Posts Tagged institutional church
Nearly 50 years ago in this medieval city with its steep hills and the sprawling campus of one of Germany’s great universities, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were priests and theology department colleagues.
Küng and Ratzinger were the youngest and most influential progressives to advise bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
When Vatican II concluded, it unleashed a historic movement in the church toward greater engagement in the daily lives of the people of God, the rank-and-file believers. A new sensibility for justice and individual rights arose in the church that would grow to 1 billion Catholics worldwide, with missions of activism in many of the poorest countries on Earth.
Back at the University of Tübingen, Küng, a native of Switzerland, and Ratzinger, who had grown up in the Nazi darkness of his native Germany, soon found themselves at odds over the sweeping changes in the church, in a theological debate that would echo across Europe and the global church.
Now, during the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Küng, an internationally renowned scholar, and Ratzinger, known as Pope Benedict XVI, are even more at odds. Of the many issues that divide them, Küng sees the attempt to rein in the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as a sign of myopia, a failure of vision.
“You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith,” said Küng, in a coat and tie, seated in his office, speaking in calm tones in the blue twilight. “But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience.”
“He is against the paradigm of Vatican II.” Küng paused. “He has a medieval idea of the papacy.”
“Many sisters are better educated and more courageous than a lot of the male clergy,” he said matter-of-factly. The Roman Curia “will try to condemn them.”
The legendary intellectual battle between Küng and Ratzinger holds a mirror to divisions in the larger church. Their split began shortly after Vatican II. During the student revolts of 1968, Ratzinger was appalled when protesters disrupted his classroom. That same year, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned the use of artificial contraception, met with enormous protest from laypeople, theologians like Küng, and even scattered bishops.
Ratzinger shifted to the right, embracing institutional continuity. Küng attacked papal infallibility as an accident of history, devoid of genuine theological meaning.
Küng sees the clergy abuse crisis and the crackdown on the leadership organization of American nuns as symptoms of a pathological power structure. By his lights, the impact on church moral authority, and finances, is a crisis rivaling the Protestant Reformation.
In his years at the university here, Ratzinger, polite and bookish, was a familiar sight on his bicycle. “He did not have a driver’s license,” recalled Hermann Häring, a retired faculty theologian who knew both men.
Ratzinger saw the church’s future in rebuilding its orthodox roots.
From academia Ratzinger rose to archbishop of Munich and Freising, then a cardinal appointed in 1981 by Pope John Paul II as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old office of the Roman Inquisition. As he prosecuted theologians for straying from official teaching, he became known as an enforcer of truth.
Küng became a highly influential popular theologian with a stream of writings, including a book critical of papal infallibility. The Vatican reacted with a doctrinal investigation and suspension of Küng’s license to teach theology in 1979. But at University of Tübingen, a public facility that dates to 1477, Küng had job safety. Still a priest, he became a pariah to orthodox Catholics and an intellectual hero to mainstream believers as he kept publishing and speaking.
As doctrinal congregation proceedings targeted more church scholars, such as U.S. Fr. Charles Curran and Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian scholar of liberation theology, Küng likened Ratzinger to the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the sinister monk who tells Jesus the masses must be subdued by superstition for religion to maintain its power.
“You cannot be for human rights in society and not be for it in the church,” Küng told NCR. “In Ireland, the prime minister is more outspoken than anyone” — referring to Enda Kenny’s blistering 2011 speech in the parliament attacking the Vatican for the rooted concealment of pedophiles. Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See.
In the French edition of his new book (forthcoming in English as Can the Catholic Church Be Saved?), Küng expands on the analogy between a church that once put heretics on trial and the injustice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger, as cardinal and now as pope.
“The Roman Inquisition continues to exist,” he writes, “with methods of psychological torture and the use in our day of many enforcement manuals.”
Küng, 84, expanded on the Inquisition theme in a Nov. 15 interview at his split-level residence, which also has offices for Global Ethic Foundation, which he founded.
“The [Roman] Curia realized that the practical life of nuns was different,” he said, “and that was enough to persecute them. You go to Rome for a hearing and it’s a dictate — take it or leave it.”
