Roman Catholicism

The ‘slow drift’ and ‘the frank event’


Artist unknown, ‘Pell-O-Phile’. Hosier Lane, Melbourne, 31 August 2019.

‘There are a few ways you can lose your religion – in a slow drift where the time between mass attendance and sacraments like confession gets longer and longer, until you can’t in good faith claim to be a member of the flock any more. And then there’s the frank event, where something happens and you realise you cannot continue supporting the institution that has inflicted so much pain’.

– Brigid Delaney, ‘Losing my religion: after the Pell verdict, the conflict for Catholics’, The Guardian, 30 August, 2019.

Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Hans Küng on the ‘Putinization of the Catholic Church’

Since being exposed, many moons ago now, to Hans Küng’s excellent book The Church, I’ve tried, slowly, to get my eyes upon everything available by Küng. In fact, I’ve just finished reading his book Eternal Life?: Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. Like his other work – indeed, as with all great thinkers – one need not agree with everything he says to learn much from him. Anyway, I’m waffling. The point of this post is simply to draw attention to the fact that Der Speigel has just published a very frank and interesting two-part interview with Küng (‘Part 1: A Putinization of the Catholic Church’, and ‘Part 2: The Catholic Church Will Undoubtedly Become More Protestant’) in which the main subject of attention is, somewhat unsurprisingly given the titles, the non-gospel shape of Pope Benedict’s leadership. It made me wonder for a moment if Küng had been reading Forsyth! Anyway, here’s a few snippets:

Ratzinger’s predecessor, John Paul II, launched a program of ecclesiastical and political restoration, which went against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. He wanted a re-Christianization of Europe. And Ratzinger was his most loyal assistant, even at an early juncture. One could call it a period of restoration of the pre-council Roman regime …

In my view, the Catholic Church as a community of faith will be preserved, but only if it abandons the Roman system of rule. We managed to get by without this absolutist system for 1,000 years. The problems began in the 11th century, when the popes asserted their claim to absolute control over the Church, by applying a form of clericalism that deprived the laity of all power. The celibacy rule also stems from that era … It’s true that this absolutism is an essential element of the Roman system. But it was never an essential element of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council did everything to move away from it, but unfortunately it wasn’t thorough enough. No one dared to criticize the pope directly, but there was an emphasis on the pope’s collegial relationship with the bishops, which was designed to integrate him into the community again …

The shamelessness with which the Vatican’s policy has simply hushed up and neglected the concept of collegiality since then is beyond compare. An unparalleled personality cult prevails once again today, which contradicts everything written in the New Testament. In this sense, one can state this very clearly. Benedict has even accepted the gift of a tiara, a papal crown, the medieval symbol of absolute papal power, which an earlier pope, Paul VI, chose to surrender. I think this is outrageous. He could change all of this overnight, if he wanted to …

In the past, the Roman system was compared with the communist system, one in which one person had all the say. Today I wonder if we are not perhaps in a phase of “Putinization” of the Catholic Church. Of course I don’t want to compare the Holy Father, as a person, with the unholy Russian statesman. But there are many structural and political similarities. Putin also inherited a legacy of democratic reforms. But he did everything he could to reverse them. In the Church, we had the Council, which initiated renewal and ecumenical understanding. Even pessimists couldn’t have imagined that such setbacks were possible after that. The Polish pope’s restoration policy, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for the like-minded head of the highly secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), once known as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition – and it’s still an inquisition, despite its new name – to be elected pope.

Church Unity as a Living Concord

One of the books that I currently have on the go is Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism. So far, there’s much to commend it. But rather than write a review, time permits me only to share some challenging words from the book that I’ve been reflecting on, and which recall some Hunsingeresque themes:

