Earlier this year I attended with several friends from both CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents, an insightful presentation by Sister Jeannine Gramick (pictured below, back row center).
Sponsored by the Homophobia and Heterosexism Working Group of the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Jeannine’s talk was entitled “Transforming Hierarchical Structures,” and offered a number of “guiding principles” for such transformation within the Catholic Church, along with some concrete strategies by which this much needed transformation can and is being achieved.
Three such strategies, as outlined by Jeannine, are as follows:
1. Active compliance: when we work actively with those within the hierarchical system and abide by whatever decision comes about. We make our position known but nevertheless comply. In this way the hierarchy at least knows of an alternative position and seeds of change may well have been planted.
2. Creative circumvention: when we follow the letter of the hierarchical law but not its spirit. An example: Lay people, forbidden to preach during Mass, give a “talk” before or after Mass.
3. Prophetic obedience: when one follows in the tradition of Jesus and the prophets and publicly name and confront structures that are oppressive to people. Obviously, much prayer, fasting, and reflection is required to discern if an act of prophetic obedience is appropriate.
All of this was very interesting, and I could certainly relate each of these strategies to various activities I’ve experienced and/or facilitated through my work with CPCSM. Yet the most instructive moment of the evening came when I witnessed Jeannine’s interaction with a man who had come to challenge and rebuke her contention that the hierarchy of the Church required transforming.
“The hierarchical structure of the Church and, specifically, the Vatican is ordained by God,” this man insisted. “Who are we to question? The pope is in a direct line of succession from Peter – upon whose authority Christ built the Church, one against which the gates of hell will not prevail. How dare we think we can change this structure, usurp this authority . . .”
And so on (and on) he went, basically defending a certain understanding of the papacy which equates it with “the Church.”
Those in attendance were in table group discussions when this particular individual challenged Jeannine. As a result, I couldn’t hear how exactly she responded to the points he raised. Yet what I could discern was the incredibly gentle and patient manner in which she listened to and engaged with this clearly agitated individual. What was also clear was that she simply did not agree with this man’s reducing of the Church to his understanding of the papacy, or to any understanding of a changeless tradition.
I’m sure their conversation was similar to one between a biblical fundamentalist and someone who has moved beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible. It many ways such conversations reflect the speaking of two very different languages, and there comes a point when you have to agree to disagree, wish the other person well, and get back to doing what you feel is important, meaningful, and an expression of God’s love in the world. My sense is that that’s how this man and Jeannine concluded their conversation.
In the months since witnessing this encounter, and in light of some very public denouncements of both myself and CPCSM as not being sufficiently Catholic (basically because we question “the rules” when it comes to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality), I’ve come to realize that perhaps more than simply “the hierarchy,” what specifically needs to be transformed within the Catholic Church is the papacy itself.
A stumbling block
Indeed, I’ve come to agree with Australian theologian Paul Collins when, in his book Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, he writes: “The papacy has emerged as the Catholic Church’s major internal structural problem. It has become a stumbling block to many, both inside and outside the Church.”
Collins reminds us that the pope is often called “Pontiff,” which “is derived from pontifex which, in turn, comes from pons facere – to build a bridge.”
“But the modern papacy,” he maintains, “has become the mouthpiece of an increasingly narrow orthodoxy.”
For as Collins observes: “Instead of drawing its teaching on faith and morality from the deep and broad Catholic tradition, the papacy has increasingly espoused a parochial moralism and a historically superficial scholastic theology that draws little from the contemporary world and has scarcely anything to say to it. Recent papal and curial utterances sound increasingly sectarian and apocalyptic, couched in language and rhetoric that is simply meaningless to most people. Instead of being the institution that crosses cultural divides, the papacy has lost the sense of being a bridge builder.”
Ironically, Sister Jeannine Gramick, along with Father Robert Nugent, co-founded, in 1977, New Ways Ministry, an organization which, to this day, continues to build bridges of understanding, dialogue, and pastoral sensitivity between the hierarchical Church and gay and lesbian Catholics.* Indeed, perhaps the pair’s most well-known book is entitled, Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church.
It seems that with regards to the issue of homosexuality, New Ways Ministry is serving more as a Pontiff than the actual Pontiff!
It needs to be made very clear that neither theologians like Paul Collins or “bridge builders” like Jeannine Gramick (or even local ministry organizations like CPCSM) are suggesting that there is no role for the papacy. It may be, in the words of Collins, a “structural problem,” but what’s really at the root of this “problem,” and thus the cause of the current “ecclesiastical malaise” is not the concept of the papacy but “papalism.”
For Collins and others, papalism describes “the constant movement toward centralization, bureaucratic control, and a narrow orthodoxy that has characterized the activities of the papacy and the Roman curia over the last two centuries, especially since the definition of papal infallibility and primacy at the First Vatican Council in 1870.”**
“Following this Council,” notes Collins, “there has been an ever-escalating tendency to conflate what Vatican I called ‘ordinary magisterium’ – the day-to-day teaching and advice of the pope on belief and morals – with infallibility. In fact, the Italian historian Giuseppe Alberigo argues that the papacy unconsciously compensated itself for the final loss of the Papal States to a unified Italy in 1870 by transferring its energy into the business of the daily moral and religious government of the lives of Catholics. . . . In the process of doing this the papacy gradually attempted to muzzle all other magisterial (or teaching) sources in the Church and to subsume the entire theological function to itself.”
