Mar 27, 2014
In his book titled, Images of the Church in the New Testament, the Lutheran theologian Paul Minear found that in the New Testament there are 96 images of the Church. In the area of the Christian moral life, I suggest, there are three principal images at work: the Church as judge, the Church as therapist, and the Church as mother.
The notion of the Church as judge enshrines important values. Despite the professed cultural ideal of living non-judgmentally, no individual or institution can function without making judgments about people, ideas, and behaviors. The Church, like Christ, must unavoidably make judgments about right and wrong, virtue and sin.
Yet, the image of the Church as judge can easily harden in a direction that compromises Christian compassion and mercy. Pastoral ministry in this scheme can become rigorous and unbending, holding that Catholics who do not follow the Church’s moral teaching completely must be dealt with sternly. This can leave the penitent after Confession, for instance, feeling that, while technically forgiven, at a fundamental level he or she remains in God’s bad books.
At the other end of the spectrum is the image of the Church as therapist. Modern psychology generally views the therapist as non-intrusive facilitator of the process by which the individual sorts out personal problems and arrives at solutions. The therapist does not impose his or her moral system on the client. He or she remains painstakingly “non-judgmental,” avoiding words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.”
In the Church-as-therapist approach, adapting the Gospel and its moral demands to situations, circumstances, and individual motivations is paramount. In this view, personal conviction is the ultimate arbiter of moral action. The notion of moral objectivity is played down.
The images of the Church as judge and as therapist enshrine important insights: The first in that it emphasizes moral objectivity, and the second in that it pays strong attention to conscience. Yet both only partially represent the Gospel of Christ and the moral tradition of the Church.