I recently completed a research project on the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As a Roman Catholic student at a Disciples of Christ seminary, I am interested in the historical relationship between these two communions and the broader complexities of ecumenism and dialogue across lines of difference. This research interest led me to remarks by World Council of Churches ecumenist Aram I, who serves as the Catholicos of Cicilia and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Aram spoke in 2005 to representatives of the Joint Working Group (JWG) dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. In this dialogue, he offered a challenge to ecumenical workers, urging them to make their work relevant to the Church universal:
“How many churches, clergy or theologians are aware of the work of the JWG? Its work is confined to a limited circle of ecumenists. To address this situation, the work of the JWG must be related to the life of the church on the local level, and must be appropriated by the churches through a process of ecumenical education. Reaching the local churches: I consider this a major task before the ecumenical movement for the years to come.”
Aram’s call for a relevant ecumenism that speaks to the needs of the local church reminded me of another challenging call to the Church by Sheila Briggs. At the 2000 gathering of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Briggs challenged dominant views of ordination:
“Sheila Briggs, an African American Catholic religious studies scholar, stated that ordination is by its very nature an elitist practice, one that by definition excludes women (and men) who are not highly educated. She asked, ‘when will the poor begin to celebrate the Eucharist?’”
Like Sheila Briggs, Roman Catholic labor leader Dolores Huerta challenged the elitism of Roman Catholic power structures in negotiations with the Catholic Conference of California. When César Chavez asked for a priest to support striking farmworkers, corporate interests convinced bishops to take the priest away.
“Dolores Huerta lead a group of farm worker women into Bishop Manning’s office in Fresno and asked, ‘Why did you take our priest away from the farm workers? We’re not going to leave until we get an answer.’ Bishop Manning said ‘I’m going to go now and pray.’ Two hours later, he came back and said ‘I’ve been praying to the Holy Spirit.’ Dolores and the women said ‘We are the Holy Spirit incarnate. We are the poor!’ He thought about it and agreed.”
The words of Huerta, Briggs, and Aram challenge people like myself who are invested in the world of academic theology. They shake our ivory towers, reminding us that God’s transformative reign of global flourishing, peace, and justice will not be brought about by academic elites. The good news cannot be proclaimed on high from comfortable seats of abstract theological discourse. Our theological debates are meaningless if they have nothing to say to the poor and exploited, to lay members of the local church, and to those whose voices and priestly callings are repressed by the Church because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
How can we debate the two natures of Christ without resisting the exploitation of nature itself? How can we examine the intricacies of the Eucharistic meal without working with those who have no food to eat? How can we wonder about the details of God’s embodiment in the Incarnation without demolishing the material oppressions that the United States’ racist warmongering, policing, and deportations inflict on the bodies of people of color at home and around the world? How can we inquire about the metaphysics of Jesus’ healing while our neighbors die because they cannot afford healthcare? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, how can we see Christ in the chalice, but not in the beggar at the church door?
If we believe Dolores Huerta’s words, that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the lives of the poor, oppressed, and exploited, then we must change the voices we value:
- Instead of uncritically praising Pope Francis, we must turn to the survivors of clergy sex abuse he has harmed, the women whose priestly calls he has denied, and queer and trans people who have suffered under the church’s oppression.
- Instead of centering popular Catholic voices who have the backing of hierarchs and celebrities, we must turn to academic thinkers, church workers, and revolutionaries who have faced excommunication and marginalization for questioning the racialized, gendered, and economic power imbalances of our Church.
- Instead of believing that the Good News can only flow from respectable institutions of Catholic higher education, we must turn to those workers whose union rights have been denied by Catholic colleges and universities. We must turn to those whose neighborhoods have been gentrified by Catholic schools, and to those who suffer under the boot of US imperialism while Catholic colleges allow military training on their campuses.
- Instead of presidential candidates, priests, and popes, we must turn to the witness of workers and the laity, knowing that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)
We must revive the call of liberation theologians, re-building a “theology from below” that forms the foundations of a “People’s Church.” When it comes to war and the environment, we must stop thinking like Catholic hierarchs and start thinking like Catholic Workers.
When we dare to dream of a liberating future for all of humanity, we must turn to the witness of the People of God enacted through groups like Christians for Socialism, the Movement for Black Lives, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead of dancing around controversial issues in the Church, we must fully affirm the lives, loves, reproductive freedom, and priestly callings of women and LGBTQIA+ people.
It is time to break free of institutions that stifle, and to enact God’s live-giving presence against oppression and exploitation in our local and global communities.