Lawrence B. Porter, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Systematic Theology in the Seminary/School of Theology of Seton Hall University. He has degrees in English Literature (B.A., Providence College; M.A. Brown University) as well as in theology (Pontifical degrees-bachelors, license and lectorate-from the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Oberlin School of Divinity at Vanderbilt University). His essays have appeared in theological quarterlies such as Theological Studies, The Thomist, Gregorianum, Communio, The Jurist, and the journals such as The Bible Today, American Benedictine Review, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and the magazines Crisis, The Priest, and New Oxford Review. Father Porter has been long involved in ecumenical dialogue, having served for many years on the Ecumenical Commission as well as the Theological Commission of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Fr. Lawrence Porter is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. He serves as an associate professor and chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall University. In his recent book A Guide to the Church, he takes the relatively complex aspect of theology called ecclesiology and presents it in an up-to-date, readable, and comprehensive manner. Those who practice the Catholic faith in a secular world have a particular need for this book. It will help them to understand just how the Catholic Church came into being, what it is, how it functions, and how it relates to other faith communities.
The book has three parts. The first and second parts are divided into fourteen chapters each. They deal with the origin and nature of the Church and then with its mission and ministries. The final part consists of two appendices dealing with Mary and with the Second Vatican Council. There is a focus on Sacred Scripture throughout the book. Early on, Fr. Porter does not hesistate to express his view that "Jesus did indeed found the Church" (28).
In the initial chapters, Fr. Porter describes the Church as a form of community and as a sacred assembly. There is an excellent chapter describing the relationship of the Church to the Kingdom of God. One relatively brief chapter recalls the contributions of Avery Cardinal Dulles. It discusses the various models of the Church initially described by Cardinal Dulles in his book Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday) in 1974. Fr. Porter spends three chapters looking at biblical images of the Church. Among those he discusses are: Jesus' sheep with shepherd, the People of God, and the Body of Christ. The first part of the book closes with a clear and detailed discussion of the essential attributes of the Church.
The second part is a bit more practical. Armed with a theological understanding of the Church, Fr. Porter discusses the concept of mission and ministries. He has chapters dealing with the Church and the State as well as the Church and other religions. He discusses home missions and foreign missions. He includes chapters on the following topics: the priestly ministry, the diaconal ministry, the Petrine ministry, the teaching ministry, women and ministry, and the ministry of consecrated life. Fr. Porter continues to make extensive use of Sacred Scripture in each of these chapters.
It is not entirely clear why Fr. Porter placed the Blessed Mother and the Second Vatican Council in a separate part of the book, nor why these chapters are referred to as appendices. Indeed, the book might be enhanced if these "appendices" were expanded. More attention should have been paid to the role of the Blessed Mother in the Church. The same is true for the Second Vatican Council and its impact on the Church. A treatment of the First Vatican Council's solemn definition of papal infallibility and its impact on ecclesiology would also have been helpful.
Fr. Porter's book is very readable. The chapters can usually be read in a single sitting. For those who want to delve deeper into a particular topic, he provides several references at the end of each chapter. I found many of the referenced sources to be particularly helpful. Remarkably, Fr. Porter is able to present relatively complex theology without the use of jargon. Probably the greatest feature of the text is that one does not need to have a degree in Systematic Theology to understand it.
The weaknesses are few. The brief sketches used to introduce each chapter did not always seem necessary or to the point. There were times when the text was a bit wordy and in need of editorial review. I was disappointed that Fr. Porter did not focus more on models of the Church, which are important introductory aspects of ecclesiology;. Also there was no discussion of health-care as a specific ministry.
I highly recommend Fr. Porter's A Guide to the Church. I recommend it to college sudents, seminarians, priests, and deacons. I recommend it in particular to Catholic physicians. I think it will help them to understand the Church which they are so often called upon to defend. --Deacon Al Derivan, M.D., Archdiocese of Philadelphia in Linacre Quarterly 77.1 (February 2010).
