By Rosemary Radford Ruether
Editor’s Note: Following is the second of three installments comprising the text of the talk delivered by theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, MN on July 6, 2010. This text is reprinted with permission.
My vision of the future church is shaped by the effort to respond to the Kairos of this period in human history, a time when the hopes released by the end of the Cold War have been betrayed by a new American imperialist militarism, a time when we must stand in horror at the increasing gaps between wealth and poverty in the world as a whole, and at the increasing devastation of the earth caused by profligate and unjust materialism, as well as our sense of both urgency and helplessness before these challenges. In this moment is it unclear whether the Obama administration can make a significant dent in this direction. It is also shaped by what I believe to be the perennial meaning of the gospel, rooted in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, ever new and yet ever one in a wisdom beyond passing historical changes in society and thought.
To me that liberating vision is summed up by the word ‘grace’; the grace that is the authentic being of God made present to us in creation renewed in Christ, which both liberates us from all the deformations of our power and security grabbing, and returns us to our deeper and authentic self and calling as God’s good creation. To me being the Church, the body of Christ, is basically about being the community who lives in and through that life of grace.
In discussing some of the characteristics of such a church – the church we need now, the church we have always needed, the church we were called to be from the beginning, both as local churches and as world church – I would like to explore briefly five elements.
1. Multiculturalism: We are called today to be authentically Catholic, not hegemonic white male EuroAmericans who confuse white male Western European culture with normative human and Christian culture to be imposed on Indigenous peoples, on Africans, Asians, Arabs, Polynesians and women of all groups. This means really exploring, claiming and celebrating the actual cultural diversity of our Catholic people in the world. This also means paying particular attention to the peoples who are the descendents of those subjugated by brutal colonization and enslavements imposed by European conquests over the centuries; the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Pacific and elsewhere, and the African peoples brought in chains to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Globally, Catholics are a people increasingly Hispanic, African and Asian, even as the old heartland of European Catholicism in Italy, France, and Spain grew apathetic and their offspring in North America are following suit. Yet we are a people till wedded to cultural patterns shaped in the European Middle Ages, and a church polity shaped by fourth century Roman imperialism and eighteenth century absolute monarchy seeking to live on as ecclesiastical fossils after the political substance has died. We need to acknowledge the relativity and even demonic character of these hegemonic cultural and political forms of the past and, at the same time, embrace a rich dialogue between the many cultures that make up the Catholic people, for the transformation and mutual enrichment of our whole cultural and social life.
2. Commitment to the Poor and the Oppressed: Since the birth of liberation theologies in Latin America, Africa and Asia, brothers and sisters from these regions have been calling the church to renew itself in the preferential option for the poor. The Christian church is authentically the body of Christ by living in solidarity with those of our community who are treated most injustly, who are most marginalized, despised and destitute in the existing system of power and wealth. The foundational call of Christ to repentance, ministry and service was and remains “good news to the poor, the liberation of the captive, the setting at liberty of those who are oppressed.” Only by living that good news do we live the gospel.
Yet to live that good news after twenty centuries of Catholic Christianity is also to live by repentance, to live in deep mourning and contrite struggle to change what has overwhelmingly been and still is a primarily contrary reality; the institutionalization of ecclesiastical power and privilege rooted in preferential option for the rich and powerful. Since at least the Constantinian establishment of the early fourth century, if not before, Catholic Christianity has grown in wealth and power by blessing the power of aristocracies, of emperors and kings, of merchants and capitalist corporations, and their economic, political and military might. It has mostly advised the poor and the oppressed to win favor with God by obeying their masters. If Christ calls us to be faithful by solidarity with the poor then Christ calls us to be a repentant counter-sign to much of what we have been in history.
3. A Church liberated from Sexism: To contemplate a future church liberated from sexism, a church that truly lives as a community of equals, of mutuality of women and men, that is liberated from sexual pathology into healthy, loving sexuality, that is liberated from homophobia to acknowledge diversity of sexual orientations, this indeed is to be deeply repentant and transformed from much of what we have been through our history.
