Resurrection, Not Resuscitation

(Doctrine and Life, April 2011, pp.17-24)

Seeing the bigger picture

One sad and shameful fact out of many relating to the abuse of children in Ireland is that clergy had to be dragged reluctantly each step of the way, denying facts, or denying their significance, or denying responsibility when the facts became undeniable, fudging issues instead of facing them, covering up instead of cleaning up. We denied, delayed, and dissembled when we should have admitted, accepted, and acted. We made too many excuses, apologies and promises which we then broke, and followed those with more excuses, apologies, and promises, which we broke again. That same process also operates in Rome. As a result, much of what the church does about child protection is written off as PR, crisis management, or a change of tactics or strategy but not of heart. Why does church leadership so rarely lead? – its habitual mode is one of reaction.

Pope Benedict, in his handling of this issue, doesn’t seem, in a significant way, to acknowledge that the spirit and structures of power in the church made it very difficult for institutionalized wrongdoing to be effectively challenged, whether from within in particular, or from without. He doesn’t confront the broader issues, but seems to think that “renewal” will meet the need.

The problems are not essentially about sex; they are about power. To refuse to acknowledge a need for structural change is to fly in the face of centuries of human experience, that changes of attitude need underpinning by structural change if they are to endure. There is a need for a revolution in the church both in structures of power and in spirit.

The sexual abuse of children is a symptom of several other problems, such as unhealthy theology, and a spirituality of denial around human sexuality, as, for instance, in the inability or unwillingness to see that failure to find healthy and legal expression of sexuality invites unhealthy and illegal expression. A foundational problem is that we don’t take the abuse of children seriously. It’s as if we say, ‘Don’t make a big deal of it; you’ll only make matters worse; say nothing and they’ll get over it.’ If anyone thinks that, they should listen to a victim.

Sexual abuse is about the abuse of power, including a lack of accountability. Not to recognize that is to look only at symptoms and not at causes. Unfortunately, the process of deny-delay-dissemble, fudging and concealing, which, for decades, bedevilled our handling of the sex abuse issue now equally bedevils the authority issue which underlay and enabled it. It seems that in neither case do we have the leadership, the vision, or the will to face key issues. Why? I believe it is because facing the authority issue challenges the institution’s self-image, and it is not prepared to do that.

Institutions look after themselves

There are different models of church, that is to say, different ways of being church. The persecuted church of the catacombs was different from the persecuting church of the crusades and inquisitions; the Celtic church that followed Saint Patrick was different from that which followed the introduction of the new orders in the early medieval period; the church of small Christian communities in Africa is different from that of Poland or Malta – but they are all the Catholic church. ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms.’(John 14.2)

For every institution, including the current model of church, self-preservation is the priority. The institutional self-preservation of the churches that has throttled the ecumenical movement is an example. That model, and those who hold office in it, are unlikely to see the need, much less be willing to work, for change that would end it. But it has to end, and is ending. The current power structures of the church are self-serving more than gospel-serving, power-serving than people-serving. The church is the religion of the church; the church believes in churchianity; it believes in itself; it is a closed, self-justifying, self-validating, self-protective system. So is pharisaism, which is alive and well despite the passing of the Pharisees. This model is narcissistic; the church has made an idol of itself; we are into ecclesiolatry and papolatry. Credibility will come to the church when it values people and the gospel more than itself. The cross is the ultimate symbol of letting go of self-protectiveness. (Philippians 2.6-11)

Catholic identity

Recent church leadership appears to be trying to re-create a sense of Catholic identity through multiple processes of exclusion. Liberals and other undesirables have been worn down, have given up and gone – good riddance. The document Dominus Iesus (n.17) states that other Christian churches and ecclesial communities are not churches ‘of themselves (propriae).’ How much better to say with Augustine of all Christians, ‘They will cease to be our brothers only when they cease to say Our Father.’ (On Psalm 32, Enarratio 2.29; PL 36.299.) The separation of sexual activity and procreation that the Pill has brought about is a reality that does not seem to have been realistically taken into account in re-thinking sexual morality; can it be ignored? And, given the frailties of human nature, is it right to have a simple policy of exclusion from the sacraments of the divorced and re-married? Why, too, does the church insist on celibacy for clergy of the Latin rite, even though it is clear that this policy results in exclusion from the sacraments of thousands of functioning Christian communities? Is the Eucharist of lesser importance than celibacy? In these and other matters, it seems that, in trying to become more Catholic, we are becoming less catholic.