Küng and Benedict personify the polarized camps as the church has evolved since Vatican II. One side sees a church of rising aspirations in laypeople, particularly women; the papal side seeks a return to deeper piety, a rules-based tradition that honors the hierarchy.
The monarchical notion of papal absolutism has Benedict XVI and John Paul II standing out in high relief from the clamor of Vatican II-inspired theologians and activists. Küng sees the Vatican investigation of the nuns’ leadership group as symptomatic of papal retrenchment from Vatican II.
“Dissent is important in the history of the United States,” he explained. “The Catholic church is different. They are persecuting people who are dissenting. … Is the church one boss who has the truth, and not much justice?”
Küng said he is not surprised that the climate of fear generated by the doctrinal congregation has been met with silence by American priests.
“I have already written,” he said, as if the lesson should be memorized, “that one priest, acting alone, is nobody. Ten priests are a threat taken seriously. Fifty priests acting together are invincible.”
Küng has announced his retirement in 2013 on turning 85. The handsome, book-lined home here in Tübingen will continue housing the foundation he launched. For a man of such fierce idealism, he seems a portrait in serenity.
“Most people do not remain in the church because they identify with the local bishop — or the church,” he said, as the lights of the town twinkled across the hills of Tübingen. “They are loyal to their community and not the Roman Curia.”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell and three other sisters crossed St. Peter’s Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.
It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the Earth orbits around the sun.
Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about the congregation’s investigation of their group.
They were walking into what Fr. Hans Küng, the internationally renowned theologian who has had his own battles in the palazzo, calls “a new Inquisition.” (See related story. )
The sisters were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” To many sisters, the congregation’s action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into their lives.
The Vatican wants control of LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American sisters, most long active in the front lines of social justice.
The main leadership council of American sisters embraced the Second Vatican Council’s social justice Gospel, which has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American sisters has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.
In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.
“While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious,” wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.
The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and sisters who work in poor regions with some of the world’s most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view LCWR’s conflict with foreboding. How far Pope Benedict XVI goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over sisters, is an urgent issue to many of these women — and one sure to color this pope’s place in history.
The doctrinal assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan; he appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings and overhaul its statutes. “You can impose silence, but that doesn’t change anyone’s thinking,” Farrell reflected several months later at the convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.
“This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making,” Farrell said. “When I entered in 1965 we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. … We’re in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking.”
“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”
The leadership conference endorsed women’s ordination in 1977 — 17 years before Pope John Paul II reinforced the church’s ban on it with the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Farrell says LCWR has not campaigned for women’s ordination. Nor has it endorsed abortion. The doctrinal congregation’s demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors’ mouths.
“These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission in Rome. A Congolese member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mboma had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. “It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things,” she said.
“In certain parts of the church we have an us-versus-them mentality,” said Fr. Míceál O’Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru. ” ‘Us’ is religious, and ‘them’ is officers of the Holy See.”
“We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal,” O’Neill said. “The Vatican is trying to assert control, ‘we are in charge.’ … Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together.”
“There is a fundamental problem of honesty.”
Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common. “It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours,” she said. Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.
She joined “lightning demonstrations,” unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing, who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.
In 1986, she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a civil war with U.S. military support of the Salvadoran government. Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp, living with villagers displaced by military bombings. American sisters were a nonviolent presence, giving thin cover to locals.
“We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines,” she explained. “I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God.”
Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed “a political statement,” Farrell said: “We are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us.”
In 2005, Farrell returned to her Dubuque convent. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when LCWR leaders made their annual trip to Rome in 2012 to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, past president; president-elect Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director and a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa.
Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.
The sisters had met once with the doctrinal congregation’s investigator, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, but had not seen his report. The sisters were expecting some conclusion to Blair’s inquiry but had no indication about what it would entail. Blair was not in the meeting that day. They were to meet with Levada, who was about to turn 76 and retire to his native California.
After a cordial greeting, Levada read aloud an eight-page, single-spaced assessment that his office was just posting to the Internet. The assessment accused the sisters of “corporate dissent” on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion. The assessment also castigated LCWR for ties to NETWORK, a Washington-based Catholic lobbying group that supported the Affordable Care Act, and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, a group in Silver Spring, Md., that gives religious orders canon law guidance on property issues.
