Wednesday, March 8, 2017


   Literally millions of Catholics have walked away, and are still walking away, from the church in protest against the way it is being run.  The church has not presented them with an understanding of God and our faith that has real meaning for their deepest and most precious needs in today's world.  They are not spiritually indifferent.  They are search elsewhere.  As they say, they are spiritual but not religious.

   One very important reason the church has failed in its responsibility to today's Catholics--and to the world at large--is that it operates as a closed system.

   A closed system is one that operates within itself without relating to the world outside itself.  In contrast, an open system operates in a living, mutually nourishing relationship with the world outside itself.  Especially since the Reformation, the church has closed in on itself.  At that time, it convened the Council of Trent (1545-63) and pronounced excommunication on anyone who disagreed with its teachings.

   The birth of the Modern World in the 1600's, with its modern science, modern nation states, and the Enlightenment, which replaced the faith with reason alone, moved the church to close in on itself even further.  It began speaking to the outside world, and preaching judgmentally at the world.  From within its theologically walled-in borders, it didn't notice that little by little the world was no longer listening.

   A closed system is structured in a way that separates the levels of authority from one another.  In the church, authority is structured along a hierarchy of pope, bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers, and laity.  Authority moves in one direction, from the top down.  There is no true conversation among the various levels of authority, and therefore no true community.  This system created the unhappy description of the laity as passive, "pay, pray and obey sheep."

   An open system stays alive by nourishing itself from sources both inside and outside itself.  Such a church doesn't "run out of gas," whereas a closed system church does "run out of gas."  In the 17th century, the church began to run out of gas.  By the 20th century, following the moral and spiritual disaster of World War II, it was pretty much running on "Empty."  Pope John XXIII saw this condition.  He knew that the "internal gas" the church ran on was the Holy Spirit, and its "external gas" was openness to the fast changing world, where the Spirit was also present.

   So he called an Ecumenical Council to "open the windows" of the church so that the Holy Spirit could "fly" in, and to "open the doors" of the church so that it could dialogue respectfully with the outside world, where the Spirit also lived.  In sum, he wanted Vatican II to change the church from a closed system to an open system.  Unhappily that has not yet happened, although Pope Francis and some bishops, e.g., Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, are working, against strong opposition, to make it happen. 

   Until Vatican II, the church councils were written in "closed system" language.  Following the example of the Roman Empire, they used the legalistic language of a political state.  Most bishops were church lawyers who understood this language and taught in the language of church law.  As lawyers study laws, sins were catalogued and studied from every angle.  In the 1960's Fr. Bernard Haring tried to change the emphasis from legalism to an emphasis on love.  He is reported to have said, "If you want to know about morality, don't pick up the Code of Canon Law, pick up the Gospels."

   Rahner's emphasis on love and understanding, as well as the input from many outstanding theologians, greatly influenced the teachings and language of Vatican II.  The council is written in "open system language," or "pastoral language."  But many of today's bishops, still living in their legalistic world, still don't understand the language of Vatican II.

   Vatican II wanted to change the church from a top-down, judgemental church to a brotherly/sisterly community of all the faithful, from pope to laity, who, within their sphere of their vocations and positions contribute to the church's living faith, with full respect and dignity accorded to every member.  The church's teaching authority (which is called, "The Magisterium,") arises not from any private revelation to the pope and then on down, but from the faith of the whole church.

   In an open system church, the important feature of membership is the people's common baptism, and their faith as they live it in the everyday world.  The church is not only the church of Sunday morning but the church of every weekday,  God speaks to all the people of the church, where they live, work and play, as well as where they worship.  All have the privilege and responsibility to make their faith known to the church so that the church leaders have the information and discernment necessary to make informed decisions as to what God want of us.  Popes teach infallibly what the whole church already believes infallibly.    

   Further, an open system church acknowledges that God speaks to people outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic church.  Salvation is open to all people of consistent good will.  Everyone in the world has the call and opportunity to respond to the INFINITE/ETERNAL LIVING LOVE that permeates the world, urging the world forward in its slow and bumpy, ever evolving and unfolding way toward wholeness in justice, peace and love.  So the church needs to enter into respectful and humble dialogue with all peoples throughout the world as it offers them the fullness of their salvation.  In a word, the church needs to be completely catholic (small "c"), i.e., open to the whole world.

   In such a church all its members work together and contribute to the whole.  Everyone who values our humanity, our world with its need for good families, good ecology, good government and schools, good economics, good relations among all nations, etc., will want to be active participants.  Such a church will be marked by people on their way to ever deeper and effective spiritual growth and maturity.

Note 1:  A necessary way to bring about an open church is to "change the conversation," i.e., to learn how to talk about such a church in a way that is easy to understand and implement.  In future posts I will try to help work out such a language.

Note 2:  What pertains to the church today also pertains to our government.  Our Federal government is closing in on itself and closing our country in on itself.  "American First!" has a certain appeal, but it can be toxic in today's world that needs positive inter-communication and inter-relationships very badly.

Note 3:  Thanks to Sr. Elia Delio for her ideas on open and closed systems in her wonderful book, Making All Things New -- Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness




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