Pope Francis, Summon a Council: It’s Our Tradition!

Francis I

Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050513.cfm

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church is still reeling from that earth-shaking event. Conservatives often consider it a huge mistake. They want to return to the Latin Mass, to women’s head-coverings in church, to weekly confessions and communion placed by the priest on the communicant’s outstretched tongue.

Liberals too are disappointed by Vatican II. It didn’t nearly go far enough, they say. It should have eliminated priestly celibacy and the all-male clergy. The church should have divested itself of the Vatican Bank, sold its art treasures and given the proceeds to the poor. The Council’s teaching on collegiality should have decentralized church bureaucracy and made lay-leadership more prominent. The prohibition of contraception should have been changed.

Into which of those camps do you fall? As a church member, do you consider yourself conservative or liberal? Today’s liturgy of the word provokes the question. It reveals a church which at its very beginning surrendered itself to extreme liberalism – or should I say to the “radicalism” of Jesus’ Spirit?

Think about those terms for a minute in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. Think of the Holy Spirit as “radical” – something believers are rooted in.

According to every great tradition (Christian or otherwise), the spiritual life – human life itself – is about change, about transformation. Change is the point. We are called to grow. Growth involves transformation. At the biological level, we’re told that all of our cells change every seven years. That means that at my stage in life, I’ve already gone through more than ten bodies! If I tried to keep my body from changing, I would die.

At the personal, psychic and intellectual levels we’re called to change as well. As St. Paul puts it, when we were children, it was appropriate to think, speak and act as children (I Cor. 13:11). But as adults, we’re called to something more. If we don’t change, we can never become who we’re meant to be.

Even institutions must change to survive. That’s true in the realm of politics, economics, and religion. Jesus’ followers found no exemption from this rule of life – of evolution; as community members they had to change or die. In other words, at the end of the day, strategies of conservatism are doomed for Christians as well as for everyone else.

It’s easy to sympathize with conservatives however. I spent much of my life in that category. As such, my concern was simply to preserve what is essential. I saw liberals as being too free with the unchangeable. Like other conservatives I accused them of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Nonetheless, in today’s liturgy of the word, we get an idea of how difficult it is to determine which is which –baby or bath water. That is, in our readings, we are faced an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and liberals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barsabas lead the liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.

Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”

On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?

The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”

Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.

According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a religious liberal. (It was Jesus’ liberalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.

At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane, more liberal interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!

It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting (like Vatican II) was filled with “dissension and debate.”

What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, fagedaboutit. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been more liberal. It could not have been less conservative.

The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How liberal is that!?

I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of change. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning. In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.

What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?

The question is as unnerving for the church as it is for us as individuals. But the answer is always the same: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”

Think about it: at the personal level, after ten changes of body and innumerable psychic growth spurts and changes of mind, what remains that allows me to identify with that child they tell me I was in my baby pictures? The bath water has been thrown out virtually every day. But somehow I’m able to say “I” remain. Who is that “I?”

Once again, today’s gospel leads us to believe that the answer is the indwelling Holy Spirit herself who continually leads us into the new and unforeseen – but without that “fear or agitation.” That unifying, enlightened Spirit is the same in me as She is in you.

The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to extreme liberalism. And that liberalism actually translates to Jesus-like radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.

And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in the present crisis of your church, inspire Francis I to call us together once again. Convene a Council. Surprise us. Shock us one more time. Wake us up! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council. We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Pope Francis, Summon a Council: It’s Our Tradition!”

  1. Thank you — a thousand times, Thank you!
    Your message today has sent my heart racing — with hope, and with deep love for the indwelling Spirit.

    You have laid everything out clearly and in understandable concepts. You have defended your reasoning justly, maintaining moral and social imperatives and our Catholic Tradition, but agreeing with the need to change certain administrative and societal realities for the Catholic Christian Church in the 21st Century.

    Even before I read your saying, ‘baby and bath water,’ I was thinking the very same thing.
    I am not averse to change. I welcome it. I hope for it. We all change, as you say, from the skin out so to speak. That is not only healthy, it is essential.

    The subjects that you mention — priestly celibacy (married priests), contraception, women priests (or at least Deacons?) need to be discussed seriously and implemented ASAP. There are other subjects, not mentioned here, that are of concern to Catholic Christians: abortion, euthanasia, right-to-die, death penalty, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, to name the ones that seem to be at the top of the list when Catholics respond to opinion polls, or write op/ed pieces or comment on blogs.

    Catholic opinion is both pro and con (sometimes vehemently so) for each of the subjects I have listed above. I consider them extremely serious moral issues first, social issues second.

    The “Eros” issues, as the late poet/writer John O’Donohue called them, are lumped in with serious moral issues. They cannot possibly compare in importance to how we treat the unborn and the aged/dying — both spectrums of human life.

    The poor, their plight and their needs, must be considered an urgent issue: those facing or escaping from genocide, those slowly dying of starvation and malnutrition, victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters, the homeless — in other words, our brothers and sisters who, for whatever reason, are unable or incapable of caring for themselves.

    I suggest that the Catholic Church, Including the Vatican, divest itself of any and all financial/business ties to corporations and other entities, warlords and dictators, that prey upon the poor and defenseless.