Leaving the Holy Office, Farrell felt numb. “It was in the press before we had time to brief our members,” she recalled.
“The reaction of rank-and-file sisters was anger. Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life,” she said.
A darkly ironic twist involves the doctrinal congregation’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The congregation has processed 3,000 cases of priests who have been laicized for abusing youngsters. Several hundred are reportedly pending.
Yet those procedures, which Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put in place as prefect in 2001, have a large loophole. The office has not judged bishops and cardinals whose negligence in recycling abusers caused the crisis.
The most glaring example is Cardinal Bernard Law, whose soft-glove treatment of pedophiles ignited the Boston scandal. He resigned as archbishop in 2002 and in 2004 he was named pastor of a great Roman basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a $10,000 per month salary and a highly influential role in choosing new American bishops.
Law was a driving force behind a preliminary investigation of all American religious orders of women, according to several sources interviewed here, and a May 15 report by Robert Mickens, the respected Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Law, who has not spoken to the media in a decade, refused an interview request. But Cardinal Franc Rodé, 78, retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, confirmed Law’s role. In a wide-ranging interview at his residence in the Palace of the Holy Office, Rodé said, “It was the American milieu in the Roman Curia that suggested it.”
The “apostolic visitation” of all but the cloistered communities of U.S. women religious was the initial phase. The doctrinal congregation’s aggressive investigation of the main leadership group soon followed.
“Some people say this is an attempt to divert attention from the abuse crisis, like politicians do,” a missionary sister from a developing country with her order in Rome, said of the doctrinal congregation’s investigation. She asked that her name not be used because the order depends on donations from U.S. Catholics channeled through dioceses.
“The Vatican is trying to assert control, to say, ‘We are in charge,’ ” she continued. “This envisions a different church from Vatican II. Many people are saying that the two churches are not coming together.”
LCWR has indeed pushed the envelope by giving forums to theologians who have questioned celibacy and the evolution of religious life. As liberal theologians clamor for change, LCWR has collided with the doctrinal office over freedom of conscience, a core principle of Vatican II.
Rodé, as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the 2009 visitation of American sister communities. He told Vatican Radio of his concern for “a certain secular mentality … in these religious families and perhaps also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
Rodé was also prompted by a 2008 conference he attended on religious life at Stonehill College near Boston. Dominican Sr. Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer, accused LCWR of creating “global-feminist-operated business corporations” and “controlling all structures and resources.”
“I’m unaware of any such facts that would back up that claim. It sounds like a sweeping indictment of the direction many orders have taken which the hierarchy found offensive or disloyal, summed up in the ‘radical feminism’ catch phrase,” said Kenneth A. Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.
“Most orders were scrounging to come up with funds to support retired sisters, often selling off property that belonged to them to do so. It seems clear to me that the aim of the Stonehill meeting was to paint a picture of disobedience as a pretext for a crackdown,” Briggs said.
Rodé in an interview brushed off suggestions that the apostolic visitation was unfair.
Rodé had requested $1.3 million from religious communities and bishops to cover travel and other expenses for the visitation, which he appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to carry out.
The funding request raised eyebrows among many missionary orders.
“Why would you want to pay them to investigate you?” asked one of the missionary sisters in Rome.
The study by Millea has not been made public.
“Vatican II was the most important event that changed the Catholic church,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma. “Jesus was a carpenter. He didn’t build cells, but windows to see every culture.”
She paused. “Why is this investigation happening?”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
The Vatican vs. the Nuns
Perhaps it takes a political campaign to reveal the fault lines in both our nation and in institutional religion. At least that is what appears to be happening in current American politics. The political season has a way of loosening latent fears, exciting the extremists and bringing silliness to the political arena. We have watched that process for long, long months now. There have been moments when it was the theater of the absurd. Now a news story comes out of the Vatican announcing that, as a result of issues raised in this campaign, an American archbishop, J. Peter Sartain of Seattle has been appointed by the Vatican to deal with “serious doctrinal problems” that have appeared among American Catholic nuns.
