Think…this should look familiar to us Catholics, or has it been too long?

Now that Congress has finally passed a historic overhaul–initiated more than a year ago by President Barack Obama–on the nation’s healthcare system it may prove useful to consider some of the prominent and meaningful occasions which ultimately led to this definitive point in time. Though the realm of secular politics is rightly distinguished from the internal spiritual and pastoral infrastructure of the Church; it may prove enlightening to compare and analyze current political developments of today’s world– in light of– and in juxtaposition, to various events which have occurred throughout the history of the Church.

More than a month ago, President Obama convened a bipartisan summit in Washington D.C. in a–no doubt, good faith–last-ditch effort to find support from the Republican Party for his healthcare reform bill. Alas, whatever good intentions the President had were put to no good use whatsoever. At the end of the meeting, Republican members of Congress remained as vehemently opposed to the initiative as they had before they entered the summit. Not that any of this was all that surprising.

However, the way things ended up solidifying by the end of the meeting was not the most interesting part of the chain of events that took course over that, grueling, seven hour period. Nor was it how entrenched either side of the aisle remained in their own positions. Instead, what was most striking was how patiently and sincerely the President of the United States listened to all proposals and suggestions–Democratic and Republican. Even when at the conclusion of the meeting, the Republicans were still opposed to the healthcare overhaul as proposed by Obama and the Democrats, the President still made it a point to include numerous conservative ideas in the proposed legislation.

One of the most instrumental concepts was the notion of all individuals being mandated to purchase some type of healthcare plan. This central idea was one of the most pivotal components to the effort in the state of Massachusetts to increase nearly universal access to all of its residents. It should be noted that this approach to increasing healthcare access to the underprivileged was first alluded to by former Republican presidential candidate; Governor Mitt Romney, and was signed into law and given his seal of approval during his tenure as governor of the state.

Even though the whole process of trying to pass this most important legislation on behalf of the American people was marked almost entirely by vehement attacks of hostility (ignorant claims of doom and intimidation, and at the end even attacks hurled at those who supported the measure dripping with racism and bigotry) it says something that throughout the whole endeavor President Obama tried to listen to all ideas equally and give ample time and energy in trying to forge some kind of consensus any issue that presented itself during the course of this debate.

Even though the way in which this historic legislation was passed was marked by intense hostility–and ignorant, static opposition from the right– the actions of President Obama illustrate the sentiments and ideals that constitute the core of our process of democracy (essentially the timeless process of debate, compromise, and ultimately consensus).This threefold path has ensured the preservation of justice and stability in numerous democratic nations throughout the globe’s history.

It may be surprsing to some to note that this same process even characterized the formulation of doctrine and other important matters that affected the life of the universal Church during the first centuries of its existence. Taking a look back at how matters of doctrine and practice were then discussed in a collegial, objective atmosphere of charity would prove immensely fruitful when it comes to tackling and analyzing so many pressing issues which plague the People of God in our own present era.

Examining the evolution of the understanding of the Petrine ministry’s purpose in the life of the Church is a useful way of seeing how the necessary qualities of love, unification, and service–essential characters for any individuals in positions of leadership to possess, especially those in spiritual capacities–have been replaced by authorityblind obedience, and ideological allegiance in the Catholic Church of today.

In the synoptic Gospels the apostle Peter is given a unique position and described in a prominent manner. Jesus designates him as the “rock on which I will build My Church” (Matthew 16:18) and entrusts him to “tend my sheep” (John 21:16) and to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 21:32). Also, in all lists of the apostles Peter is always listed first throughout the Gospels–and afterward–he continues to serve as the spokesman of the Twelve. Yet it should be noted that St. Peter’s position of leadership was never used unilaterally or as an expression of monarchial power. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is even portrayed as being commissioned and sent by the other apostles to preach the Gospel among the Jews (Acts 8:14) and even collaborating as a team with John, the beloved disciple, to proclaim the Good News (Acts 3:1-11, 4:1-22, 8:14). Thus, the Petrine ministry was not exercised in an authoritative manner but through service and even through collaboration with the other apostles. As the defined roles of bishop, priest, and deacon would continue to develop during the early centuries of the Church’s existence, Rome soon came to acquire a special status. Not one of jurisdiction but one of spiritual primacy, which was derived from its unique position as being the location of the martyrdom of Sts. Peter (who would eventually be venerated as the first “bishop” of Rome) and Paul. Also, as time went on, the primacy of various episcopal sees came to be determined not only by their links to certain apostles but their civic status as well, which they occupied within the territorial grid of the Roman Empire. Thus, as the capital of the empire and the burial-place of the apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Rome assumed a special role, and would be seen to “preside in charity” as St. Ignatius of Antioch would say.