The approach seems to be to alienate groups of people, drive them out, and then we will have “real” believers. The Pharisees might have said, ‘That’s what we were trying to do, but Jesus didn’t understand.’ We have taken Jesus, a man for all religions, and made him into a religion. Did he found a religion or give a new way of living life? We have made him into someone against whom people may be judged and shut out. And we are even proud of this, thinking it makes the church a counter-witness to the prevailing culture, a sign of contradiction. (Luke 2.34) The church has shown itself ready to write off large segments of humanity in the interest of protecting its self-determined image. It seems happy to let the Western world go, as long as it retains control over the rest who stay. It seems content to disengage from the secular world and withdraw into a devotional ghetto.


In the forty-five years since the end of Vatican II, the current model of church has shown itself impervious to reform. It does not have structures of authority that are participatory, transparent, or accountable. It has shown that it does not want them, probably because – correctly – it sees them as a threat to the continued existence of the model. But ‘Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.’ (Arthur Schlesinger) We don’t have the energy for revolution-as-explosion; instead we have revolution-as-implosion, with the numbers in the pews falling year by year, and, among the clergy, declining numbers, rising age, health problems, and sliding morale making the current model of church non-viable. And, all the while, the credibility of the church, and, more importantly, the credibility of the gospel, evaporates.

How often have conversations along these lines concluded with someone saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful how the church survives all these crises? Storms come and go, but the church goes on forever.’ The speaker fails to see how s/he misses the point. God did not become man, and die on a cross, so that the church would survive. God became man to proclaim the kingdom of God. The church is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It does not exist for its own sake, or to survive, but to proclaim the gospel. ‘The Church exists to preach the gospel.’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.14) If it fails to do so, then it has lost the reason for its existence and does not deserve to survive. Our ecclesial self-protectiveness sometimes precludes the proclamation of the gospel. For many people today, the church is a counter-witness to the gospel.

Into the bargain, the current model of church is thoroughly sexist, and gives every sign of intending to remain so. The new English-language translation of the Roman Missal is further evidence of this. From within a ghetto of closed minds there need be no expectation of change on this point: supporters of the status quo have become prisoners of their own propaganda.

As it has existed for centuries, perhaps since the time of Constantine, the models of church that formed unholy alliances with status, power, and control, have proclaimed the values of the empire of Rome more than those of the kingdom of God. The present model is now dying; it needs to. If we want it to die, all we need do is keep doing what we are doing. The re-making of a new model of church will be God’s work, not ours.

An analogous dying is happening in other churches – Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox – in different ways, for different reasons, and according to different time-scales. This death of the church as we have known it may be God’s way of clearing the ground for the re-planting of God’s kingdom. God may be the revolutionary behind the revolution which is eroding the current model of church. (See John 12.24)

Vatican 3?

What about Vatican 3, sought by Hans Küng, among others? If it was anything like Vatican 2, the answer must be no; it wouldn’t achieve anything. Why? Because ‘No problem is solved from within the mindset that created it.’ (Einstein) The church mindset has to be broken; we’ve got to step outside the box; we cannot honestly preach the risen Christ while clinging to a past that is dead.

Gandhi said, ‘The end must be pre-figured in the means.’ If the end in view is a church which is ecumenical, communitarian, inclusive and participatory, with transparent and accountable structures, then the means of achieving it must also have those characteristics. That’s a long way from Vatican 2’s mode of operation. It’s a longer way still from that of the Synods. It was a Synod of Bishops, held – of all things – on the role of bishops in the church and in the world, which described the principle of subsidiarity as ‘ambiguous’ and applicable only to civil society. (See Pastores Gregis, n.56) In a colourful, even humorous phrase, the Synod secretary-general, Cardinal Jan Schotte, described subsidiarity as a dead cow on a railway track that needs to be shunted out of the way! Funny, but deadly: without subsidiarity, dictatorship. The Synod’s alternative was communio, a word which means whatever Rome wants it to mean at the moment.