When the Catholic bishops criticized the Obama health care law’s requirement that contraceptives must be made available to female employees of Catholic institutions, President Obama immediately worked out a compromise. Churches had already been exempted and now it was agreed that contraceptives will be provided free of charge to those female employees of Catholic institutions by the health care companies themselves, so that the Church’s moral teaching on this issue was not compromised. It seemed a reasonable solution and was widely applauded. The largest body of Catholic nuns called “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” many of whom work in hospitals and health care facilities, agreed to the compromise immediately. The bishops, however, a few days later did not agree, thus pitting the sisters in a public dispute against the bishops, who are in the Catholic system proclaimed to be the church’s only “authentic teachers.” Dissent in an autocratic system strikes at the root of authority and threatens the imposed conformity. It now appears that the “independence” of these sisters had to be countered and the sisters brought into line, that is into conformity with the teaching of the bishops. So now a “visitation” has been ordered by the Vatican and, once again an all-male hierarchy in the name of a God named Father, has directed that women be disciplined and forced to conform to the patriarchal ordained leadership of the church if they want to remain in religious orders. Since no women can be ordained, there is no way that women in this church will ever be empowered to do anything, no court to which they can appeal this abuse of authority and the world gets to see how empty the idea still promulgated by this church really is: namely that treating women as second class citizens does not mean that women are regarded as “inferior” only that they are “different.” In this church all power flows through the hierarchy of the ordained and since no woman is in that flow chart, women are inevitably and finally powerless. “Separate but equal” was once nothing more than propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of segregated America, now it is to be propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of a patriarchal, sexist church. “Separate but equal” is always separate, but it is never equal!
There were, of course, other issues. It was said that the nuns have also challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality, a male-only priesthood and promoted a “radical feminist agenda incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Roman Catholic nuns have always been more open than the priests and the bishops, at least since the time of Pope John XXIII. With the death of this broad spiritual leader conformity to yesterday became the rule of this church. Hans Kung, probably the best read theologian of the 20th century, was removed from his position as a Catholic theologian at Tubingen because his mind could not be twisted into the medieval concepts required by his church. This action was carried out by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at that time under Pope John Paul II held the office that in another time gave us the Inquisition. Matthew Fox, one of the most popular retreat and meditation leaders and an environmental activist, was then silenced by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Professor Charles Curran, one of America’s best known ethicists, was removed from his tenured professorship at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., also by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Father Leonardo Boff, the best known Latin American liberation theologian, was forced to renounce his ordination in order to continue his work for justice among the poor of Latin America by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Next we learn that the Vatican, now headed by Cardinal Ratzinger under his new name Pope Benedict XVI, has ordered the removal of a book from all Catholic schools and universities written by a popular female theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson. Now the nuns are to be investigated. Conformity trumps truth in every direction.
By entering into the American political process so blatantly and by forcing the issue of contraceptives into that debate so centrally, the Catholic bishops have blurred the lines between church and state rather considerably.
In the candidacy of former Senator Rick Santorum, a very traditional Roman Catholic lay person, he not only stated his opposition to contraception, but he also dismissed President John Kennedy’s understanding of the separation of church and state, saying that it made him “want to throw up.” That candidacy gave us a clear vision of how the Catholic bishops will try to manipulate the American political process. The scene was not pretty. Without any fanfare, the nation now awakens to the fact that two thirds, that is, six of the nine sitting justices on the Supreme Court today are Roman Catholics and that three of them, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, identify themselves with the most hard line conservative wing of that church. Suddenly, the American dream of “Freedom of Religion” looks shakier that it has ever looked before.
This ecclesiastical attack against health care for women, against contraception, against the nuns and against their leading theologians, presents us with a picture not of strength, but of a desperate power play, designed to recover influence that this religious system has so clearly lost.
