This second perspective might seem similar to the “charismatic opposed to institutional” view, but there are some important differences. In this perspective there is still a priority placed on the charismatic element of the Church, but the institutional structures are valued as necessary and themselves empowered by gifts of the Spirit.
For this perspective I’m taking Leonardo Boff as a representative. Boff, of course, is a well known Brazilian theologian, an important figure in liberation theology. He was orignally a Franciscan priest, but was silenced more than once for his views (including those found in the book I’m discussing here), and eventually he left his order and the priesthood. He also has a pretty snazzy website, I’ve just discovered.
Leonardo Boff gives a strong priority to charismatic gifts arising “from below”, that is, from the grassroots, but he is also willing to speak of “hierarchical charisms.” So for Boff, the institutional side of the church is not simply devoid of the Spirit’s guidance, though there may be tensions between charismatic and institutional. However he does view the historical institutionalization of the Church as a “failure” in a sense. Writing about Catholicism in general, he writes that “A christological emphasis on the level of the incarnation led the Latin Church to excessive institutional rigidity.” (Church Charism and Power, 154)
However, his solution is to prioritize the charismatic over the institutional, not to oppose the two:
Charism includes the hierarchical element, but not exclusively. Charism is more fundamental than the institution. Charism is the pneumatic force (dynamis tou Theou) that gives rise to institutions and keeps them alive. The principle or the structure of the institution is not the hierarchy but rather the charism which is at the root of all institutions and hierarchy (159).
So Charism becomes the “organizing principle” (155) of the church’s institutions, with an emphasis on the participation of the whole people of God, all of whom are given charismatic gifts. The Spirit is made manifest in the Church through the diverse charisms, given for diverse services and functions, but all are oriented toward the good of the Church and working together for unity. The role of leadership in the community, then, is to take “responsibility for harmony among the many and diverse charisms” (163). The authorities in the church are there to ensure that there is freedom for charisms to flourish, and to allow the movement of the Spirit through the charisms to organize the Church’s life and witness.
However, Boff argues that leadership structures in the West have tended to be characterized “complete domination” in which the hierarchy “considers itself to be the only charism,” a situation in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit will indeed be perceived as a threat to those in leadership (157). He arrives at this conclusion via another interesting facet of his work – the integration of theological and sociological reflection, specifically of the Marxist variety.
While faith and theology provide the ideals toward which the Church is striving, ecclesiological reflection, according to Boff, begins with the lived realities of ecclesial practice, then measures these practices against theological norms. The resulting reflection provides direction for revised and theologically informed praxis (132). Sociological analysis is therefore part of theological analysis, with theology providing the overall normative vision, but sociology providing the starting point for reflection and some guidance as to how the normative theological vision ought to be lived out. For example, Boff argues on a theological basis that the laity have an inalienable dignity and certain inalienable rights, but his account of how these rights should be exercised in the community has clearly been influenced by Marxist social analysis. This is seen in the fact that he gives a significant place to the concept of “power” in his ecclesiology, as opposed to the traditional theological category of “authority.” He calls for a better distribution of sacred power, and a redefinition of the roles of bishop and priest (10). He criticizes the centralization of decision making in the Church as move which marginalizes the people (34). He describes the processes of the CDF (which he would soon experience firsthand) as unjust and a violation of human rights (37-38). Thus Boff will make statements such as “The logic of power is the desire for more power,” and argue that the concrete exercise of power in the Church “follows the logic of any human power structure” (53).
The touchstone of this Marxist analysis is the critique of the inequality in the means of production. The religious-ecclesiastical or institutional realm of the church is part of the social order, and is conditioned by the prevailing means of production in that social order (110-111). The Church’s own means of production (in relation to cultural/symbolic goods) manifests a structural inequality, with the hiearchy producing all the goods and the laity doing all the consuming (43). This imbalance is in complete harmony with the social realm, but full of internal contradictions, because the basic ideals of these institutions call for shared means of production (113). Ecclesiology must be worked out with attention to these inequalities.
This approach leads Boff to a specific normative conclusion about charismatic reform movements: they must be structural as well as spiritual. Boff is able to see the base communities of Brazil as a form of ecclesiogenesis because they are a “new way of concretizing the mystery of salvation” (126) which gives rise to new lay ministries based on the integration and equality of charismatic gifts (128). The examples of the violation of human rights in the Church with which Boff is concerned are not simply the result of individual actions, but result from a certain way of structuring the Church. The men of the hierarchy are mostly men of good faith, but the structures in which they operate are authoritarian. While the Church embraces the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, reform and conversion are typically limited to the personal and spiritual realm. In opposition to this tendency, Boff argues that the goal of charismatic reforming movements in the Church must be the recreation of the Church as an institution of power. The church has mimicked the structures of the world, and what is needed is the conversion of the institutional Church (58). Therefore, reform movements must embody an alternative structure, one that is more circular and fraternal. Boff believes that this alternative has emerged at particular moments in the church’s history, in various charismatic movements, evangelical revivals, and idealistic groups (156).
Boff’s synthesis of theology and social analysis is methodologically very interesting, but leans quite heavily on Marxist categories. At times is not clear whether his view of charismatic movements in the church is driven by Marxist concerns or theological concerns. I would prefer that theological concerns predominate. Still, Boff’s model provides a way of explaining the history of charismatic movements that has a lot of explanatory power. His ideas provide a plausible account of the history of charismatic movements and their often rocky relation to established structures, without de-spiritualizing the institutional church. I think, however, his perspective could be aided by turning a similar critical sociological eye to the charismatic movements. In his Marxist framework they are treated in an entirely positive light, and I would argue that this is an oversimplification.