when some of those true Christians happen to gather in one area. But the denial of a truly visible church (anchored on visible apostolic successors) not only contradicts Scripture and Tradition, it makes it impossible to even define the parameters of heresy/orthodoxy as well as forces one to embrace a kind of gnosticism where Christ's Body wasn't actually real.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In a typical persistent vegetative state, there is still significant lower brain function, and the upper brain is there, and probably at least some of the data is still there in the upper brain, just not currently accessible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Maronite liturgy really nicely expresses the point I am making. The sign of peace is passed from the priest to the altar servers, from the altar servers to those at the edge of the pew, and thence to those further along. The peace emanates and pervades like oxygen in the body. The peace and unity of the earthly Christian community is a gift from God rather than something arising spontaneously from within the earthly community itself.

alyssa said...
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