Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Hierarchical Principle

For me, in coming from a Protestant position, one principle unlocked a great deal of the challenges presented by Catholicism. I'm not sure if it has a name, but I will call it "The Hierarchical Principle."

For me, unlocking this principle was key to understanding many things:

Why do Catholics have a Pope and Bishops?
What's with the Marian dogmas?
Why the Praying to Saints?
Why call priests "Father?"
Why have priests?

You see, Protestants tend to simplify things. This makes Protestant doctrine easy to understand and quick to learn (at least the basics). As far as hierarchies go, they like it simple: "There's God, then beneath that is us, then there's the rest of Creation." [Note: I may be leaving out a few levels on both sides, but I think you'll get the point] Catholics see these major levels as well, but we also see levels within each of those categories. A Protestant insists that Jesus has given him direct contact with God. A Catholic agrees, but he also sees the purpose in having contact with everyone on the levels between ourselves and God. Thus, a Catholic may praise Mary as being his superior, but a Protestant, only seeing God as his superior sees this as idolatry.

To sum up the principle, I would first relate a common Catholic statement, "Protestants see things as either/or, where Catholics see things as both/and." This is used for Faith and Works, Scripture and Tradition, prayers to God and Mary, etc.

But for some of these things a hierarchical model is more appropriate: "Catholics see some things as both/and-to-a-lesser-extent." Catholics honor God, and because of God they honor Mary. Catholics believe in the ultimate authority of God, and in the subservient authority of the Bishops.

To help explain how this plays out further, let's see how the principle works with Church Authority: In the Gospels Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you [Jn 20:21]," to the Apostles. He also gives a special higher authority to Peter [Matt 16]. Then, after this, the Apostles ordain Bishops to succeed them. This creates a structure something like the following:

God the Father>Jesus>Peter>Apostles>Bishops>Presbyters & Deacons>Laity

Then, after the deaths of the Apostles, and after some clarification on the roles of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons we ended up with the modern structure:

God the Father>Jesus>Pope>Bishops>Priests>Deacons>Laity (divided futher: Parents>Children)

In observing this structure we recognize that each is due honor according to his office. Having an authority other than God does not conflict with God's authority because 1) Its authority is God-given, 2) We recognize that God's authority is higher, and thus, 3) Divine commands outweigh the commands of Bishops etc.

We can look at a similar hierarchy of physical fatherhood:

God, the Ultimate Father>our Ancestors>our Biological Father>Us>our Children

Or in all created and uncreated things:

God>Angels>Man>Animals>Plants>Inanimate Objects

God alone is worthy of all glory and praise, and is the source of all holiness and the ultimate recipient of all praise for holiness. But because God exhibits his holiness through the lives of his saints, we still see a hierarchy of holiness extending down to created beings, for which we give honor and praise:

God>Mary>the Saints in Heaven>the saints on Earth

Understanding that this is the way God works, both in nature and in religion, is a great key to understanding Catholicism. Understanding this, we realize it is not only acceptable to honor Mary, or to honor our father and mother, but it is indeed right, and is God's will. God enjoys sharing his things with his creation, he shares his love, his authority, his supernatural gifts, and even his praise. We are just required to make sure that the greatest honor is given to God.

For one, this would mean that if our priest tells us to do something which we well know to be contrary to God's law, we must object. We must also avoid trying to play people lower on the hierarchy against God, like we would if we said something silly like, "Mary, God has not helped me in my efforts as a thief, but you are far kinder, so please help me steal a car." That would be idolatrous, insulting to God's loving nature, and gravely sinful.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

This is very interesting. It does help clarify the Church's position on a lot of things. It makes sense that God would design things this way, and not just the simple God-and-me-relationship-and-that's-it that you hear from Protestants. Great post!