‘Would the Roman Catholic communion be prepared, in the framework of a Vatican III, to nuance or delimit its insistence upon the jurisdictional and doctrinal primacy of the bishop of Rome as a condition for mutual recognition and communion in faith and confession? And on the other hand, would the churches of the Reformation be prepared to recognize an ecumenical primacy of the bishop of Rome that stood under the authority of the Scriptures, was post-confessional, and operated iure humano in service to the visible unity of all Christians? We would do well to remember Melanchthon, who in his postscript to the Smalcald Articles of 1537 sent a signal that is decidedly both evangelical and ecumenical: “However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has ‘by human right.”‘ Melanchthon’s postscript must be understood as an entirely proper use of Reformation ecclesiology. Precisely because the church stands or falls on the truth of the justification of sinners, she is free to recognize historically evolved structures and traditions and to affirm them as gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. This recognition and affirmation is valid as long as these structures and traditions serve the proclamation of the gospel. Thus the church is free also to recognize and affirm an office of ministry understood as constituted by human right that both presides over and is in collegiality with the bishops and that serves the unity of the whole church. Were the churches to pass this test case, it would leave open the possibility for a communio-ecclesiology perspective in which unity did not necessarily flow out of an abstract reunification of the churches under the umbrella of a Tridentine-Vatican-ordered primacy. On the contrary, it would then be possible for Christian unity to be understood as a concord of faith and confession in the Holy Spirit that would reconcile the multiplicity of churches and whose visible manifestation would be the common celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at which the bishop of Rome could preside as sign of unity. However, the head and center of this unity of concord would remain Christ alone, who is present in the word of promise and forgiveness and in the elements of the Supper. For only on the basis of this Center can the nature of the ordained office of word and sacrament manifest itself as an office of ministry to the proclamation of the gospel and, further, to the living concord of Christians in the local parish, as well as on the regional and indeed the universal level of the church. According to Luther’s ecclesiology, the test case of the papal office can hinge solely on whether the ordained ministry to the gospel also includes – and indeed, where possible, requires – a ministry of unity to all of Christendom. If the papal office permitted itself to be understood as a ministry under the gospel, serving as a transforming – even re-forming – catalyst for the unity of the church, it would open the door to an ecumenically promising and, from the perspective of the Lutheran Reformation, permissible approach to the thorniest of all ecumenical dilemmas. After all, Luther himself asserted in 1531 that he “could kiss the pope’s feet if he would permit the gospel”’.

– Reinhard Hütter, Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 192–3.

Hans Küng on Rome’s worst credibility crisis since the Reformation

According to Hans Küng‘s latest open letter to Catholic bishops, Benedict XVI is reponsible for making worse just about everything that is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church: ‘Without a doubt, he conscientiously performs his everyday duties as pope, and he has given us three helpful encyclicals on faith, hope and charity. But when it comes to facing the major challenges of our times, his pontificate has increasingly passed up more opportunities than it has taken’. Küng proceeds to list these missed opportunities:

  • opportunity for the rapprochement with the Protestant churches. Küng specifically has in mind here the Anglican Church.
  • opportunity for long-term reconciliation with Jews.
  • opportunity for dialogue with Muslims in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
  • opportunity for reconciliation with the colonised indigenous peoples of Latin America.
  • opportunity to help the people of Africa by allowing the use of birth control to fight overpopulation and condoms to fight the spread of HIV.
  • opportunity to make peace with modern science by clearly affirming the theory of evolution and accepting stem-cell research.
  • opportunity to make the spirit of the Second Vatican Council the compass for the whole Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, and thus to promote the needed reforms in the church. Küng considers this point to be ‘the most serious of all’.

And then there’s the ‘scandal crying out to heaven – the revelation of the clerical abuse of thousands of children and adolescents, first in the United States, then in Ireland and now in Germany and other countries. And to make matters worse, the handling of these cases has given rise to an unprecedented leadership crisis and a collapse of trust in church leadership’.

Finally, Küng offers six challenges to bishops. These are summarised as:

1. Do not keep silent: By keeping silent in the face of so many serious grievances, bishops taint themselves with guilt. When they feel that certain laws, directives and measures are counterproductive, they should so in public. ‘Send Rome not professions of your devotion, but rather calls for reform!’

2. Set about reform: Too many in the church and in the episcopate complain about Rome, but do nothing themselves.

3. Act in a collegial way: Bishops should not act for themselves alone, but rather in the community of the other bishops, of the priests and of the men and women who make up the church.