When abortion was the defining issue in church-state relationships, the polls continued to show that a majority of Roman Catholic lay people wanted abortion to be a legal option, a safe option, while being at the same time as much as possible, a rare option. Every study reveals that the availability of contraception cuts down the abortion rate dramatically. The Roman Church, however, also wants contraception to be curtailed. Once again, polls reveal that up to 98% of Catholic women in America avail themselves of contraception during some part of their lives. These women are clearly not following the teachings of the bishops. So the bishops have now decided on a plan to use the health care bill of the government of the United States to force its own members to do what their church is not capable of forcing them to do. Is this not a strange twist on the relationship between church and state?
Next, they want to use male hierarchical power to silence any dissent within the largest body of nuns in America. If the lay people of this church are not buying what this church is selling and now if the nuns are not buying what this church is selling, perhaps the bishops might ask themselves whether they have truth on their side. No, truth is not determined by majority vote, but truth can be distorted by those who think they possess it just as quickly and just as surely as it can be by those who find its tenets no longer self-evidently true.
During his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Santorum also complained that 60% of those who enter a college or a university with a strong religious faith had that faith challenged, disturbed or destroyed by what the senator described as “liberal secular professors.” It did not seem to occur to the senator that maybe these students’ “strong faith” was based on concepts that are either dated, immature or simply wrong. Is knowledge in the future in our universities to be bent so as not to offend the naïve faith of some religious believers? Are we ready to put the Catholic Church in charge of discerning all truth? Was this Church not wrong about Galileo, about Darwin, about Hans Kung? Are they not wrong about women, about birth control, about celibacy, about homosexuality, about mental illness and about left-handedness? Has not the papacy itself owned slaves in its history? Have we not had enough inquisitions, crusades and religious wars to make us loath to return to the Middle Ages? Do we wish to cancel the Enlightenment in order to preserve the faith of the Catholic Church as it is interpreted by this Pope, rooted as he obviously is in a world that no longer exists?
Where was this passion for truth and for the exercise of moral leadership when priests were abusing children and the hierarchy was covering it up? Why is Cardinal Bernard Law, the prelate guiltier than any other of covering up that scandal, in a senior Vatican position where he will never have to be called to testify under oath for his criminal behavior?
The last thing I want to see is divisive, religious hostility present in our American body politic, nor do I want to see this nation get to a place where we decide that a person is not fit to serve in any public office because of his or her religion. If the Catholic bishops, however, keep trying to impose their agenda on this nation, that is what they will bring about. This nation will be a poorer nation if devout Catholics are excluded from public service. That would remove people like Speaker John Boehner, Senator John Kerry, Vice-President Joe Biden, Chief Justice John Roberts and a long list of other high ranking officials of both parties. We are not at this point yet, but if the Catholic bishops, spurred on by the Vatican, continue to walk the path on which they now seem to be embarking, they will inherit the wind and reap the whirlwind.
Those vital nuns are now on the battle line facing this out-of-touch male hierarchy. I predict, however, that the nuns will ultimately prevail. The Vatican has never understood either feminine wiles or the fact that truth cannot be finally trampled in the service of institutional power.
~John Shelby Spong
In this informative and instructive, yet challenging two-part commentary, Fr Daniel Donovan argues that those who seem so intent on “reforming the reform” of the Second Vatican Council are actually challenging some of the earliest traditions of Catholicism. The “reform of the reform” does not take us back closer to the insights of Jesus and the early Church leaders but it takes us back to clericalism and a time of triumphalist certitudes that are totally disconnected from our authentic traditions and ecclesial insights. This commentary was sparked by further research Fr Donovan undertook following his recent series on the Eucharist [LINK]. As usual with Fr Donovan’s commentaries the footnotes are often as instructive as the main text.
The Assembly: A most important Liturgical Symbol…
Back in 1978 the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference (USCBC) produced a most significant document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) which responded to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the Constitution Sacrosantum Concilium  and the revised Roman Missal . Andrew Ciferni in his commentary on EACW writes;
The renewed understanding of God, church, sacrament and ministry that emerged in the reforms required a vastly different approach to church building than that used during the 400 years before Vatican II. Thus the need for guidelines to assist communities and architects in the process of renovation and/or new building was and is a strong one.