"Father Porter has written a balanced and insightful theology of the Church. Its biblical basis makes it an especially appropriate text for college or seminary classroom." --By Joseph Augustine DiNoia, OP, Undersecretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Anyone involved in ecclesial ministry knows how useful an up-to-date "recommended reading" list is. Lawrence Porter's Guide to the Church belongs there, with its straight-forward presentation of Catholic ecclesiology. The first of its two parts covers the origins and nature of the church and the second its mission and ministries. Porter uses his rare combination of theological expertise and extensive pastoral experiences to show the timeless applicability of the church's teaching and tradition. At the same time, he lets everyday experience teach us something about the church's unique character: "We need to understand something about what a human community is if we are to understand what form of community the church is." His discussion is firmly rooted in Scripture, key passages of which he quotes in full to save the reader from constant cross-referencing.
Porter argues -- contra Samuel Reimarus, Adolf von Harnack, Alfred Loisy, Leonardo Boff and Edward Schillebeeckz -- that Jesus intended to found a church and that there is an identification, even if only partial, between the church and the kkingdom of God. He delves into the nature of the church by first examining Avery Dulles's classic models of the church, criticizing him for giving "paramount importance to contemporary experience" rather than to Scripture and Tradition (p. 64). Hence he refocuses our attention on biblical images, choosing four as particularly worthy of close scrutiny: sheep with Shepherd, the people of God, the Body of Christ, and holy mother. He then discusses the four attributes of the church as iterated in the Apostles' Creed: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
Porter constantly connects the second part of the book with the first by showing that every aspect of the church's mission to the world and ministry to the baptized comes from who she is. Particularly well crafted are the chapters on church and state, the church's teaching ministry, women and ministry, and consecrated life. Porter wants readers to understand that the tensions between tradition and reform, prayer and action, sin and sanctity, and the "already" and the "not yet" are healthy and necessary. Those tensions challenge believers to be true to their Christian identity without lessening the gospel's attractiveness. Porter says, "While we must preserve a tension between Christian culture and popular culture, one must also beware of taking a stance that totally rejects contemporary culture" (pp. 24-25). He suggests that in the transition from a "ghetto mentality" to a vibrant "legitimcay" in society, the Catholic Church in the United States has perhaps attenuated its resolve to engage fully in the mission of evangelization and a gospel-inspired participation in public life. By carefully delineating the many ways that all the baptized are called to contribute to the mission of spreading the Good News, Porter greatly helps believers to understand and respond to that call. --Daniel B. Gallagher, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, in Review for Religious, February 2009
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council almost half a century ago, the Catholic Church made a serious attempt to reach out to the modern mentality and adapt itself to the style and language of contemporary culture.
The concept of change within the Church was not novel; both the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles amply demonstrate that the earliest Christians were aware from the start that changes and adjustments would need to be made in order to adapt to new circumstances. For example, devout Jews who came to believe in Jesus had to shift their mindset in order to accommodate the influx of gentile believers. In those same early years, the New Testament bears witness to the reality of human weakness, sin and repentance that would continue to be a sad aspect of Christian experience.
Prior to the council, Catholics had rightly perceived their Church as an institution whose divinely given doctrinal and moral teaching would endure as such until the end of time. They were devoted to the long line of Christian saints and proud that their Church spoke with a divine authority. There was undoubtedly some smugness in this self-image, but many of us found it comforting.
We seemed to have forgotten the ancient Christian adage: Ecclesia semper reformanda est (The Church is always in need of reform). In its human dimension, the Church will often have to adapt to new situations and deal with the fact that many of its members are sinners. Some say it was the Church's exercise of authority in enforcing sweeping liturgical changes that fueled a less-compliant attitude.
The Catholic experience was undeniably different after the council. In parish after parish, there were dramatic decreases in Mass attendance and a precipitous decline in public morality. There was an exodus from the priesthood and from religious life unprecedented in modern history. More recently, the clergy sex-abuse scandals have taken a heavy toll.
Today, some Catholics loudly protest the very authority that previously had been such a comfort. It is not merely a secular language, but a secular mindset that underlies the perspective and threatens the faith of some Catholics. Whatever its origin, it is a sad fact that many who continue to identify themselves as Catholics have little understanding or insight into the Church that they continue to love.
Ecclesiology is the term theologians use to describe the study of the Church. In the past, texts on ecclesiology have tended to be academic and focused on special-interest readers. They often had little appeal to ordinary Catholics, but now all that is changed. Father Lawrence B. Porter, Ph.D., professor of ecclesiology at the Immaculate Conception Seminary on the South Orange campus of Seton Hall University, has written a book on ecclesiology entitled "A Guide to the Church."
