Doctrinal and structural Catholic Church transformation

Aug 10, 2021

Transformation most often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. It is change but not restoration. Transformation is a new configuration. For the church it means a doctrinal as well as a structural transformation.

The ministerial deformity of clericalism is one of several issues that must be addressed. It is a clerical power structure that is accountable only to itself. And, as we have seen, it often ends up abusing the powerless.

The Vatican, with its proconsul-like hierarchy, is a governance structure that owes more to the Roman Empire than to the Way of Jesus. In fact, Jesus gave no blueprints for church structure. His focus was clear: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Structure he left up to his followers. The early Christian communities were charismatic and creative. Today we need a liberation from imperial structures. We can also be creative. There is nothing healthy about an authoritarian church structure of self-protection and privilege, with a climate of secrecy and limited accountability.

The church is the People of God. Transformation starts there on the horizontal collaborative people level not the vertical pyramid authority level. Jesus was a horizontal people-person.“For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

A healthy church transformation calls indeed, as I said in opening remarks, for doctrinal and structural change.

DOCTRINE: Official Roman Catholic teaching, in the books and in papal pronouncements, needs to be updated and transformed in the light of today’s biblical and historical research and understanding. We can and must learn and grow. Continuing education should be a requirement for all church leaders, starting of course with the top leader in Rome. Just like medical doctors, bishops need to be kept up to date. Perhaps they should be examined and re-certified every five years?

Examining the meaning of ordination is a good example of what I mean by updated theological and historical understanding. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. We know today that ordination did not even exist in his lifetime. It was created by early Christians and was gradually introduced almost a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The apostles, therefore, were NOT ordained as the first bishops. One of my archbishop friends still says he often thinks about Jesus putting miters on the heads of the apostles, rings on their fingers, and croziers in their hands. He has a talent for episcopal fantasy.

In the early Christian communities, men and women, as heads of households, presided at Eucharist — without being ordained. When Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, (“Priestly Ordination”) May 22, 1994, declared that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful” he was showing his own theological and historical ignorance. Pope Francis, unfortunately, repeated the error. During a discussion with reporters on November 1, 2016  as he flew back to Rome from Protestant Reformation commemorations in Sweden, Pope Francis said: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear.” The definitive decision, he said, “was given by St. John Paul II, and this remains.”

Ordination began not as a way of passing on some kind of sacred power but as a form of quality control: ensuring that early Christian community leaders were well trained, knowledgeable, competent, and trustworthy. It was only at the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, that the church officially began to teach that only a properly ordained priest could consecrate bread and wine for the Eucharist.

STRUCTURE: The needed Roman Catholic transformation is also a structural transformation. Some things could be done rather quickly. Three structures could change immediately: (1) Church leadership could acknowledge and welcome all the ordained Catholic women who are already priests and bishops. (2) Church leadership could drop the celibacy requirement for Roman Catholic priests. Let them get married — gay and straight. (3) In a spirit of equality and fairness, church leadership could also allow the already ordained to marry if they wish.

Unlike some of my friends, I don’t want to get rid of the pope. Papal ministry, however, has to be primarily one of service not administrative power. For restructuring the papal office, much can be learned from the structure of  the World Council of Churches, which has an administrative center in Geneva and a General Secretary. It has regional “Presidents” (supervisors) for Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, for North America, the Pacific, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox. In a Roman Catholic institutional transformation, the pope could easily become the General Secretary within the Roman Catholic Communion, ideally with a set term of office. There would also be regional supervisors — male and women bishops — around the globe. (I would love to see a woman bishop as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

In the restructuring process, Roman Catholics can also learn a lot from the example and ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, within the world wide Anglican Communion.

When it comes to structural transformation and the role of bishops, one could write a long article. Very briefly, bishops should be well educated and pastorally-minded Christian community leaders. Not colorfully dressed company men with barrel vision. I do try to encourage bishops who are competent and credible contemporary leaders. I know some who are my former students and I am proud of them.

A bishop whom I greatly respected and admired was Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga  (1928 –  2020), Bishop of São Félix, Brazil, from 1971 to 2005. He was a well-known supporter of liberation theology and a strong advocate for the poor and for indigenous peoples. In 1988 he was called to Rome to be examined by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about his theological writings and pastoral activity. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Bishops found him problematic. They produced a statement for him to sign, as an acknowledgment of his dangerous errors. Bishop Casaldáliga refused  to sign it. He simply replied: “My attitude is a reflection of the view of the church in many regions of the world… I have criticized the Curia over the way bishops are chosen, over the minimal space given to women, over its distrust of liberation theology and bishops’ conferences, over its excessive centralism. This does not mean a break with Rome. Within the family of the church and through dialogue, we need to open up more space.” In 1971 when Pope Paul VI had named him bishop, he refused to wear the miter, preferring instead the sombrero of a peasant. He refused to wear a bishop’s ring; and he refused to carry a crozier, preferring instead to carry an oar he used to steer his boat along the Amazonian rivers to the churches of his diocese. He later replaced the oar with a Tapirapé Indian ceremonial stick. I A wonderfully courageous and prophetic bishop.

Roman Catholics in some parts of the world like in Australia and Germany are already experimenting with what is now called “synodality.” The term comes from the Greek word for “assembly” or “meeting.” It is a process of consultations between ordained and non-ordained that leads to a consensus. There have already been some positive and some awkward moments in the process. The big question is how authoritative synodality is or can be.

There are indeed a great many issues for doctrinal transformation and structural transformation. Today I have touched on just a few. Human sexuality remains a big issue. Is same-sex marriage sacramental? Does the church have a sexual hang up? Ecumenical relations? Is Catholic belief closer to the truth than Protestant belief? Who has the truth? Is consolidating parishes and having circuit-rider priests driving from place to place on week ends a healthy way to maintain parish communities? How does a church establish itself as a credible moral authority? Is abortion really the major moral evil in today’s world? What about racism, poverty, starvation, and genocide? How does the church deal with climate change? Are democracy, justice, and equality church virtues as well?

Transformation is a big process. It is an absolutely necessary process, and the Catholic clock is ticking. I hope it will happen.

John Gehring, who is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, understands very well the current Roman Catholic predicament. I conclude this week’s reflection with one of  his observations, in “Confessions of an exhausted Catholic,” published on July 23rd in the National Catholic Reporter.

“I still believe the best of Catholicism can enrich our culture, politics and search for meaning. The artists, activists and ordinary Catholics who live our faith in the shadow of scandal and hypocrisy are not blind to the flaws of our church. We persist because we search and struggle together, connected in spirit and memory to all those who did the same before us, and to future generations who will take up this difficult, worthy pilgrimage after we are gone.”

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