Therefore this document contains specific guidelines set by the American Bishops for developing and maintaining the sacred space in which God’s people might assemble to praise and thank God for the mighty deeds of salvation in creation and in Christ experiencing and renewing their identity as “…a new people in whom the covenant made in the past is fulfilled.” Accordingly, the Bishops declare in EACW #28;
Among the symbols with which the liturgy deals, none is more important than this Assembly of believers. It is common to use the same name to speak of the building in which those persons worship, but that use is misleading. In the words of ancient Christians, the building used for worship is called domus ecclesiae, the house of the Church.
This emphasis on the gathered people, the Assembly, as the symbol of the risen Christ [Mt 18:20] shaped liturgy in the decades after Vatican II has gradually been replaced with a neo-clericalism. As in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Eucharist has in the third millennium again become the domain of the clergy. Eucharist is and always will be the action of the whole Christ (head and members) and through the active participation of the gathered people “brings out more plainly the ecclesial nature of the celebration.” Therefore it is relevant to reclaim the symbolic importance of the gathered Assembly “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. [1 Pt 2: 4-5; GIRM # 3]
Sacraments of Initiation: The basis of the Eucharistic Assembly…
The Acts of the Apostles written by Luke, in the early 60’s AD traces the growth and spread of the Christian Church from Jerusalem to Antioch and eventually, throughout the Mediterranean world and finally Rome [Acts 27-28]. At Pentecost the proclamation of the Apostles moved the hearts of their listeners who enquired “what shall we do?” [Acts 2: 37] The answer was that the person “repent … be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is the genesis of Christian assembly which “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer”. [Acts 2: 42]
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church (ekklesia) daily those who were being saved. [Acts 2: 46-47]
John McKenzie points out that “ekklesia” was originally used (as in the preceding pericope from Acts) to describe the Jerusalem parent church but soon all the local churches were described as an “ekklesia” the Assembly of the people of God. The apostolic proclamation of the Easter message (kerygma), “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” say to us that through God’s action the Church was growing through local assemblies gathered for “breaking bread and praising God and having favour with all the people.”
The Assembly: The role of the Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles…
At his baptism [Lk 3:21] the Spirit is poured out on Jesus, the representative of humanity, and God is heard witnessing to the Son’s mission. Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit [Lk 11:20] and on Pentecost Day the Church is commissioned to continue his mission in the Spirit [Acts 1: 4-6].
Luke’s story of the Christian Church begins in Jerusalem as the disciples are gathered in prayer awaiting “the Promise of the Father” [Acts 1: 4]. Then the disciples would witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and “to the ends of the world” [Acts 1: 8]. Immediately on receiving the Spirit, the disciples are empowered to speak and proclaim the mighty deeds of God throughout Israel’s history and especially the offer of salvation in Jesus.
Peter’s first sermon is directed to Jews gathered from around the world in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. At first the Church in Jerusalem was considered to be another Jewish sect with a daily routine built around Temple worship [Acts 2: 36; 3:1] and the uniquely Christian fellowship meal or the “breaking of bread”. The converts on Pentecost Day were Jewish and believed that they would continue to follow the practice of the Jewish Law as well as believing in Christ.
The Jerusalem Church therefore followed the Jewish custom of leadership by elders James, Peter, John and the other apostles attended to the matters of daily life in the community as well as their proclamation of the Gospel [Acts 4: 4; 11-12]. Before long the apostles found that their proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus met with stern opposition from the Jewish authorities who ordered Peter and John “not to speak at all or teach in the name of Jesus” [Acts 4: 18]. Rabbi Gamaliel [Acts 5: 34-39] had seen many sects rise and fall in Judaism claiming religious authority for their teachings and beliefs. Therefore he suggested that the authorities “leave these men alone … for if this plan or this work is of man it will come to nothing” [Acts 5: 38] like those other sects and movements. “But if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it … lest you even be found to fight against God” [Acts 5: 39] and with these words the wise old Rabbi rested his case.
Apart from these external difficulties, there were internal day-to-day issues of housekeeping in the community [Act 6: 2] between the Hellenist Jews [Acts 2: 5-11] and the Hebrew converts. Apparently the Hellenist widows were not receiving fair portions at the daily distribution of food. As a result the apostles summoned the assembly and stated that “it is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables”. Therefore the community was directed to choose from among them “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” [Acts 6: 4]. The apostles “prayed over them and laid hands upon them” [Acts 6: 6].
