Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Independent Spirit and "Divisible Unity" of the Modern Church

As most readers are no doubt aware, the Progressive Catholic Voice, is a founding member organization of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), a network of concerned and caring Catholics within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis, dedicated to promoting the full participation of the baptized in all aspects of church life.

As noted previously, CCCR’s vision of a church “fully alive, locally and universally, that radiates Jesus’ core teaching of radical equality, unabashed inclusivity, and transforming love,” is inspired, in large part, by the Asian Catholic bishops’ model of Church – one that has been prayerfully developed in the years since the Second Vatican Council.

In explaining this model, CCCR co-chair Bernie Rodel observes that: “We’re seeing a shift from a ‘church centered’ ecclesiology to a ‘kingdom centered’ ecclesiology. In other words there is a shift away from the behavior of the hierarchy which promotes predominately the welfare and triumph of the church as an organization.”

Conversely, in the “Kingdom-Centered” church, says Rodel, “the Reign of God and its values as proclaimed and lived by Jesus are the center around which everything revolves: forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and peace are extended to all.”

The following excerpt from Edward Stourton’s 2000 book, Absolute Truth: The Struggle for Meaning in Today’s Catholic Church, explores further what’s taking place in the Asian Catholic Church and its connection to what occurred earlier in Latin America.


The [Roman Catholic] Church has been shaken by an earthquake since the Second Vatican Council, and although the tectonic plates are still grinding noisily away, it is beginning to be possible to discern what the landscape may look like when they settle. What were regarded only four decades ago as far-flung provinces have become the true centers of Catholicism, in numbers, ideas, and vigor. And because the Church is an institution, the change can lead only to an argument about the distribution of power.

The troubled history of relations between Rome and Latin America has provided a warning of the shape the battle to come may take. When Cardinal Paolo Arns went to Rome in 1978 determined to elect a pope from outside Western Europe, he was flexing his Church’s institutional muscles. In the 1980s when John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger cracked down on the Church in Latin America, they were reasserting the centralizing authority of the Vatican. Their victory came at considerable cost. Some of the innovative thinkers in the Latin American Church – like Leonardo Boff – have been driven out. The giants of the generation of bishops who flourished in the aftermath of Medellín are fast disappearing, and the Hélder Câmaras are being replaced by the José Cardoso Sobrinhos. At the grass roots, priests like Father Tony Terry are disenchanted, and the enthusiasm that drove the parishioners of Morro da Conceicao in Recife to build their own parish church is a thing of the past. An exhausted Latin American Church has become vulnerable to raiding parties from born-again Protestant churches: in the first two years of the 1990s seven hundred and ten new churches were opened in Rio de Janeiro, the vast majority of them Pentecostal. Only one new Catholic Church was consecrated during the same period.

In Latin America, the theologians led the revolution and the bishops followed. The process is likely to be repeated in Asia. It is inevitable that the priests being trained in the new theology at places like the Vidyajyoti College will lead their Church before very long. Indeed, in the way they stress the “Catholic” rather than “Roman” face of the Church, the leaders of the Asian Church are already beginning to show signs of the independent spirit that animated Cardinal Arns and his colleagues.

“The word ‘Roman’,” Archbishop Marcus Fernando of Colombo told me, “is used because the pope happens to be in Rome. For me the Catholic religion is not Roman, it is Catholic, meaning universal, meant for the whole world.” His fellow archbishop in Delhi, Alan de Lastic, speaks of the Church in terms of a kind of worldwide federation: “In Delhi it’s the Catholic Church localized in time and space, but in communion with all the other Churches and certainly in some way directed and helped by the Holy Father.” He describes the pope as the “principal source” of what he calls, in an intriguing phrase, “the divisible unity” of the modern Church.

Bishop Malcolm Ranjith, despite the reputation for orthodoxy he established as the scourge of Father Tissa Balasuriya, looks ahead to a time when Asia’s thinking is even more independent. He says, “Very often those who do theology in Asia have studied at European universities . . . in a system based on Greek and Roman instruction.” He argues that until that inheritance is jettisoned “our theology is going to be looking at Asia with dark glasses which we picked up somewhere else.”

One of the most striking illustration I found of the centrifugal forces at work in the Church was the worldwide web of rebels. Hans Küng in Europe, Leonardo Boff in Latin America, and Tissa Balasuriya in Asia all talk to each other and support each other’s causes. They believe they are all engaged in essentially the same struggle: a battle to build a new kind of Church. Leonardo Boff describes Balasuriya as a “dear friend” and believes Asia’s theologians have picked up the Latin American idea of liberation theology and given it a new meaning: “It is infusing Christianity with a non-Cartesian logic, a culture that is not Western,” he says, “so that Christianity can have a . . . face of the orient. The Vatican is petrified by this concept.”

The new spirit of independence among the non-European Churches is a mark of the success of the Second Vatican Council. But it is also a challenge to the institutional structures of a Church built so rigidly around the centralizing authority of Rome.

- Excerpted from Absolute Truth: The Struggle for Meaning in Today’s Catholic Church by Edward Stourton (TV Books, 2000).

For the National Catholic Reporter’s 2001 review of this book, click here.


  1. I am an ELCA Lutheran and our national churchwide assembly convenes in Mpls on August 17th. I will be present as a guest and advocate on behalf of Goodsoil, which is an umbrella group of several LGBT friendly constituencies. Gay clergy and gay marriage proposals are on the agenda of the convention.

    I have two requests of you and all your friends and associates in Dignity, Progressive Catholic Voice, Rainbow Sash Movement, and beyond.

    First, please pray for us.

    Second, please consider this an invitation for any and all to attend the Goodsoil worship service on Wednesday evening, August 19th, 7:30 pm at Central Lutheran in downtown Minneapolis. At a minimum, it will be a celebration of God's inclusive love for all, and we hope to also celebrate legislative achievements on the convention floor. For those of you in the Rainbow Sash movement, please consider wearing your sash (many Goodsoil persons will be wearing colorful prayer shawls).

    ALL ARE WELCOME! Please help spread the word.

    Obie (dot) holmen (at)

  2. Thanks, Obie. I'll certainly get the word out about both your request for prayers and your invitation for folks to attend the Goodsoil worship service on August 19.



  3. You are in our prayers. We await the vote to be held on Friday, August 21, 2008 allowing lgbt clergy in relationships to serve.

    Joe Murray
    Executive Director
    Rainbow Sash Movement