Thursday, July 15, 2010

Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)

By Rosemary Radford Ruether

Editor's Note: On July 6, 2010, approximately 300 people gathered to hear theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether speak at a special "evening in the park" fundraiser for the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, MN. Following is the first of three installments comprising the text of Rosemary's talk. It is reprinted with permission.

My theme for this talk is “creating a liberating church.” This is given at a crucial time in the history of the Roman Catholic church. Let me begin by saying something of my context and intellectual history in relation to the Catholic Church. I come from an ecumenical family: a Catholic mother, an Anglican father, a Jewish uncle, a Russian Orthodox great-aunt and Quaker relatives. There was never any doubt about what religious identity was strongest in this mix, namely that of my mother’s Catholicism which was at the same time strongly committed and yet intellectually sophisticated. But it was also clear that the other family religious traditions were to be respected. This combination of being both catholic and ecumenical is one which I have cherished, which I have expanded, rather than rejected.

There was only one serious moment when I considered leaving the Catholic Church. This was about forty years ago when I realized that I did not believe in the doctrine of papal infallibility. It was not simply that I doubted this idea, but rather that it became clear to me that this was a serious ecclesiological error, theologically. I explored joining my father’s Anglican church with which I was familiar having occasionally accompanied him to church as a child. In this process I became clear that I was simply uninterested in becoming an Anglican, much as I appreciated many aspects of this church. The only church that interested me, that held and still holds my concern, is Roman Catholicism.

My recommitment to Roman Catholicism is not based on the idea that it is the only true church or even the best church, but simply that it is a very important expression of historical Christianity in the west and that its reform and renewal is vital to Christian and human betterment. It is not that I expect that it is totally reformable according to my own vision of what the church should be, but rather than the reform vision of Catholicism that has been birthed in the last forty-five years needs to be defended as a vital option within world Catholicism. I see this as my particular commitment to keep this reform option alive and to support that wing of Catholicism which expresses this vision, even while recognizing that other options will remain within it and seek to contest and even drive out this option. Today I would locate myself as an ecumenical Catholic Christian, who also acknowledges the truth of other world religions, while at the same time being committed to this particular church as my immediate church context.

I give this talk for the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform with painful awareness that in the last thirty years in the pontificate of the previous Pope and his present successor, it seems unlikely that institutional Catholicism can move in any direction except backwards, not back to the gospels, but back to Vatican I, back to the defensive posture of an infallibilist papal monarchy seeking to impose its will upon the world church and even upon the world outside the Catholic church. Opus Dei members have been placed by the Vatican in episcopal positions in country after country and also in delegations to the United Nations and the European Union, in a bid to control world affairs in a reactionary way. This has meant not only an effort to place reactionary Catholic leaders in places of influence around the world, but also to dismantle those institutions and programs that have been developed to promote a Christian liberative vision of justice. In Los Angeles the present archbishop is about to be replaced by an Opus Dei Mexican.

Many former Catholics that I know see any effort to stay committed to reform such a church as increasingly futile, perhaps even masochistic, certainly a waste of energy better spent doing other more productive things. I think we need to look the negative character of this reactionary drive of the hierarchical church government full in the face without minimalizing its seriousness, but also without confusing it with the ultimate ground of our faith, hope and love in and for the church. It is a firm rooting of ourselves in this ultimate ground that we most need, if we are to be able to stay the course as prophetic reformers in the Catholic Church at this time.

NEXT: Part 2 - Five Characteristics of the Church We Need Now.

Images: Michael J. Bayly.


  1. 8-10-10 "-- the reform vision of Catholicism that has been birthed in the last forty-five years needs to be defended as a vital option within world Catholicism." How do you define 'reform' Rosemary? Of the many definitions, 'evolution' is my choice. My memory of long ago studying those Vatican II documents, is that Vatican II suggested that reform as an evolutionary process was the way to go. I remember trying to convince church people of this. But the time was not ripe. Eventually the conservative cause won. We see the bitter fruit of this struggle today. The seed of that fruit is germinating. It may take the multifaceted global crisis of which the RC church crisis is but a part, to bring forth a new development, a metamorphosis, an evolutionary leap for our species Homo sapiens. But for RC church people, reform is being a part of this cultural evolution and this means relevant education and action to help mitigate the global crisis which as stated includes the church crisis. World Catholicism needs to merge with a current global surge to save our people and planet.

  2. Church is boring.