It’s certainly clear that although the Church of Rome was an integral special component of the universal Church it was never considered to have an “infallible” type of jurisdictional authority of the entire Church. The very first Ecumenical Council of the Church in Nicaea was convened by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325, and not by the pope. The pope was not even able to attend the Council, do to infirmity, and sent two legates instead. Yet, the Council still came up with one of the most defining statements of Christianity–the Nicene Creed. So, in this context, the Church of Rome collaborated with the entire universal Church to produce a cohesive and consensual affirmation of its faith in Jesus Christ.

When certain bishops of Rome did try to claim certain prerogatives or assume a certain status which the rest of the Church did not think they deserved or possessed they were promptly put in their place. For example, in the third century, a bishop of Rome called Victor tried to impose the Roman date for the celebration of Easter universally, upon the entire Church. This completely ignored the fact that the Eastern traditions of the Church had their own specified customs and liturgical practices that helped them live out their faith in accordance with their unique traditions. One of these was following a different liturgical calendar than that observed by the Churches of the West. Pope Victor–no doubt indirectly motivated by the power complex that has tempted all popes but had not quite yet wielded its full manifestation–tried to force the Churches of the East to celebrate Easter on the same date that the Churches of the West celebrated it. The bishops of the East were outraged! And not just them, even prelates of the West protested! Most notable among them was St. Irenaeus of Lyon (one of the most distinguished and theologically astute Fathers of the early Church). Whenever diversity was threatened throughout the Church numerous factions which may not have collaborated under different circumstances rose up and defended the conviction that the People of God should not remain a static, rigid society but a dynamic expression of the mystical Body of Christ present in the world. In this Body all members have different functions and charisms, all of which are to be exalted and celebrated to the glory of God–not quashed in favor of blind uniformity.

Sometime later in the fourth century, it became clear that the Church of Rome was becoming ever more blatant in its claims to unique, universal, binding authority.  Pope Julius I proposed that the Church of Rome should be a universal final “court of appeals” in certain cases. Shortly after in the early fifth century, Pope Innocent I declared that the See of Rome would indeed be the ultimate reference and judge for all matters that were discussed at various synods. In a sense, this continued the trend of Rome “presiding in charity” but not necessarily with absolute authority. It was almost like the “checks and balances” provision that most modern governments throughout the world have today, to ensure that true justice and consensus are reached on all issues and that no measures are passed that threaten the individual liberty of their respective citizens.

Finally, in the late fifth century, a Tuscan man called Leo would ascend to the episcopal see of Rome. He would later be known by history as St. Leo the Great (for his valiant role in preventing Attila the Hun from invading and pillaging Rome) and, more than any other, would set in motion the vicious cycle of every Roman prelate after him trying to advance his jurisdictional authority further than his predecessor–until it was unmatched. Pope Leo had a key role in helping to resolve the tensious dispute over Christ’s fundamental nature during the Council of Chalcedon. He wrote a monumental manuscript, popularly coined as his “Tome”, which tried to explain how in the Person of Jesus Christ there is indeed only one unique Individual. Yet, there are two distinct natures in this Individual that are inextricably linked and that do not distort the singularity of the Person–divine and human. The pope then submitted his proposed definitions to the Council fathers of Chalcedon. However, he was not given unique status simply because of his position as the bishop of Rome. The theologians of the Council studied his manuscript carefully in order to see if it fulfilled the litmus test for the orthodoxy of the faith. Only after unanimous consent and approval of the document was reached by all of the Council fathers would Pope Leo’s proposal be adopted and shaped into the resolutions and definitions reached by the Council.

Clearly, all of this perceived ambiguity irked Leo–particularly his own inflated ego’s idea of what the unique privileges of the bishop of Rome were as the successor of the apostle Peter. He was the first Roman pontiff to assert that there was a biblical, historical, and legal basis for the pope to exercise universal jurisdiction over the entire universal Church.

