Wednesday, October 29, 2014


   The recently ended first session of the Synod in Rome exposed lines of contention that have been stirring--though mostly suppressed--since Vatican II.  The Council faced a massive task:  to bring a Medieval church, with a Renaissance authority structure inherited from the Roman Empire, into the 20th century--and beyond.  The unresolved contention following the Council has now made a spiritual civil war inevitable.

   Pope John XXIII was a visionary who saw the Spirit present and active in the world of his day.  And he trusted the Spirit-filled world to awaken to a "New Pentecost," a new call to spiritual openness, evolution and maturity.  A great majority of the Council Fathers came to see the same vision, and so the Council gave us a new view of the church as the world-wide People of God, to all of whose members God was speaking, empowering them to respond to the Spirit with a discerning and prophetic heart and mind.  In short, John envisioned a church that would humbly serve the world to help make it more luminously human in the loving Spirit of Christ.

   Pope Paul VI, who continued the Council after John XXIII died, was a cautious and fearful man.  (His associates called him, "Hamlet.")  He distrusted the world, and he feared permitting the laity to contribute their everyday faith experiences--their sense of the faith--to the church and the world.  A vigorous minority of Council Fathers, dedicated to a strictly held moral view of the church and the world, agreed with him.  So Paul, ever cautious and fearful, insisted that the minority view be included in the final documents of the Council along with the new vision, hoping against hope that in time, the minority view would pass into history.  It didn't.  

   After four sessions of Vatican II, the expenses had become a problem, the bishops were worn out, and many did not want to leave their dioceses again for another session.  So a fifth session was not called.  This session could have set up a new structure for the church, making it a spiritually living organism instead of the authoritarian organization that it was.
Another session could have inaugurated a newly inspired, world-wide People of God, all of whom were recognized as having equal baptismal dignity, with a right to receive a new, contemporary spiritual formation that was applicable to the world they lived in.  And all could have had a respected voice in the church.

   But the language of the Council was almost totally pastoral and spiritual. Many bishops, being canon lawyers--and not well versed in contemporary Spiritual Theology--did not fully understand the Council's language.  Though many were filled with good will, they were not sure how to create the new kind of church that the Council called for.  Another session could have added the legalistic-juridical language for the new church structure that the lawyer-bishops could understand and implement.

   In the 1960's when the liturgy was changed into the vernacular, the people were not provided with the spiritual formation that was needed for them to incorporate the liturgy into their everyday service to the world they lived in.  The Sunday church did not match the weekday church.  And in 1968, Paul VI's disastrous handling of the contraception question added to the people's moral confusion and spiritual contention.  Catholics began walking away from the church in great numbers.

   Pope John Paul II used his powerful spiritual strength to preach the ideas of Vatican II to the secular world, but kept the church tightly under his personal control.  Efforts by the American bishops to write documents on peace and the American economy were criticized by John Paul's Vatican, who did not want an "American church," but a strictly Roman church.      

   Benedict XVI, for all his towering intellect and theological excellence, was as cautious and fearful of the world as Paul VI.  He even sponsored an attack on American nuns who were tending the sick, feeding the poor, and working for social justice, but not preaching his strict dogmatic teachings.

   Enter Pope Francis.  As soon as he began talking and acting as pastorally and spiritually as he does, a la Vatican II, it became inevitable that the contention that has been roiling in the church for the past half century would boil over.  And it has.  And I worry that it is not being handled well:

   1.  The struggle is being politicized between "liberals" or "progressives," and "conservatives."  One example:  Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, whom the press called a spokesperson for the conservatives, recently said that the Synod's language caused confusion, and confusion is the work of the Devil.  Pure politics.  No spiritual leadership. The political use of the terms, "liberal, progressive" and "conservative" should be abolished from Catholic conversation.  They are not worthy of the task at hand or of our spirituality.

   2.  Culture is also being used as an argument for one side or the other.  Yes, culture is important.  But we base our understanding of our faith and morals, not on culture but on the living Spirit.  It is in the Spirit's light and love that we understand our living faith and morals in today's terms for today's world.  To base our understanding on culture is to fall into fundamentalism.  Yes, Jesus was human and lived fully within his culture, but he was also divine and lived and taught beyond his culture, for all cultures and all times.

         So while we respect the various cultures of the world, we first need a new, contemporary discernment of the one global Spirit.  After we discern the Spirit we can then see how our insights and understanding can be expressed within our various cultures.  We are one, global church, expressing the one Spirit of Christ in many different ways.

   The Synod's documents will now be placed in the hands of the world's bishops, clergy and laity.  All are spiritually empowered and expected to contribute their living sense of our faith and morals, and everyone's discernment must be respected and considered.  If this does not happen, the spiritual civil war will continue, and the church and the world will suffer because of our inability or unwillingness to be the church that Christ intends us to be. 


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