At a time when sexism and sexual pathology seems more than ever rampant in church leaders; when the past and present Popes cling to a misguided concept of unchanging truth by insisting on a male celibate priesthood against any possibility of married priests, women priests, or acknowledging the existence of gay priests, while actual male celibate priests are increasingly discredited by charges of sexual abuse of youth, male and female; at a time when these same Popes regard rejection of contraception and the ordination of women as if these were the first articles of faith; there does not seem to be much hope for repentance of the church's historical sins of sexism.
Yet it is precisely at such a time when we need to deepen our new recognition that Christian community means a community of equals, a community in which the distinctions of male and female, slave and free have been indeed overcome in the new Humanity, where we can celebrate that women as much as men are images of God and representatives of Christ. We need to affirm women as both preachers, as sacramental ministers and as theologians, bringing women's gifts of ministry fully into the church for the first time. We also need to affirm that being in Christ restores us to, and does not alienate us from, the fullness of our embodied selves and the ability of our whole body to give love and pleasure to one another, without fear, and also without irresponsibility or exploitation.
4. A Democratic Church: Here too we seem to be on the horns of a contradiction, seeking a participatory and egalitarian church polity which has been the opposite of the historic church polity that patterned itself after patriarchy, aristocracy and monarchy from the late first century to its incorporation into the system of the Roman empire in the late fourth century and on through the medieval and early modern periods.
When Bishops thunder that the “church is not a democracy,” they do not intend merely to speak about historical and social facts, but about divine intentions. In their mind Christ founded the Church to be a centralized feudal monarchy, of Pope over bishops, bishops over priests, priests over laity, men over women and children. They believe that this is what Christ intended.
That this whole pattern of hierarchy might have been historically accidental, modeled on existing political systems, and even worse, a betrayal of a deeper vision of the church as a community of equals better expressed in patterns of life where all members have a voice and a share in ministry, this is unthinkable to such bishops. But it is precisely this unthinkableness of the historically accidental and non-normative nature of such a monarchical hierarchical structure which not only must be thought today, but is in a real sense obvious once one has a minimal acquaintance with the New Testament and Church history.
5. A Church which acknowledges its Fallibility: A church which believes itself infallible in the pronouncements of its monarchical ruler is a church which has encapsulated itself in its own apostasy and made that apostasy irredeemable. In my view every other sin is forgivable except the sin of infallibility, for this is the sin against the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we cannot repent of the mistaken claim of papal infallibility, imposed at a particularly bad moment in late l9th century Italian Catholic history. Rather it means that we cannot repent of this or any other mistake that we have ever made, or are making, unless we acknowledge that we indeed can err, not simply as individuals, but as a institution acting in its formal and public institutional capacity. We need to clearly analyze and critique in detail these many mistakes, for examples in teachings about birth control, about the non-ordainability of women, about the spiritual superiority of celibacy, about the divinity of patriarchal hierarchy, and finally the doctrine of infallibility itself, specifically, and not just in vague and abstract terms that leave in doubt what it being said.
To repent of the error of infallibility that fixates all other errors is also to liberate ourselves to be human, knowing ourselves to be finite, fallible, seeing in part and not totally, absolutely or with final certainty. It is also to liberate ourselves to be Christian, to live by faith, repentance and the grace of transformation without which we cannot be in authentic continuity with the new life in Christ. For new life in Christ can only be born and continually reborn through death to our idolatries and resurrection of a life that we hold only by not holding it, by being upheld by the one in whom alone we have ultimate trust. This ultimate trust excludes not only formulaic certainties of doctrines and teaching authorities, whether of Pope or Bible, but also liberates us from infantile needs for such certainties. It liberates us to search intelligently for the perspectival truths that we can construct, without needing to cling to them absolutely and literally as the basis of our life.
All this is to say once again that the church we seek, in which alone we can have life, is the church that lives by grace, not in the sense of a grace that excludes knowledge, experience, historical change, but a grace that upholds us and supports us in and through both our searches for meaning and justice and our freedom to repent, liberating ourselves from misplaced ideas and systems and renewed in the miracle of life that wells up anew every day.
Next: Part 3 – How Do We Get There from Here?
Image: Michael J. Bayly.