Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: A vision of the Church in 1 Timothy, through Aquinas

By Veronica A. Arntz

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Great, indeed, we confess, is the mystery of your religion” (1 Timothy 3:14-16, RSV-CE).

These verses of St. Paul, in addition to the previous passages, reveal very succinctly the nature and soul of the Church. Paul first outlines the different roles within the Body of Christ—men and women, bishops, and deacons—and then describes the source of the Church’s unity, namely, the Incarnate Word of God. Reflecting on these passages of Paul, with the trustworthy guide of St. Thomas Aquinas, will shed light on how we should respond to the current situation in our Church. The Church today is indeed in need of a reminder of how she should act as the “household of God,” given how easily we fall into sin, which divides the Church and prevents her from being truly unified as the Body of Christ.

In this letter, St. Paul first talks about men and women, or the laity, in the Church. St. Paul writes, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling” (1 Tim 2:8). St. Paul thus desires that all the men should pray, and this prayer, according to Thomas, is marked by three characteristics: “that it be assiduous, pure, and quiet” (71). Mental prayer can occur anywhere, which is why men are no longer required to pray only in Jerusalem. Moreover, the prayer ought to be pure, which means that by our external signs, we are giving glory to God.

As Thomas explains, “For genuflections and the like are not of themselves pleasing to God, but only because by them, as by signs of humility, a man is internally humble” (72). Man’s actions in prayer are a sign of his humility and thereby purity before God. Finally, prayer should be quiet, or without anger, both toward God and toward neighbor; thus, real prayer is guided by charity. A man cannot truly pray unless he deeply possesses the virtue of charity, which is expressed in the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. Thus, we can see from the beginning that, for Paul, prayer is at the center of the Church. The Church must pray to God in humility, begging for his grace and his mercy to transcend our weak human nature.

Paul has a lot more to say about women than he does about men, although we should note that all members of the Church should devote themselves to prayer. Essentially, women are to be modest in the dress and adorn themselves with good deeds, not with decorations (1 Tim 2:9-10). Furthermore, “Let a woman listen in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.…Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty” (1 Tim 2:11-12, 15).

These words would certainly offend any feminist, and Thomas’s commentary would not help matters, especially when he says that St. Paul writes these things because women are weak in reason (75, 79). Yet, perhaps in considering these texts, we should look beyond our modern notions of the relationship between men and women, and consider the Blessed Mother in light of these verses from St. Paul.

The Blessed Mother assuredly spent time in silence; many paintings of the Annunciation depict her sitting silently, contemplating the Word of God, when the angel appeared to her. She was submissive to the Word of God; she accepted God’s plan for her without question. While the Blessed Mother did ask Jesus to perform a miracle at the Wedding at Cana, she did so with the full knowledge that His time of suffering would begin.

Furthermore, even though Mary conceived our Lord through the Holy Spirit, and not through natural human relations, she did carry Him in her womb, gave birth to Him and cared for Him. In this way, we can understand that St. Paul has a high calling for women: They are meant to imitate the Blessed Mother in their lives, through silence and submissiveness to the will of God and to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22).

This certainly does not demean women, but rather, gives them a very noble place within the life of the Church: The woman is meant to be the model of modesty, like the Blessed Mother, and be not only a physical mother (if that is in Divine Providence) but also a spiritual mother to all she encounters. Indeed, Paul’s comments can also apply to women in consecrated life: They have given their lives entirely to God and to the service of the Church. Like Mary in the Gospel, they sit at the feet of Jesus, contemplating His face in silence through their daily participation in the liturgy.

One final thought on Paul’s presentation of women: The Blessed Virgin Mary would never take or seize any position of authority. In the story of the Annunciation, and the little pieces from Scripture that we know about her life, we see that Mary always received what she was given by God. Moreover, she “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Mary received the Word of God, and she contemplated Him within her heart. For women living today, Mary can especially serve as a model of reception and contemplation, rather than reaching and seizing for positions of authority, especially in the sacred liturgy. Many feminists want to take up positions of authority in the liturgy, to “feel involved,” when in reality, the greatest involvement is through silent participation and assisting, while the priests and men fulfill their roles in celebrating and assisting at the altar.

St. Paul then discusses the bishops. He writes, “The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). As Thomas comments, “Two things must be considered in the bishop, namely, his higher office and his beneficial actions for the faithful. For some are perhaps attracted by the circumstances of his office, namely, that he receives honor and has power. One who desires the episcopate for those reasons does not know what a bishop is” (88). A priest, therefore, should not desire to become a bishop because of power; he does not understand what it means to be a bishop, which is to be the guardian of his church.

