People who came of age in the past 40 years have known only one version of the Roman Catholic Church—a version of an iron-fisted ideology that first John Paul II and then Benedict XVI have enforced in the process of condemning condoms, birth control, liberation theology, creation spirituality, women, gays, the “secular world” and much more. World-over the hierarchy are being criticized for coddling pedophile priests and bishops while denouncing theologians and others who bring ideas to an age-old tradition.
All these thoughts and more emerged last weekend at an event in Detroit sponsored by progressive Catholic groups networking as the “American Catholic Council.” So opposed to the event was Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, that the priest who was to lead the final Mass was told the day before that if he did so he would be laicized. At the last minute a Canadian priest was shipped in to lead the Mass for the American Catholic Council of 2000 participants including representatives from similar groups in Europe and Australia.
In twelfth century Germany, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, healer, scientist, composer and author of 10 books, awakened popes and abbots alike, firing off letters like this one to Pope Anastasius IV: “O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you don’t hurl from yourself the evil but even worse, embrace it and kiss it by silently tolerating corrupt men. . .And you, O Rome, are like one in the throes of death. You will be so shaken that the strength of your feet, the feet on which you now stand, will disappear. For you don’t love the King's daughter, justice.”
Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.”
Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority. (Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cites Aquinas on this point in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.) Aquinas was condemned by church authorities three times after he died but eventually was declared a saint.
Another Dominican, Meister Eckhart, is probably the greatest mystic the West has produced. His writings abound with depth, humor, paradox and challenges to establishment Christianity. For example, he declares, “I pray God to rid me of God.” He emphasizes what contemporary Biblical scholars are saying, that Christ is found not just in Jesus but in all of us. Eckhart says, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1,400 years ago and I do not do so in my time and my person and my culture?” Eckhart was condemned by Pope John XXII a week after he died. It was reading Eckhart that converted Thomas Merton from a dualistic monk of the 1950’s to a prophetic mystic of the 60‘s.
Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit mystic and scientist who was banished from his home country to China early in the 20th century by church authorities, but who found plenty of scientific and mystical work to delve into in his exile. He spent his life researching the deeper meanings of science and spirituality and, being forbidden to publish most of his works in his life time, he left his books in the hands of a lay woman who got them published after he died.
Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council of the early 1960’s has been called the “greatest religious event of the twentieth century.” Sadly, the papacy of John Paul II turned its back on its principles, including the courageous response of Latin American Liberation Theology that supported the poor and oppressed in direct expression of Gospel values. Further, contrary to the spirit and law of Vatican II, a modern day Inquisition was launched with Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as chief inquisitor. One can argue that in squelching the Vatican Council, the Vatican has been in schism for 40 years since traditionally Councils trump popes, popes don’t trump Councils.
Can the Catholic Church resurrect from its self-dug grave and experience another renaissance in giving great souls and ideas to the world? As I point out in my recent book, The Pope’s War, if an angry lay movement rises up and launches Lay councils instead of Vatican councils, and moves to deconstruct the church as we know it and reconstruct it on the authentic principles of Jesus’ spirit and teaching, surely something wonderful and needed could occur. The Detroit gathering, the archbishop not withstanding, seemed to be such a launch.
Matthew Fox is author of 29 books on spirituality and culture of which the most recent are “The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved” and “Christian Mystics.” He was a member of the Dominican Order for 34 years until Cardinal Ratzinger expelled him in 1993. He now operates as an Episcopal priest in the diocese of Northern California.