4. Unconditional obedience is owed to God alone: ‘Although at your episcopal consecration you had to take an oath of unconditional obedience to the pope, you know that unconditional obedience can never be paid to any human authority; it is due to God alone. For this reason, you should not feel impeded by your oath to speak the truth about the current crisis facing the church, your diocese and your country. Your model should be the apostle Paul, who dared to oppose Peter “to his face since he was manifestly in the wrong”! (Galatians 2:11). Pressuring the Roman authorities in the spirit of Christian fraternity can be permissible and even necessary when they fail to live up to the spirit of the Gospel and its mission’.

5. Work for regional solutions.

6. Call for a council: ‘Just as the achievement of liturgical reform, religious freedom, ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue required an ecumenical council, so now a council is needed to solve the dramatically escalating problems calling for reform’.

By way of response, George Weigel, considers this latest ‘piece of vitriol’ of Küng’s to be ‘the low-point of a polemical career in which you have become most evident as a man who can concede little intelligence, decency, or good will in his opponents.’

Weigel’s basic argument is that Küng has his facts wrong. He accuses Küng of

  • being ‘blithely indifferent to the doctrinal chaos besetting much of European and North American Protestantism, which has created circumstances in which theologically serious ecumenical dialogue has become gravely imperiled’.
  • of ignoring recent scholarship about Pius’ ‘courage in defense of European Jewry’.
  • of misrepresenting the effects of Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg Lecture in which he mentioned Islam.
  • of displaying no comprehension of what actually prevents HIV/AIDS in Africa.
  • of being oblivious to the scientific evidence underwriting the Church’s defense of the moral status of the human embryo.

According to Weigel, Küng’s basic problem is that he ‘lost the argument over the meaning and the proper hermeneutics of Vatican II’.

You can read all of Weigel’s reponse here.

Seems like a good time to recite the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

‘Who shall unseal the years, the years!’: Around the traps

Hans Küng on Global Ethics, Roman Catholicism, and other stuff

Last night, Rachel Kohn, presenter of ABC Radio’s The Spirit of Things, aired an interesting interview with the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng. Among other things, they discussed global ethics (‘a program which can integrate again secularists and clericalists’), Roman Catholicism under Benedict (that ‘the Catholic church is in a period of roman restoration’) and genital mutilation. You can also download/listen to the conversation here.

Requisiat En Pace: Father Richard John Neuhaus

neuhausThe National Catholic Reporter reports that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things and ‘a leading voice of Catholic conservatism in America, and one of those rare theologians and spiritual leaders whose influence vastly exceeded the boundaries of their religious community, has died at 72’.

Related stories can found be at:

Ratzinger on the true nature of the Petrine office

Ratzinger’s essay on the conscience, despite making some valuable observations, is not a little disappointing. (It’s also hard to see how Amazon US sellers can in all good conscience charge $66+ for an 82 page book! … especially when you can pick it up direct from the publisher for $14.95 or from Amazon UK for £3.95). That said, it includes some interesting reflections on how Ratzinger understands the authority of the papacy, something that most Protestants dinna hae a scooby about:

‘The pope cannot impose commandments on faithful Catholics because he wants to or finds it expedient. Such a modern, voluntaristic concept of authority can only distort the true theological meaning of the papacy. The true nature of the Petrine office has become so incomprehensible in the modern age no doubt because we think of authority only on terms that do not allow for bridges between subject and object, Accordingly, everything that does not come from the subject is thought to be externally imposed’. – Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience: Two Essays (Philadelphia/San Francisco: The National Catholic Bioethics Center/Ignatius Press, 2007 [1984]), 34.

‘One can comprehend the primacy of the pope and its correlation to Christian conscience only in this connection. The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in his being the advocate of Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the pope, because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory on which the faith is based – and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory that is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation, as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity’. (p. 36)

If nothing else, these words ought to encourage Protestants (and not least pastors, many of whom secretly aspire to be popes) to do the same work that Ratzinger is attempting to do: to think (and to keep thinking) about the nature and source of authority, and about the relationship between the Gospel and the offices of the church.