real reform of the Catholic Church is possiblein
areas of clergy sexual abuse or elsewhereunless
two false "truisms" are corrected. These
regnant falsities, perceived not only as facts,
but as binding norms, are: "the Church is not
a democracy" and, the implied converse, "the
Church is a monarchy, governed by papal and episcopal
monarchs." Nothing is intelligible outside
of its history, said Teilhard de Chardin, and that
holds for this monarchical deviation that paralyzes
the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.
Democracy is not an alien secular concept. In fact
it has better biblical roots than the claims of
pope and diocesan bishops to privileged rights to
teach and rule. Western democratic theory is in
deep debt to the moral revolution of the Jewish
and Christian scriptures. Whenthe ancient Hebrews
took the symbol of "the image of God,"
long used to shore up monarchs, and say it applied
not just to pharaohs and kings but to all of us,
the seeds of democracy--and even of our Bill of
Rights--were sown. When Jesus addressed governance
he said: "You know that in the world the recognized
rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great
men make them feel the weight of authority. This
is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants
to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants
to be the first must be the willing slave of all."
(Mark 10:42-43) C.H. Dodd thinks that this thought
was for Jesus "fundamental to the whole idea
of the divine commonwealth." It was the way
government should function in any moral society.
Then whence the monarchical penchant of the Catholic
Church? It starts with the papacy, which is the
model then passed down to the monarchical bishops
in individual dioceses. (Pope Paul VI accurately
saw that the papacy was the main obstacle to ecumenism
in our time. It is also, I would add, the main obstacle
to church reform.) There was no pope in the early
The papacy as we have it was not part of
the original ecclesial communities. As church historian
Walter Ullmann says, as late as the year 313, "there
was, as yet, no suggestion that the Roman church possessed
any legal or constitutional preeminence." Leo decided
to change that. The papacy as we know it is not Petrine,
but Leonine. The Leo was Leo I, Bishop in Rome from 440
to 461, a Roman jurist who cast the Roman episcopate
in terms borrowed directly from the Roman imperial court.
The one who was called Summus pontifex (supreme pontiff),
who held the plentitudo potestatis (the fullness of monarchical
power) and the principatus (primacy) was the Roman Emperor.
Leo grabbed all this language and applied it to himself.
As Walter Ullmann says, "this papal plentitude of
power was...a thoroughly juristic notion, and could be
understood only...against the Roman Law background."
This lording over notion directly contradicted the Jesus
text on the proper nature of governance.
As Ullmann notes, Leo's claim was political; he was
reacting against the power claims of the church
in Constantinople, and he and others in the Roman
church made no effort to base their new claims on
the text in Matthew's gospel..."thou are Peter,
The moment stands out as a classic failure of fifth
century theology to exercise its magisterial role
of critic, especially as critic of those who would
make unjust power claims within the Christian community.
There was a failure to recognize, as Leonard Swidler
writes that "the model of how to live an authentically
human life that Jesus of the Gospels presents...is
an egalitarian model." The all-male claim to
church governing power staked out in our canon law
has no sound biblical roots. As Elisabeth Schussler
Fiorenza writes: "While--for apologetic reasons--the
post-Pauline and post-Petrine writers seek to limit
women's leadership roles in the Christian community
to roles which are culturally and religious acceptable,
the evangelists called Mark and John highlight the
alternative character of the Christian community,
and therefore accord women apostolic and ministerial
Most Catholic theologians today are scandalously timid
in reimagining the new forms the church should be
taking today. For at least a century after Jesus
the idea of a monarchical bishop in charge of a
diocese was not the norm. There is theological room
for courageous creativity in discussing church governance
and leadership. Now is the tempus opportunum. Our
bishops have been demonstrating convincingly that
they do not possess any special charism of leadership.
Our hierarchy are theologically starved by their
own choosing. Avery Cardinal Dulles in his Presidential
address to The Catholic Theological Society of America,
aptly noted that the hierarchy "seem to evade
in a calculated way the findings of modern scholarship."
They speak "without broad consultation with
the theological community. In stead, a few carefully
selected theologians are asked to defend a pre-established
The early church knew its freedom in the Spirit and
did not shy from helpful adaptation. The list of
ministries in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians
4 all vary without apology. When they saw need for
changes they changed. They knew there was no blueprint
handed down from heaven. In the Acts of the Apostles,
chapter 20 the terms episcopos, which came to be
"bishop") and the term presbyter (which
came to be priest)seem to be used interchangeably.
In 1 Peter 2, the whole church is described a "priestly."
Indeed the term priest is lubricious and still open
to change and adaptation. As professor Sandra Schneiders
writes: "Suffice it to say that there is wide
consensus among reputable New Testament scholars
that there were no Christian priests in New Testament
times and therefore certainly none ordained or appointed
by Jesus. The priesthood does not emerge in the
early church until the end of the first century
at the earliest and, even at that relatively late
date, the evidence is scanty and unclear."
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it so wisely
some years ago: "The church is not the petrification
of what once was, but its living presence in every age.
The church's dimension is therefore the present and the
future no less than the past." (The term "petrification"
is interesting in this context.)
The Catholic Church today is wracked by world-wide
scandals regarding sexual abuse by priests and bishops.
Arbitrarily enforced celibacy is key to this but
not the main problem of this church. False hierarchical
claims limply supported by a cowed laity and a timid
theological "magisterium" (a term used
by Thomas Aquinas) is the Catholic problem. Paul
had some relevant advice regarding the spiritual
democracy that the church should be: "In each
of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular
way, for some useful purpose." (I Cor. 12:
7) With those credentials in hand, he would tell
an infantilized church (patriarchy does that): "Do
not be childish, my friends...be grown-up in your
thinking." (I. Cor. 14: 20) If this church
is to revive, the recovery will be led not by the
Leonine hierarchy but by a mature laity and by theologians
who brace their knowledge with courage, the virtue
that St. Thomas Aquinas said is the "precondition
of all virtue."