“As a result,” observes Collins, “the papacy since 1870 has come to act as a kind of ecclesiastical oracle, the assumed source of all wisdom and truth in the Church. This is a distortion of the true Catholic tradition.”
So what can be done to rectify this distortion? Well, to achieve any genuine reform in the papacy, says Collins, “the papacy itself will have to rediscover the notion of servant leadership that is so strong in the New Testament.”
Lifting up the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Collins states that: “The papacy needs to rediscover that its leadership is one of service, not of domination.”
But surely, the Catholic Church’s historical development attests to the legitimacy of contemporary papal power. Not so, argues Collins. Indeed, “the position of the contemporary papacy,” he writes, “is not only unique in Christian history, it also distorts the traditionally understood structure of the Church.”
How so?, you may well ask.
The realities of papal history
Well, according to Collins, “a historical study of the evolution of the papal office does not reveal a smooth development from primitive beginnings to high papalism. It actually shows a very uneven evolution in which the papal office is sometimes powerful in the Church and at other times has only the most limited influence. But until now there has always been a check on papalism: synods, councils, the college of cardinals, theologians, emperors, kings, and Catholic governments have all provided some balance to centralized papal power. The collegial nature of authority in the Church has provided some form of balance to the monopoly of power in the hands of one person.”
“Absolutism,” insists Collins, “is not the norm in the Church. And always there has been the sensus fidelium, the acceptance or rejection, by the Catholic people, of Church teaching.” (An obvious example of a relatively recent “rejection” would be the non-reception of Humanae Vitae (1968) by an overwhelming number of “the Catholic people.”)
“Papalist ideology,” writes Collins, “tries to keep us fixated in the realm of doctrine, for it is there that the theoreticians of papal power can try to insulate us from the realities of papal history.”
Indeed, “the ideology that at present underpins contemporary papalism is profoundly suspicious of history,” says Collins. This is ironic as this same ideology “pretends to be traditional.”
Yet as Collins reminds us: “Tradition is the living expression of history; it makes sense only within a historical context. But papalism has no sense of history. It holds the view that there are permanent and never-changing absolutes, and such a mindset stymies its ability to comprehend the evolution and development not just of the Church’s belief, but also of its structure and experience.”
Contrary to what some may want us to believe, the papacy has related to the Church in several different ways in its long history.
Accordingly, “there is no reason why [the papacy] cannot discover a new role in the [new] century,” says Collins. “Development is an ongoing process . . . In order to move we need firstly to draw on the long tradition of Catholicism, and secondly to feel free to use our imaginations.”
After all, writes Collins, if Saint Robert Bellarmine in the seventeenth century “felt free to apply the contemporary idea of absolute monarchy to his model of the papacy, so present-day theologians should not be afraid to use models from our time – such as a synodal or democratic approach. Historically, no model is exhaustive or absolutely normative.”
One possible alternative model
One contemporary Catholic theologian who has offered a refreshingly new model for the papacy is Mary Hunt.
Speaking on Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! program shortly after the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Hunt said, “I still favor and put out to your listeners, a possibility: the notion of an international team for the papacy. If the papacy is supposed to be a symbol of unity and not a person with authority, then it makes much more sense in a post-modern time to think not about one person . . . but in fact to think about an intergenerational, international team of men and women who could in fact meet and lead a billion people using technology and travel as a way to bring many voices into the discussion. So we’re really pushing for a horizontal model of church, not the vertical one that Cardinal Ratzinger represents.”
Is such a model possible? Is any alternative model of the papacy possible?
Clearly, there are Catholics who say it is not only possible but essential.
* In 1999 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prohibited both Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent from pastoral ministry with lesbian or gay persons because their approach allegedly contained errors and ambiguities. Father Nugent is now doing parish work and adult education work. Sister Jeannine Gramick transferred to the Sisters of Loretto and continues her ministry of “bridge-building for an inclusive Church.”
** As has been noted in a previous post, during the late nineteenth century many in the Vatican were fearing and denouncing the democratic spirit sweeping across Europe and threatening their own imperial power and influence. The declaration of papal infallibility was one way of countering this spirit. Yet as with a number of issues, the Vatican was on the wrong side of history at this particular time. As a result, it’s now, for all intents and purposes, the last remaining absolute monarchy in Europe and, as such, an often irrelevant and embarrassing bastion of reactionary thought and activism.
Recommended Off-site Links:
“Shut Up, Father!” - A Review by Terry Dosh of Paul Collins’ Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium.
“Collins’ Views on Papacy Face Heresy Investigation” - National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998.
Paul Collins’ Response to the Vatican
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
Beyond a PC Pope
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
It’s Time We Moved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Images of Vatican City: Michael Bayly (August 2005).