Viewpoint: Is the Church Judge, Therapist, or Mother?

by M. Francis Mannion

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.

While initially they appear very different, both approaches have one thing in common: They are perfectionistic and unable to tolerate failures and imperfections. They cannot bear tension, ambiguity, and the paradox that God can love the sinner.

Catholics, whether priests or people, who live by the image of the Church as judge can be perfectionistic in the sense that they literally tolerate only perfection. They grasp inadequately the truth that the saint and the sinner can co-exist in the Christian at the same time.

On the other hand, Catholics who think of the Church as therapist can easily close their eyes to the Church’s moral tradition, and are prone to establishing themselves in a very comfortable morality. They cannot live with the idea that they might be sinners.

The more adequate and inclusive model of the Church is that of mother. The good mother holds high ideals, yet she can live with the sins of her children. She is principled and high-minded, yet has a tender heart when her children sin, wander away, and betray their training. The good mother never disowns her children, but grieves over their sins. She awaits the awakening in them of what she has taught them in their formative years.

The Church as mother incorporates the best of the roles as judge and therapist. She knows that the tension between Christian ideals and the actual behavior of believers is part of the process of God’s children growing toward salvation and the full stature and maturity of Christ.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. Interesting set of choices. Each has problems with the modern culture as I see it. The problem with therapy in the modern culture is how it is perceived widely, and how people use it so broadly up to the point where the “client” is confronted with the realization of change. And sadly, many people choose not to change. They remain victims instead of becoming survivors, addicts instead of in recovery, and the like. This is how many public figures use therapy.

    The problem with the Church as judge is that one can assume wrongly faith is present when it may not be. On the surface, it seems that Christians, perhaps especially conservatives or traditionalists only have to agree with moral guidelines. Agreement with Jesus is not necessarily the same as having faith in him.

    Church as Mother is also unsatisfactory. All of these roles presume a state of dependency or being a client on the part of a believer. None seem to move the person (necessarily) to discipleship, which I think is very necessary.

    What is wrong with a community of believers and sinners? The Christian submits to God. Why personify the Church at all? The Church is “us.” Not “her.” Not someone else.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #1:
      Todd, I resonate with your well-developed “both/and” critique of all three images of the Church. I agree with your concluding remarks in the last two paragraphs – particularly questioning why we need to personify the church at all. In the 1974 Sacramentary, the Church was referred to as “it” – in the English RM3 of 2011, it’s a “she,” deriving from the feminine pronouns in the Latin. I prefer appealing to Vatican 2’s use of “People of God” and/or Paul’s very profound, “Body of Christ,” as he expounds in 1st Corinthians. These images capture (for me) your desire for more attention to the Church as a “community of believers and sinners” who are called to “discipleship.”

  2. It’s important to remember that these are being proposed as central images – not absolute realities. Like any metaphor/analogy, they limp a bit and will fall down if pushed too hard. As will the analogy I just made.
    I’d put “therapist” under the broader umbrella of “healer” and “judge” under the broader heading of “friend” or “companion” – – someone who will evaluate you and critique you in love, and expect you to do the same. I’m thinking “mother” probably fits under the “companion” umbrella too – though maybe if we want to keep it familial, let’s start thinking of our brothers and sisters in Christ … as “siblings” maybe?
    As Todd Flowerday points out, the Church is “us” at its root – in the Spirit, it is the mystical Christ alive and present in the world; there’s going to be a problem with any image of the Church in which any/all of us think of the Church as something other than ourselves.

  3. Interesting – why does he choose those three images or metaphors? My initial reaction is the same as Todd.

    Scriptural – well, it speaks of the church in both communal and personal/individual images or metaphors.

    Wonder if the issue (like The Models of the Church) is that metaphors can be seen to contain multiple meanings/interpretations – some metaphors/images convey meanings in a strong and passionate way; others can be weak in trying to capture the diverse ways of saying what *church* is to us.

    Am reminded of the image of *bridegroom* and *groom* and the many ways that was skewed; taken out of context; and made to convey questionnable meanings during the Year of the Priest and how certain high profile speakers stated with certitude exactly who and what John Vianney said, did, and was in explaining celibacy, priesthood, etc. (often with no connection to calling, invitation, ministry, etc.)