The bishop is to be a man of virtue, who is “above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money” (1 Tim 3:2-3). This calling is indeed noble, and he who desires the office simply for pride would be incapable of fulfilling the vocation. While it may sound strange to us that the bishop should have a wife, the principle is clear: The bishop is meant to be virtuous, and if he is to have a wife, then the marriage should reflect “the union between Christ and the Church: There is one spouse, Christ, and one Church: one is my dove (Song 6:8)” (96).

In a word, the bishop must be faithful to one wife, and in a certain sense, we can say that he is meant to be faithful to his one Bride, the Church, since he himself is another Christ while on earth. We should note that Paul is writing in apostolic context, which is why a bishop is allowed to have a wife. Shortly afterwards, however, it became normative for all bishops to be celibate, since they were married to the Church, as their one “wife.” In the West, this is the norm that extends to all priests as well. Furthermore, as Thomas writes, “the bishop is expected to feed his sheep” (101). This feeding comes under two forms: spiritual and corporeal. The bishop is supposed to give both spiritual and physical nourishment to his people, since he is the shepherd of his flock.

Finally, St. Paul talks of the deacons, who have a similar high calling to the bishops. As he writes, “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:8-9). As Thomas writes, “I say that bishops are obliged to be chaste; and the same applies to deacons, because the contrary makes one unfit for spiritual tasks, for it turns the spirit away from spiritual things, whereas it is necessary that the spirit be elevated for the performance of such tasks” (110).

The deacons, then, just like the bishops, are meant to live chastely, for their own spiritual good and for the spiritual good of the people. They are also meant to live virtuously, having knowledge of the mystery of the faith and a clear conscience. The deacons are not only called to have faith, but also an understanding of what is hidden beneath the faith, that is, the mystery of the faith (113). Moreover, they are called to a pure conscience, “because an impure one makes one err in matters of faith” (113). Paul further says that they must be proved first (1 Tim 3:10), meaning that they must be without mortal sin (114). The deacons must be models of virtue for the people in the Church, because they are ministers of Christ.

Men, women, bishops and deacons are the ones who comprise the Church. But the Church, according to St. Paul, is not merely a human institution; it is not merely an organization of human members. Rather, it is the “household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:14). These words are indeed timely for today, in a world that does not trust in the truth of the Church, but rather, their own understanding.

Thomas writes that the Church is of the living God, because it is the assembly of believers, who are assembled for God (127). Unlike the pagans, the Christians gather together to worship the True God. Furthermore, the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, because there is firm knowledge of the truth in the Church, and because the people cannot be grounded in the truth without the sacraments of the Church (128). This beautiful ecclesiological vision is essential for today’s world, in which the Church is often viewed as simply an institution that holds onto outdated dogmas and doctrines, that are no longer true or applicable today. This understanding could not be further from reality: The Church is the means by which man learns truth and remains grounded in that truth through the sacraments, which are given to her by Christ Himself.

What is the source of this truth in the Church? Here we come to the very center of the Church of the living God. As St. Paul writes, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). Thomas writes that a mystery, or a sacrament, is the same as a sacred sign, but that which we keep in our hearts is most secret. Thus, what God keeps in His heart is both secret and holy (130).

Thomas cites several Scripture passages to support this, including “My secret to myself” (Isa 24:16), and “Verily you art a hidden God” (Isa 45:15). Furthermore, he writes, “And this is the word of God in the Father’s heart: my heart has uttered a good word (Ps 44:2)” (130). What, then, is the secret of God’s heart, the mystery of God’s heart? Thomas, who almost waxes poetic, “This secret which was locked in God’s heart was made man” (130). Christ Incarnate is the secret of God’s heart, but He did not simply remain in His heart. Rather, He was sent forth to the nations, and to those who would become His Church, to redeem them from their sins and grant them the possibility of salvation.

At the heart of the Church, therefore, is the Word of God, Who is present in her sacraments and her liturgies, and most especially, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Incarnate Word must be the source of love for the members of the Church—men, women, bishops, and deacons. Without the Incarnate Word, these individual members could not fulfill their vocations and could not compose the one Body of Christ.

How do these reflections on the Church in 1 Timothy relate to the Church in the modern world? We, in the modern Church, must be reminded of the source of the mystery of the Church, namely, the Incarnation of God. We concern ourselves too readily with gossip and intrigue; we are sometimes more concerned about “Church politics” than with pursuing our vocations and the call to holiness within the life of the Church. Do we take seriously our vocations in the Church, and do we ponder the mystery of our religion often enough?

Let St. Paul’s words, coupled with the commentary of Thomas, be a reminder to us that the real mystery of the Church is the Incarnate Word: We must put all our attention on Him, so that we are able to instruct others and preach the Word of God, in accordance with our state in life. For great indeed is the mystery of our religion, that is, the mystery of God made Man. Let us never lose sight of that mystery by becoming too focused on worldly concerns; let us rather turn our attention to the Word made flesh (John 1:14).