“Theologians’ Revolt” – International Edition

The Catholic Spring has gone global, with the publication of a notable “Jubilee Declaration on Church Authority”, sponsored by a range of top Catholic theologians, from countries on all continents.

That the institutional Catholic Church is in a state of crisis is surely an understatement. It has been widely castigated and scorned for the disclosures of sexual abuse and its grossly inadequate response, including cover-ups and protection of perpetrators. More recently, Vatileaks has uncovered extensive evidence of widespread corruption and financial shenanigans, alongside evidence of political in-fighting in the Vatican bureaucracy. The Catechism rules on sexual ethics, most notably on contraception, but also on masturbation, sex before marriage or after divorce, and on homosexuality are widely ignored – to such an extent that it can reasonable be asked whether they can truly be said to have been received by the faithful, whether they have the sensus fidelium (and if not, they do not have legitimate status as authentic Church teaching). Attempts by the Vatican and national bishops’ conferences to suppress important books by Catholic theologians (“The Sexual Person“, “Just Love” on sexual ethics), or “Jesus: an Historical Approximation” and “Quest for the Living God” on Christology and the nature of God) have had as their most notable result soaring sales. A common thread running through all of this is an unacceptable abuse of power and lack of accountability, by many of the bishops and Vatican officials, in complete contravention of the decisions and declarations at Vatican II in favour of a collegial church, and a Church of all the people.

The spirit of rebellion is most visible in the public resistance to the bishops’ opposition to gay marriage. It is notable that of the countries that currently recognize same – sex marriage, almost all are either substantially Catholic (Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Canada, Argentina, Brazil), or the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark). In the US, parish priests who have refused to disseminate bishops’ letters in opposition, or who have spoken up in favour, have received standing ovations from their congregations, Catholic politicians have been prominent in passing state laws for marriage equality, and opinion polls show overwhelming Catholic support for some form of legal recognition, either as full marriage, or as civil unions. Even in Italy, in at least one parish, same – sex couples take their place alongside others in marriage preparation classes.

Over the past two years, organized rebellion has been spreading. There was the theologians’ revolt in German – speaking countries, when several hundred professional theologians, representing a significant proportion of the total number, signed a public declaration of the need for fundamental reform – of sexual doctrines, on rules for ordination, and of the pervasive culture of clericalism. That was followed in Austria by a much more radical Catholic priests’ initiative, for a “Call for disobedience”, later repeated in Belgium. In Ireland, the critical Association of Catholic Priests has attracted wide support from the laity, and has since extended its activities to include all Catholics. Here in England, the Call to Action process initiated by a small group of priests and continuing to develop, is not as confrontational as the Austrian initiative, but springs from the same impulse.

But what I see as possibly the most significant development of all, a public declaration on church authority by top level theologians, has had relatively little publicity. All the other initiatives have included the need for a reform of church rules and culture in their list of concerns – but this declaration sees this as so fundamental that it is the only issue they address.  They are right to do so: unless the pervasive abuse of authority is addressed, unless we see proper accountability, all other attempts at reform, are likely to be stillborn.

The second notable feature of this declaration is the stature and impressive credentials of the signatories. Their numbers are relatively low (but constantly increasing), but these are men and women of great seniority and stature: almost all have professorial rank, or even heads of schools of theology, from a wide range of countries on all continents.

The third feature (as one would expect from people of such great scholarship) is how well substantiated is their case. Their website contains a both a clear statement of the problem, and an outline of the necessary steps for improvement, along with resource pages and much more.

Here’s the core of the declaration:

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, we call on all other members of the People of God to assess the situation in our church.

Many of the key insights of Vatican II have not at all, or only partially, been implemented. This has been due to resistance in some quarters, but also to a measure of ambiguity that remained unresolved in certain Council documents.

A principal source of present-day stagnation lies in misunderstanding and abuse affecting the exercise of authority in our Church. Specifically, the following issues require urgent redress:

  • The role of the papacy needs to be clearly re-defined in line with Christ’s intentions. As supreme pastor, unifier and prime witness to faith, the pope contributes substantially to the health of the universal church. However, his authority may never obscure, diminish or suppress the authentic authority directly given by Christ to all members of the people of God.
  • Bishops are vicars of Christ, not vicars of the pope. They carry immediate responsibility for people in their dioceses, and joint responsibility, with other bishops and the pope, for the world-wide community of faith.
  • The central synod of bishops should assume a more decisive role in planning and guiding the maintenance and growth of faith within our complex world. To execute its task, the synod of bishops needs to be given appropriate structures.
  • The Second Vatican Council prescribed collegiality and co-responsibility on all levels. This has not been realised. Priestly senates and pastoral councils, as envisaged by the Council, should involve the faithful more directly in decision making concerning the formulation of doctrine, the running of the pastoral ministry and evangelization in secular society.
  • The abuse of choosing for leadership offices in the church only candidates of a particular mindset, should be eradicated. Instead, new norms should be laid down and supervised to ensure that elections to such offices are conducted in a fair, transparent and, to the extent possible, democratic fashion.
  • The Roman curia requires a more radical reform, in line with the instructions and vision of Vatican II. The curia should be retained for its useful administrative and executive roles.
  • The congregation for the doctrine of the faith should be assisted by international commissions of experts who have been independently chosen for their professional competence.

These are by no means all the changes that may be required. We also realise that the implementation of such structural revisions will need to be worked out in detail according to the possibilities and limitations of present and future circumstances. However, we stress that the seven reforms outlined above are urgent and their implementation should be started immediately.

The exercise of authority in our church should emulate the standards of openness, accountability and democracy achieved in modern society. Leadership should be seen to be honest and credible; inspired by humility and service; breathing concern for people rather than preoccupation with rules and discipline; radiating a Christ who makes us free; and listening to Christ’s Spirit who speaks and acts through each and every person.

CHURCHAUTHORITY.org

When the Tablet reported on this some time ago, in just a few lines tagged on to another report, they referred to 37 signatories, and a further 115 co-signatories. When I first came across it, the number of primary signatories had gone up to 50. By last night, it was at 60. See the full listing, and their impressive credentials, here (A – H) and here (I – K) and here (L -P) and here (Q – Z). Meanwhile, the co-signatories had gone up to 1128 (with myself at that position). Add your signature here.

Books:

Margaret Farley: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Elizabeth Johnson: Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God

Jose Pagola: Jesus, an Historical Approximation 

Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology 

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