Pope Pius XI enunciated the principle of subsidiarity, saying, ‘Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to a group what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so too it is an injustice, a grave evil, and a disturbance of right order, for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies. This is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable. Of its very nature, the true aim of all social activity should be to help members of the social body, but never to destroy or absorb them.’ (Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, AAS 23, (1931), p. 203.)

In an address to the College of Cardinals on 20 February 1946, Pope Pius XII quoted this statement, and commented, ‘Such words are indeed enlightening; they apply not only to society, but also to the life of the Church without prejudice to its hierarchical structure.’ (AAS 38 (1946), pp.144-145.)

Another Vatican 2, followed by another blizzard of curial – sorry, Magisterial – documents, permeated by a sub-text of Roman control? No, thanks. Vatican 3 is no way forward; it’s a redundant model. The risen Christ didn’t take up where Jesus left off on Good Friday; we need resurrection, not resuscitation.

The kingdom of God

Let us do as Jesus did, and focus on adults: let’s evangelize and have no more pro forma baptisms or conveyor-belt sacraments; let us withdraw from schools, and use RCIA.

Jesus’ principal moral concern was for issues of justice. We lazily and comfortably accommodate many injustices. Justice includes non-violence, the great lacuna in our moral thinking. Since the time of Constantine, we have read the gospel on non-violence with closed eyes. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was right when he said, in a Christmas sermon in 2003, ‘Religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as… intolerant of difference… as a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, as a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare.’ Think justice: Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, Germany’s wartime martyr to Nazism said, ‘If the church does not stand for justice, what difference would it make if no church ever again opened its doors?’

In liturgy, let us move from tokenism to realism, from automatic pilot to communal prayer. Let Eucharist become a verb rather than a noun, a celebratory feast, not a fast food take-away. Have no more sacraments without evangelization and catechesis: ‘Before individuals can come to the liturgy, they must be called to faith and conversion.’ (Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, n.9.)

Be egalitarian and communitarian: Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist beaten to death by South African police, was right when he said that the most powerful weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Most people use hierarchy to run from responsibility. It lobotomizes them so effectively that, given power, the first thing they do is look for someone to surrender it to. We need to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves. Jesus said, ‘Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ (Luke 12.57) Without participation and accountability, hierarchy oppresses; it disables rather than enables. It evokes infantilism and passivity, and we have much of both in the church. Where there is fraternity/sorority, there is the possibility of growth in community.

Think truth: when doctrinal issues arise, let’s examine them on their merits without looking over our shoulders for fear of losing authority by deviating from what we said in the past. See diversity, not as a betrayal of the truth, but as acknowledgement that the truth is larger than we are. Break with mental reservations: no more nod, wink and nudge. If we keep doing things the way we’ve done them, then the future will be no different from the past; we will repeat the same mistakes and the same crimes. Those many who are still in denial haven’t got this; they think that all we have to do is keep our heads down, stay quiet, and the storm will blow over. Once the media spotlight shifts to something else, as it will, they will revert to type and resume the old tactics of covering up, stalling, and drawing a veil over what needs to be exposed. That will not serve the truth.

Think society more than church: Like good Presbyterians, think citizenship. Respect the law of the land; accept that there is a moral obligation to obey it. Put an end to under-the-counter arrangements on issues such as employees’ wages and conditions; pay church workers a living wage.

Move out of the either-or mentality. Post-Vatican 2 categories of liberal/conservative, progressive/restorationist, right-wing/left-wing, are distracting, divisive, and self-defeating; they become mirror images of each other. Undertake a comprehensive and integral re-examination of some of the great ‘either-or’ divides in Christian theology, such as sacred/secular, divine/human, spiritual/bodily, natural/supernatural, subjective/objective, righteous/unrighteous, etc. Much of this has been a search for bogey men so as to evade responsibility.

The move has begun

Things have already started: the current model of church is dying whether we like it or not. The Emerging Christianity movement is one developing alternative. (Google it and see.) People are quietly putting new wine into new wine-skins (Matthew 9.17), making room for vision and passion, valuing human experience, creating new links, breaking down dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2.14), and doing things that are ‘new and with authority’ (Mark 1.27) – the authority of their experience.

Think Kingdom: ‘There are many whom the church has, and God does not have them; and there are many whom God has, and the church does not have them.’ (Saint Augustine, On Baptism, 5.27.38)