Former priest James Carroll commemorates the 50th anniversary of the last ecumenical council of the Catholic church, Vatican II, by concluding that the spiritual and ecclesial revolution mandated by the council is now "lost." Pope John Paul II instituted a "counter-revolution" designed to reassert clerical power over the people of God and to ignore lay conscience, and the papacy of Benedict is "capping" that counter-revolution, Carroll proposes.
And yet the revolution is not entirely lost, Carroll thinks, since it instituted for many Catholics a return to what is foundational for our Catholic faith--the memory of Jesus of Nazareth as the very epicenter, the wellspring from which everything flows, a memory that comprises permanent self-criticism of our Catholic institution that never perfectly encapsulates or realizes what is contained in the memory of Jesus it transmits generation after generation.
Yet this anniversary is a reminder of the wonder that Vatican II occurred at all. A transformation was begun. A certain image of Jesus Christ — of loving kindness, truthfulness, and preference of service over power — became the measure of what the church must be. This Jesus points to a God who views all persons as equals, forgives sin, and takes human fallibility in stride — the popes’ included.
As if Vatican II anticipated its own failure, it planted in the Catholic mind a permanent principle of self-criticism. Fifty years of hesitation have done nothing to repeal it — the oldest edict of natural law: change or die. The reform will come again.
And, as if he's writing in counterpoint to Carroll, Leonardo Boff asks in an essay published the day before Carroll's what kind of church brings salvation to us. Boff's essay appears in Portuguese at his blog site; Iglesia Descalza renders it into English, with a link to the original.
Boff notes that a "bifurcation" occurred early in the history of the church, in which "the bulk of the faithful adopted Christianity as a spiritual path, in dialogue with the surrounding culture," while a minority, an elite class within the church, began to cultivate power as they sought to effect the coalescence of the Roman Empire and the church.
The path of the latter group--the hierarchy--was arduous, since Jesus himself radically eschewed any and all forms of dominative power, of power over others, and never, in fact, proclaimed a church at all. The focus of Jesus's teaching was on the kingdom of God, an eschatological vision of the transformation of the cosmos in which the last will be first and the first last, and all will sit at a common table together as equals. Jesus is remembered in an early hymn woven into the text of Philippians 2 as one who "emptied himself" and took the form of a slave in order to bring salvation.
And so the Catholic church has historically lived with a strong bifurcation in its institutional life--between the kingdom proclamation and radical egalitarian practice of Jesus, and the church itself, which always imperfectly realizes that proclamation and often blatantly and sinfully belies it; between Jesus's eschewal of all dominative power and how the hierarchy actually lives and behaves. The church lives with the painful, dangerous memory of a Jesus who is its originating impulse, but whose kingdom vision strongly, radically critiques what the church is and does.
Remembering Jesus is both the sine qua non of the church's existence, and an exceptionally dangerous enterprise. Boff's conclusion:
What Church would be worthy of salvation? The one that humbly returns to the figure of the historical Jesus, a simple prophetic laborer, the Son Incarnate, imbued with a divine mission to proclaim that God is there with His grace and mercy for all; a Church that recognizes other denominations as different expressions of the sacred heritage of Jesus; one that is open to dialogue with all religions and spiritual paths, seeing there the action of the Spirit that always comes before the missionary; one that is willing to learn from all the accumulated wisdom of mankind; one which renounces all power and making a spectacle of faith so that it isn't merely a facade lacking vitality; one which presents itself as "advocate and defender" of the oppressed of any kind, willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom in the likeness of its founder; one in which the Pope had the courage to give up the pretense of legal power over all and would be a unifying reference point for the Christian Plan with the pastoral mission of empowering all in faith, hope and love.
This church is in the realm of our possibilities. We just have to be imbued with the spirit of the Nazarene. Then it would really be the Church of human beings, of Jesus, of God, proof that Jesus' dream of the Kingdom is real. It would be a place where the Kingdom of the liberated to which we are all invited, would be brought about.
Two statements, written separately from each other, Carroll's and Boff's, but perfectly consonant in their post-Vatican II focus on the remembrance of the historical Jesus as the originating center of Catholic faith--and an exceptionally dangerous center to remember with any truthfulness, given the sharp distinction between who Jesus is, what he proclaims, and what some of us (and notably our hierarchy) have made of that memory . . . .
The graphic is a representation of Jesus as "Cristo Pobre" which is typical in Iberian (and Latin American) Catholicism: the poor, unclad, suffering man of sorrows sitting on a throne. This example is from the church of St. Peter in Lambayeque, Peru.