One of the deacons, Stephen (a Hellenist) was stoned to death [Acts 7: 54-60] because he taught that Jesus was the fulfilment of Israel’s historical expectations. The ensuing persecution of the Church actually prospered the work of the Spirit scattering members of the Jerusalem Church to Judea and Samaria [Acts 1: 8]. Saul (later Paul) was present at Stephen’s death and thereafter undertook his persecution of the Church [Acts 7: 58- 9: 4].
The Jerusalem Church retained its Jewish roots in worship and the leadership of elders. Peter, one of the elders of the Jerusalem Church, receives Cornelius, the Roman centurion and his family (the first Gentile converts) into the Church [Acts 10-11] thereby signalling the Gentile mission and outreach to Antioch [Acts 11: 27] and the journeys of Paul [Acts 15]. Pauline Churches would be organised under an “episcopus” or an overseer to facilitate the smooth function of the various gifts of the Spirit building the assembly for service and mission in the world.
 Elizabeth Hoffman, (1991), Editor, The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource, (Third Edition), Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, Andrew D. Ciferni, OPraem, “Overview of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” (EACW) pp.314-316.
In the text below the Greek “ekklesia” has the meaning “gathered local church ” which was borrowed from secular Greek life and referred to the assembly of citizens with full rights. The Christian assembly (ekklesia) was the gathering of those fully initiated members (baptism/chrismation and eucharist) the body of Christ (head and members). For further details see notes # 6 and 7 below.
 Hoffman, Op Cit Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass (LM Intro) pp. 118-164, LM Intro #7
 Hoffman Ibid, United States Catholic Conference (1978), “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” pp. 314-339, especially p. 324, EACW#28.
 Vatican II (1963), Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in Walter M. Abbott (1967) General Editor, The Documents of Vatican II, London : Geoffrey Chapman, SC# 7 p.140.
 Hoffman, General Instruction on the Roman Missal, GIRM # 4 and Council of Trent, sess 13, 11th October 1551.
 John L. McKenzie (1966), Dictionary of the Bible, London-Dublin; Geoffrey Chapman, “Church” pp. 133-136 writes (point 2 p.134) the word “ecclesia” translated as church, “occurs 23 times in the Acts of the Apostles.” McKenzie further states that “In no passage does it certainly mean anything except the local church, usually the church of Jerusalem, but also the local church of Antioch and other cities.” Each local Church was called “ecclesia”. Membership of the “ecclesia” was through faith/baptism not through race as in Israel. The Greek word “ekklesia” did not have any religious significance but referred to the assembly of citizens for legislative or deliberative purposes. This citizens’ assembly was composed of those who enjoyed full rights “thus the word implies both the dignity of the members and the legality of the assembly.” Furthermore the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (for Hellenist Jews) the same word, “ekklesia,” is used to translate the Hebrew “Kahal” and in later Hebrew “kahal edah, the local religious assembly of the Israelites.”
 McKenzie, Ibid.p.134. The word “ekklesia” in Greek is composed of the preposition “ek-” meaning “from” and a verb, “klepto” meaning “to take or gather,” the same Greek verb is the root of English words such as “kleptomania” (an obsessive urge to steal) or “eclective” (taking ideas or the like from various sources). Thus “ekklesia” suggests a community of persons taken from various backgrounds and gifts drawn together by God’s initiative through the power of the Holy Spirit. The proclamation of God’s word moved the people to conversion in Acts 2: 5-12 asking; “What does this mean?” Later in vv.36-37, the people respond to the Easter proclamation by being “cut to the heart” and approach the Apostles to ask “What shall we do?” This is the new “ekklesia” or Assembly born of the Spirit and apostolic evangelisation. Thus Assembly precedes the hierarchical structure which would be chosen from the fully initiated members and put forward to serve and prosper the specific needs of the Assembly (Acts 6: 1-6).