I spoke to Fr. Porter recently and asked him why he had decided to write this book. The author's response was characteristically direct. "I have been teaching ecclesiology, the theology of the Church to seminarians for 20 years and have never been able to find an entirely satisfactory text." However, he did note there are many fine works that address some of the particular themes in ecclesiology. He said Avery Dulles investigates various "Models of the Church," Francis Sullivan writes on the marks of the Church in "The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic," and Paul Minear's book discusses "Images of the Church in the New Testament."
Because he had learned much in his years of preparing class, Fr. Porter decided to write his own text. "I wanted a book for my course that would address all those themes and also fit into the contemporary dialogue between the Church and American society," he explained. He said he wanted his book to speak to both the hearts and minds of his readers and to provide insights and solutions that might be helpful for them in their conversations with Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church.
"Consequently, the Bible is the principal reference point in my book and this provides people with an opportunity to open up further dialogue between the Catholic Church and evangelical Christians," he said. "While many of the liberal, main-line Protesant churches have experienced decline these days, evangelical Christians are a growing religious presence and have become a potent political force in American socity. They often seek dialogue with Catholics who find themselves unable to respond to their legitimate questions on Catholic doctrine and practice. My book is intended to help remedy this situation."
Remembering always that a true experience of Catholicism can only be gained from the experience of faithful membership in the Church, Fr. Porter writes from within the Church as a devout and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. His book is both timely and important.
The book may be used very fruitfully by seminarians, but its usefulness is by no means confined to these. The author has carefully aimed his book at educated Catholics who seek a more profound understanding of the Church that sometimes exasperates and sometimes inspires them.
The work is divided into two major sections: the first examines the origin and nature of the Church, and the second, its missions and ministries. Twenty-eight relatively brief chapters make it easy for the reader to remain focused on individual topics. Two appendices follow: one on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church, and the other on the Second Vatican Council's presentation of the Church as a deliberative assembly.
What makes this book a gem is the fact that the sweeping intelligence and the appealing personality of the author come through in every paragraph. Fr. Porter's writing is never tedious because he possesses the uncanny ability to get inside the mind of the reader. He intuitively focuses on the very questions that spontaneously occur to the reader and he responds to them immediately.
Take for example his tretment of the terms "apostle" and "apostolic" in chapter 13. The author informs the reader that he will attempt to look at the biblical origin of these terms and then describe their development in the early Church. The usage is of Greek origin he says and, quite surprisingly, it appears only once in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John. On the other hand, it appears six times in Matthew's Gospel and 29 times in the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Paul almost always refers to himself as an "apostle" in his letters and the non-Pauline epistles often use the term. Fr. Porter covers a vast amount of material in this brief (15 pages) chapter, but the experience for the reader is a refreshing look at an important topic that has often been taken for granted.
The book also demonstrates Fr. Porter is not afraid to tackle difficult or controversial topics. He devotes nine chapters (more than one-third of the entire text) to Christian ministry, including a chapter on "Women and Ministry." No matter what perspective and problems the reader may bring to this work, the author's writing remains true to Catholic teaching and tradition.
"A Guide to the Church" is interesting, insightful, entertaining and personal. --Msgr. James M. Cafone in a July issue of Newark's The Catholic Advocate
"It is not easy to teach ecclesiology today. Where to begin? How to be faithful to the Catholic tradition and at the same time ecumenically open-minded and attentive to questions of credibilty? How to negotiate the many controverted questions in a fair yet decisive manner? Ecclesiology is a theological 'mindfield'! In A Guide to the Church, Fr. Lawrence Porter has succeeded in finding a way into the topic that is at the same time fresh and familiar. He confidently proposed a biblically-grounded exposition of the nature and purpose of the Church, its mission and its ministries - without ignoring that many competing claims found among Catholic theologians and within the ecumenical movement. By staying close to the biblical and patristic sources, he paints a portrait of the Church which many Christrians will find illuminating and faithful. Porter stays in dialogue with other opinions, but skillfully sets out his own views in a non-polemical and engaging style. He hopes to persuade, so he does not propose and defend the tenets of Catholic dogmatic theology in a systematic way, but confines himself to laying out its biblical foundations in dialogue with contemporary Christian scholarship. He is very attentive to questions of credibility, and takes the time to explain and defend each point in a personal, even conversational tone. While Porter clearly writes with the theological novice in mind, his book will benefit anyone who wants an up-to-date, insightful, and stimulating treatise on ecclesiology." --By Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, STL, PhD, Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St. Joseph's Seminary, Yonkers, NY.