In spite of all this, the other prelates gathered at the Council of Chalcedon continued to act in a spirit of collegiality and resolutely put Leo in his place. The pope was not able to attend the Council himself, and when he tried to insist that the three representatives who he had sent in his name should receive special treatment above all others he was flatly ignored. Those gathered at the Council had decided that various episcopal sees represented at the meeting would be arranged according to their civil status. In this point in history, Emperor Constantine had long since inaugurated a new, rival capital city to compete with the old imperial vestige of Rome–Constantinople (or Byzantium–now modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). Eventually, as time went on, Constantinople would come to surpass the old imperial capital–especially in terms of culture, socio-economic prowess and general affluence–and would be celebrated as the shining jewel of the East for the next one thousand years. These geopolitical changes were thus, even reflected in the organization of the Council. Since Constantinople was now considered much more influential and more relevant than the old capital, the see of Rome was not given the highest priority or precedence at the Council–but was instead placed on equal footing with the Church of Constantinople, given its exalted political position in the empire at that time.

We can only imagine how Pope Leo took the news of his own-acclaimed authority and supremacy being completely rejected. After his pontificate, the Roman hunger for power and supreme authority and jurisdiction over the entire Church would only grow in scope. Ultimately, it would severe the very foundations of Christendom. Finally, in 1054–because of a massive outcry from the Churches of the East, which were only met with more arrogance and intimidation from Rome–the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other. This separation would come to be known as the Great Schism. This definitive rift would result in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church (of the West) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (of the East) as we know them today. This wound afflicting the earthly Body of Christ would not begin to be mended until nearly nine centuries later, when in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras agreed to rescind the excommunications so long ago. Only from that point, has reconciliation between the two bodies been carried out in our modern times.

After the fall of Rome in 476,  the papacy replaced the power vacuum of the Roman emperor that had sustained the western portion of the empire for so long. Because of the absence of an emperor, the bishop of Rome came to adopt many of the characteristics and hallmarks of the ancient Roman empire which had been swept away after the decline of the old capital. Thus, the papacy would only continue to grow in power and prestige, and ultimately, serve as the dominant temporal and spiritual force throughout the entirety of the Medieval ages and during the Renaissance.

It seems that ever since the pope’s temporal power has been diminished, and the vast territories of the Papal States were reduced to the current Vatican City State, that the bishops of Rome feel that the only realm in which they can legitimately exercise absolute rule is within the Catholic Church. Most popes have followed this cyclical pattern of being addicted to power and since 1870–at the First Vatican Council–the pope has considered himself “infallible” whenever he speaks on the topics of faith or morals.

Now, in the wake of the most egregious and horrendous reports of sexual abuse–that now have afflicted not just the United States but almost the entirety of the European continent as well–how could it not be pertinent to wonder: how differently could the Church have looked if the spirit of the Gospel–particularly prelates leading the Church through collegiality and charity–had held sway rather than the corrosive, addictive desire for ecclesiastical power?

Would a mandatory rule of clerical celibacy–which still is something that continues to be alien to the Eastern Churches–that usually cultivates within many men an unhealthy repression of their natural sexual desires; have been imposed unilaterally upon the universal Church? Would a recourse to scripture–where Jesus Himself speaks on the issue of celibacy by saying, “Let whoever can accept this, accept it” (Matthew 19:12)–have saved the Catholic Church from turning what had, until that point, always been seen as an optional expression of faith, into a canonical ideal that would have to be observed to the very last letter of the law? It is this condition, not homosexuality (and studies, most eminent among these one which was presented before the most recent fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), that fuels and eventually leads to priests expressing these suppressed desires, in sinful fits of passion on those who are the most vulnerable among the flock of Christ.

What if, in the first outbreak of the sexual-abuse scandal here in the U.S. in 2003, the pope had not acted unilaterally but had consulted with prelates of the Church worldwide in a spirit of charity, collegiality, objectivity and humility on how to properly respond to this crisis of such grave moral depravity?

Many have naturally mused about whether such an atrocity would even have been allowed to occur if women were properly represented in all areas of the Church’s life. With their keen inherent instincts of maternal concern and compassion gifted to them in an especially unique and providential manner, they would not have responded to this horrible phenomenon through secrecy. The question of women’s ordination aside, imagine if women had been allowed to occupy upper administrative positions on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and permitted to provide their own recommendations and perspectives to the pope and prelates worldwide on how to prevent and confront those who perpetrated this ghastly crimes.