 These local churches, “ekklesia” formed the body of Christ drawing their unity from their common confession of Jesus as Lord in the Holy Spirit. Assemblies were responsible for their own internal structure and while there were different ministries and diverse activities and gifts there was “one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor 1: 11; 12: 3-12; Eph 4: 4-12). Church unity was “ex pluribus unum” or “from many one” in the Spirit (Eph 4:11-16). The author of Ephesians attributes the gifts in the Assembly as directly bestowed on members by God to equip the body of Christ for the work of ministry while edifying the members so that they might grow into the “stature and fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13).
 Paul A. Feider, (1986), The Sacraments: Encountering The Risen Lord, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. This text provides an outstanding introduction to the historical and theological foundations of the sacraments. The timelines illustrate the historical development of each sacrament over the centuries. Figure 1 (sacraments of initiation) and figure 2 (Holy Orders) Feider, pp. 14, 30, 104 . Each sacrament is an act of the body of Christ (the risen Lord and his people) so the plant is a living entity for Jesus said “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15: 5). The roots of each plant are firmly embedded in the living Tradition of the Church while remaining open to continued growth within the life of the Christian Assembly. Sacraments must never be fossilised memories of bygone times but must always be present encounters with the risen Lord and the participation of his body in that “dangerous memory” of Jesus who gave himself for all so that his people might do likewise.
Note in Figure 1 that the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist had lost their intimate union by AD 500, as baptism was administered to infants soon after birth to eradicate the effects of original sin in a time of high infant mortality. The western Church held over the sealing of baptism for the bishop and different communities administered confirmation at different ages between 8-14 years.
Baptism/confirmation is one sacrament, a bath of water for the forgiveness of sins and an anointing with chrism for the reception of the Holy Spirit, as in Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3: 21-23). Gradually baptism/confirmation became two sacraments. Eucharist completes initiation with full participation and membership in the life of the Assembly. The final disconnect between the sacraments of initiation resulted from the withholding of Eucharist from newly baptised infants (severing the union between baptism and Eucharist) because infants have a problem of reflux and could regurgitate it. Some Eastern Rite Catholic Churches did not drop Eucharistic reception for infants.
Later it became common practice to introduce children to penance at 5 and Eucharist at about age 16. Pope Pius X (1835-1914) complicated the reception of the sacraments further when he allowed children to make their First communion at age 7. Pius’ reform further disrupted the unity and order of the sacraments of initiation after 1910 with baptism at birth, penance and Eucharist at 7 and confirmation later about 10 years of age. This new order of the sacraments suggested “a link” between penance and Eucharist while further undermining the union between baptism and Eucharist in the process of initiation. The Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1972 restored the importance of initiation as incorporation into God’s people and the body of Christ. The separation of the sacraments of initiation into three separate rites weakened the identity and dignity of the Assembly and allowed the emergence of a hierarchically organised Church rooted in Holy Orders. The clerical control in the Assembly is a direct result of the decline in and break-up of the rite of initiation.
 Acts of the Apostles was also, written by Luke. In the Gospel Jesus had been the bearer of the Holy Spirit and following his ascension the Church continues Jesus’ mission in the power of the Spirit. In fact the genre of writing Acts in the Greco-Roman world recounted the exploits of public and cultural heroes. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles records the marvellous deeds of the Holy Spirit in establishing the Church throughout the world. Simply the hero of Acts is the Holy Spirit, the source of power and unity in the Church.
 Pentecost was a major Jewish Feast (Exodus 23: 14-17) which was originally an agricultural feast of the harvest time and later the celebration of God’s giving the Law to Moses.
This initiative by the apostles gave rise to the order of deacon to manage the daily issues arising in the community thus freeing the apostles to devote their energies to proclaiming the Gospel as stated in Acts 6: 7 as “the word spread, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith”.
Fr Daniel Donovan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney NSW. He holds degrees in Theology and Education. He has worked in parishes in Australia and the United States. He has worked in teacher formation programs teaching theology and Religious education at University level. He is involved with religious programs on National Television and Radio networks. He continues to pursue his pastoral and academic interests through retreats, lecturing and conference work especially in aspects of spirituality and faith development.