Date of Award

Spring 2016

Degree Type



Structural change is needed if the American Catholic Church is to navigate the changing postmodern landscape forged by the social and cultural forces of the twenty-first century. In a post-institutional context marked by dwindling human and financial resources and a loss of confidence in the hierarchically-shaped church, decentralized ecclesial structures hold a positive and hopeful outlook for the local church. This dissertation argues for the plausibility of a decentralized structural dimension of the church as modeled by the Catholic Worker, Latin American base ecclesial communities, and Women-Church movements.

In following an inductive method of ecclesiology, a description of each of the ecclesial movements is given with subsequent identification of the socio-religious contextual factors in which the movements emerged. The works of the founders and key theologians are mined for theological and philosophical principles that inform the decentralized nature of the ecclesial models. Analysis and interpretation, the last step in the inductive method, establishes that the decentralized ecclesial movements are governed by the logic of mission rather than the logic of power as in the institutional model and function to mobilize the people of God for creative and innovative approaches to the church’s missionary imperative. Therefore, as ecclesial structures that animate the church’s mission to continue the ministry and teaching of Jesus in the world, the movements remain anchored in the origins of the early church and are unified with the universal church by a shared mission. Lastly, the role of the centralized dimension of the church is affirmed as a function of preserving the cosmic scope of the Jesus-normed mission across all times and cultures.

Implications of the study suggest that the postmodern climate presents the American Catholic Church with a unique opportunity to establish non-hierarchical structures that catalyze mission-driven ministry at the sub-parish levels. A tandem model is introduced in which the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the church are envisioned as structurally normative. Rhizomatic and arborescent imagery suggests a novel way the church can envision decentralized structures systemically, in tandem with hierarchical structures, and thereby maintain the tension of centralization and decentralization so vital to Catholic ecclesiology.