    So, when a bishop chooses to act as a *therapist* with one of his priests accused of sexual abuse, we know that this is an incomplete and incorrect response. We also know that when a bishop reacts to an abuse allegation as a *judge* to those alleged victims he is not acting pastorally but legally with little to no mercy. In both examples, the bishop is acting as the *church* in some ways but both the victims and the cleric are also the church. What we do know is that it is the rare bishop who responds to these events as a *mother*.

  4. Harold Grant, a psychologist with Trinitarians (Fr. Judge) told us once at a conference. when we hold our hurt finger up to God, we expect that God will kiss it and make it better. We do not expect God to chop it off.

  5. WE ARE THE CHURCH: the people of God.

    In the Greek OT “laos” occurs 2066 times (35th in rank including all the articles and prepositions!). Israel, another word often used for God’s people occurs 2957 times (rank 27) but some of them are for the historic person. Kyrios, mostly used for God, ranks 7th at 8605 times for comparison. So the people of God are pretty important.


    Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament by Paul Trebilco is a very scholarly and very expensive treatment of names used for Christians. It is the source of my numbers below.

    In the NT “the assembly” is used 114 times as a self-designation for Christians

    “Brethren” occurs 167 times as a self-designation for Christians; it is also used 111 times as a term of address.

    Christians are designated as “believers”79 times by various word forms.

    The “saints” are used 60 times as a designation for Christians.

    Disciples is used 261 times in the NT. However it is mainly used as a self-designation for Christian in Acts (28 times).

    In the Gospels disciple is mainly used for a subset of people who followed Jesus. These are the people I would call his immediate aides or assistants. Matthew (72), Mark (46), Luke (37) and John (78). Most of the time the words are purely descriptive of their functions. They are more likely to be used as examples of how not to be follower of Christ or a rhetoric foil rather than as ideal followers (unless we project our notions of an ideal follower unto the neutral uses of this word as aides).

    With the possible exception of disciples, all these self- designations for Christians are egalitarian.

    What is characteristic of CHURCH as “Judge”,” Therapist”, and “Mother” is that all of these involve strong power relationships. Seems a very clerical, power oriented view of CHURCH to me.

    It is interesting that in recent years “discipleship” even “community of disciples” has come into favor in many circles. However the Gospels give us a poor idea of the Christian communities found in Paul and Acts. Note that Paul never uses the word “disciple” What many of our congregations seem to replicate is a pastor who has the role of Jesus, an inner group of aides (disciples), and the “crowd.” In modern times this is more a business (a nonprofit, NGO is Francis word) than a community or network (my preferred translation of Ecclesia).

  6. And what is Christian moral life?

    Jesus made it very clear that it was about love of God and love of neighbor. The OT set a very high standard “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus set another high standard: “love one another as I have loved you.”

    These things seem to have a lot to do with egalitarian roles such as being saints, brotherhood, and discipleship within networks of believers. Why would we spend our time focusing upon the unequal roles of being judges, therapists, or parents of one another? And who among us is into these kinds of roles? Sounds like the clergy to me.

    One of Jesus high standards was “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” Again the clergy seem very adept at promoting any hint of unequal relationships. Recently in both Catholic and Protestant churches it has become popular to combine stewardship and servant leadership into an updated unholy trinity of being humble, paying, and obeying. They dangle Greenleaf’s ideal of “being a servant first” as a worm for potential future leadership roles in the parish.

    Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership was not about humility or status. Rather he was clear that leadership and discipleship were too sides to the same coin. For example in the two person situation person A can be a leader only if person B agrees to follow. Greenleaf saw the crisis in legitimate leadership has occurred not only because leaders are being motivated by goals other than the welfare of others, but also because followers have made poor judgments about whom to follow. He felt our universities and our churches were failing us by not helping people to discern “servant leaders” and having people only follow them.

    Greenleaf was very clear that the servant-first (makes) sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test and difficult to administer is this. Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

    With such criteria and so many different people, being the servant of ALL is a far greater challenge than being LAST, i.e. self-referentially acting humble and uncritically doing what others want. Greenleaf saw “servant leadership” as being very challenging and actually bringing out the best talents in people, which is why he included “servant leadership” as one of the goals for those who were being served.

  7. Mother only implies dependency if you take it as a mother/infant relationship. Part of a parent’s job is to prepare their children to go out on their own. I do not see how Church as Mother would discourage descipleship.

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