"Father Porter is a well-respected professor and lecturer. In his new book, he surveys the Church with the keen eye of a theologian. He presents his understanding of the Church in such a way as to help others come to a deeper appreciation of this great mystery." --By Most Rev. Arthur Serratelli, STD, SSL, Bishop of Paterson and Former Chair of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Help for the perplexed. Whether a devout Christian, atheist, Orthodox, liberal or conservative, the working Church
is sometimes perplexing. So theologian Fr. Lawrence B. Porter of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, has written A
Guide to the Church: Its Origin and Nature, Its Mission and Ministries. The book acquaints the reader with such concepts as
the biblical images of the Church, contemporary models of the Church, the classical "marks" of the Church, etc. In 28 concise chapters and 2 appendices, the origin and development of the Church's historic ministries of bishop, priest, deacon, religious orders and lay ministries are set forth. As well, there are chapters on the history and theology of Church-State relations, the Church's relationship to the kingdom of God and other religions, the concept of the Church as communion, and such disputed questions as the origin of the Church and the history of women and ministry, among others. The author is sensitive to the ecumenical dimension of these themes and thus considers the witness of the entire Christian tradition, Protestant and Orthodox as well as Catholic. --Crux of the News, April 28, 2008.
In the interest of full disclosure, Father Porter and I were colleagues at a seminary. As a reviewer, however, I can unabashedly say: Reading this book makes one want to have an ecclesiology teacher like him. Not that teaching ecclesiology (or this book) is easy. In the wake of Vatican II, ecclesiology was one of the theological disciplines most riven by dissent. If pre-Vatican II theology too aggressively characterized Catholicism as "the one true Church," too many post-Vatican II writers have treated it practically as "the one wrong Church." Father Porter wants to set the record straight, rescuing the wheat of the Council's teaching from a surplus of chaff amid which it is often buried. He does a great job.
Why are ecclesiological questions so important? Because the Church "is the most challenging form of community in that it makes the greatest demands upon give and take, that is, it makes demands upon the most personal human resources of faith, hope and love, asking for a great deal of each of these virtues," Father Porter writes. "It asks its members to believe that despite much chaos and confusion this life has a meaning. It asks us to hope this life is not all there is. There is a further life to come. It asks its members to believe that despite much chaos and confusion this life has a meaning. It asks us to hope that this life is not all there is. There is a further life to come. It asks its members to love unto death (especially in marriage). It places supreme importance upon the transmission and appropriation of its historic, formative experiences (the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth). It is the most ambitious form of community in that it is not only convinced it can bring a depth of meaning to each individual human life, but also peace to the world. No doubt some people will find these claims of the Church too daunting or even gratuitous, groundless. But no one should doubtr their importance. The things one believes in make a great difference in the way one lives."
In 28 chapters and two appendices, Father Porter tackles all the major questions of a contemporary theology of the Church: the Church as community and assembly, its origins, images of the Church (and a critique of Cardinal Dulles' "models of the Church" approach), the Church's four marks, the Church as communion, its mission, including its relation to other religions, church and state, ministry, with special attention to priesthood and the diaconate, the role of the papacy, the Church as teacher, women and ministry, religious life, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church, and an overview of Vatican II.
Each chapter deals extensively with a particular topic usually concluding with one or two suggested "further readings" (which also include the theological position Father Porter scores).
The author often begins a chapter with identifying where particular controversies exist regarding a given subject (e.g., Did Jesus really intend to found a Church? He then develops each issue biblically and historically, tracing doctrinal development (including where that evolution went off track). As a diocesan seminary instructor, he often draws pastoral applications. Commenting on the tendency of sheep to be misled, for example, he observes that "there is much in contemporary experience to suggest the herd instinct among human beings is as powerful today... as in any time in the past."
He is ecumenically sensitive and witty.
This book could have been improved with a subject index. (It only has an index of names). I was a little surprised that there were chapters on priesthood and diaconate, but not a distinct one on the episcopate. In some places, the author is a bit wordy. These minor flaws aside, this book is a good -- albeit challenging and theologically demanding -- introduction to the theology of the Church. It is ideally suited for college and seminary use. --John M. Grondelski in National Catholic Register, June 1, 2008