Imagine if all prelates, operated not on preordained talking points (much like the players of modern-day politics) but out of genuine concern and pastoral zeal for all members of the People of God. Instead of simply trying to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church and the pope it would speak volumes if the prelates of the Church–in mutual collaboration and collegiality with the Roman Pontiff–would have sincerely tackled this issue, listened humbly and genuinely to the sufferings and unspeakable anguish endured by those who were the victims of these horrendous acts, and committed themselves firmly to examining the sources and origins of these desires among “men of the cloth” who are supposed to be living images of Christ the Good Shepherd to His faithful.

There has been such an intense outrage among the faith as well as the entire world community at large regarding this issue that, realistically, it doesn’t even seem conceivable for business to go on as usual within the Church.

Ironically, all of these recent dismal revelations have coincided–ever so coincidently–with the annual liturgical remembrance of our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. It seems that with each passing day of new heinous revelations of abuse committed against those most vulnerable among us, that the People of God continue to suffer in anguish, despair, and with no hope of justice or legitimate retribution yet in sight. The Church has been experiencing this travail even before the revelations of clerical abuse were made public.

As long as law has been emphasized rather than Christ’s mandate to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34), as long as patriarchy has characterized the Church rather than the realization that in Christ “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), as long as those who–through no fault of their own were born attracted to the same-sex have been branded as “disordered” and banished to a lonely existence devoid of romantic love because of who they are– in spite of the first pages of Scripture opening with the assertion from God our Creator that, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), the People of God has suffered immensely.  

Yet, hope can indeed still be found. Perhaps, especially in light of the sad revelations of recent days, the leaders of the Church are finally beginning to understand that more of the same cannot continue to sustain the life of the People of God. With harsh rebukes of these crimes coming from Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, there is finally a realization among the hierarchy that the current mode of doing things is indeed unsustainable. Even though he has, as of yet, refused to acknowledge it explicitly, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI even admitted during his Urbi et Orbi Easter Address that, “humanity needs an ‘exodus’, not just superficial adjustment, but a spiritual and moral conversion.  It needs the salvation of the Gospel, so as to emerge from a profound crisis, one which requires deep change, beginning with consciences.”

Maybe it is through this penitential process of frank self-examination that the People of God worldwide is assimilating, identifying with, and conforming itself ever more closely to the sorrowful Passion and Death of its Head, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It could be that through this painful process of critical assessment and evaluation that the Church moves from the very depths of sorrow and despair to the limitless heights of rebirth, renewal, and prosperity intended by God Who is Love. As with our Lord, death must come before rebirth. Still, even now as we have just commemorated liturgically the efficacy of His Passion and Death and the triumph of His glorious Resurrection, hope remains before us! We must take consolation in the fact that this could be the Church’s most challenging yet opportunistic moment for rebirth in our times. As we continue to sing the joyous alleluia in praise of Christ’s Resurrection and see the beginnings of springtime within the natural world come to fruition in the sprouting of new plants and the budding of new blossoms, we should take heart that in time, this process of rebirth will infect the Church as well! We may still be enduring the pangs of suffering and death, but once this has sufficiently been completed, then will come the moment of ultimate and definitive renewal and rebirth!

In this vein of hope, let us continue–now more than ever–to work, pray and advocate steadfastly for true genuine reform and renewal throughout the universal Church. Until finally, as it was in the first millenium, the bishop of Rome will “preside in charity”–not juridical supremacy— in an atmosphere of collegiality and communion in union with all the prelates, clergy, religious and lay faithful of the People of God throughout the world–mimicking here on earth that image and realization of our God Who is One, yet Triune, unified yet existing in perfect harmony and peace through the expression of community.

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and paralegal in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to "Hyrsteria: A Zine of Social Difference" by Tanya Garcia and Valeria Molinari Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

2 thoughts on “Think…this should look familiar to us Catholics, or has it been too long?

  1. Pingback: Think…this should look familiar to us Catholics, or has it been … - Christian IBD

  2. Phillip, wow, what an informative and thoughtful reflection! Yes, there’s more than one powerful, world-affecting body that could benefit from more collegiality.

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