    One example of this occurs in Central America (the Americas) ,and in South America, where American corporations (often with help from the CIA and NSA) are in collusion with corrupt governments to steal land and resources from the campesinos, forcing them into abject poverty and killing them when they object or try to fight back. It is well known that the U.S. has established the School of the Americas (recently renamed) at Fort Benning GA where death squad officers were trained in torture methods that were used against the campesinos and others who spoke against the governments in Central America. The School is still in operation. Officers from the Americas are still receiving training there.

    Liberation theologians tried to show us a way of helping the poor noted above. Archbishop Oscar Romero, several Jesuit priests, at least four American nuns that we know of, and many laypersons in parish ministries were tortured and murdered. One priest was publicly humiliated by a recent pope for his views. Others were discredited and prohibited from continuing to practice or to teach Liberation Theology. The public, especially Catholics, need to learn more about the tenets of Liberation Theology.

    Two things have consistently given me hope for MY church:
    – people like you who have the knowledge and the courage to ‘tell it like it is – and should be’
    – the Holy Spirit of our Father and His Son, Jesus, promised to be with us always –
    even unto the end of the age.



  2. I find the use of labels especially in political and religious matters to be somewhat confusing of late.
    I also see church renewal a place of a legion pitfalls. The deepest being that it will take for ever…and ever!
    And the bocci-ball crew will go ape with “dissension and debate” eventually boring to death and out of the discussion, all people of good will.
    Changing the church as we have it now is more difficult than changing the world. Since the problems overlap.
    I quote you Mike:
    Conservatives often consider it [Vat. 2] a huge mistake. They want to return to the Latin Mass, to women’s head-coverings in church, to weekly confessions and communion placed by the priest on the communicant’s outstretched tongue.

    I however yearn for that day! I pray for indulgences, the reinstatement of good old Limbo and purgatory and my beloved St Christopher. And processions commemorating the sun god in our villages. And kissing the newly anointed…hand. And the good old times when we played on the village green after Devotions, in the evening sun.
    “There midnight’s all a glimmer,
    and noon a purple glow
    and evening full of the linnet’s wings!”
    We have come a mighty way since the simple, good Pope John was hoping for improvement by simply opening wide all the windows.
    (I was one of the lucky Judas boys who sneaked out thru a crack – in a brick in the wall!)
    Its time for the demolishing crew!
    It is only when we loose all hope and throw away allegiance to a false god will we be back on the road to true renewal.
    Lets give the holy spirit a break, these guys are not for turning.
    And I see no hope on the bench! All utility players.


  3. Mike’s article has many interesting points on the Jerusalem Council. I need to differ completely, however, on his premise that a new reforming Council should be called.. I would say yes, if, like Vatican Council II, it could bring about real reforms. But since the death of Pope Paul VI, the Roman Church has been moving away from those reforms into reactionary paths. In 1991, already over 20 years ago, I said in an interview: “Like the Kremlin under Brezhnev and his predecessors, today’s
    Vatican is under the control of men with authoritarian, un-democratic attitudes. The authoritarian head is the present pope [Wojtyla]; his Politburo and Central Committee are the entrenched right wing cardinals of the Roman Curia, and the bureaucratic lackeys under them. The Communist Party’s chief ideologue under Brezhnev was the dour Mikhail Suslov; under Karol Wojtyla it’s the equally dour ‘Grand Inquisitor’ Cardinal Ratzinger……..The Vatican is stacking the national hierarchies around the world with ‘yes-men’ –prelates who adhere closely to the present pope’s rigid views on sexuality, authority, the rights of women.”

    I went on in that 1991 piece to mention how Ratzinger and Wojtyla started to oppress “liberation theology” in Brasil, by replacing the trio of progressive cardinals: Dom Helder Camara of Recife.,
    Cardinal Arns of Sao Paulo, and Cardinal Lorscheider of Fortaleza, with conservative, even reactionary “yes-men.” Since that time Wojtyla and Ratzinger, first working in tandem, and then Ratzinger alone, have vetted just about all the prelates in the world, to make sure they hew to those rigid, authoritarian views. As a result, any new Council would be staffed by right-wing cardinals and bishops and there certainly would not be any progressive breakthroughs; rather a retrogession.
    Doubtless they would throw a few crumbs to liberals, but crumbs it would be.

    As liberation theologian, Matthew Fox, has said, there needs to be a revolution from below in the Roman Church and not reform from above. Mike has indicated to me in the past that he shares those views (as do I). So I am a little confused by the present essay, well-written as always.


  4. An addition to my previous feedback: the photo at the top of this blog of the present pope kissing the feet of people has a quality of deceptiveness. Previous popes, including the right wingers Wojtyla and Ratzinger, did the same kissing of feet. And any reactionary Curial cardinal would do the same.What does such an action mean, when the Roman Catholic Church is being governed like an absolute monarchy (think Louis XIV)? Cardinal Bergoglio did indeed show responsiveness to many of the poor when he was archbishop. But at the same time he condemned “liberation theology”. In the late 1970s he was mostly silent when a fascist junta ruled his country; and he did little to help two progressive Jesuit priests arrested by that same junta (and himself a Jesuit, too) As a non-Christian looking at this situation dispassionately (I trust!), I see a similar syndrome to what happened to Iiberals after Obama was elected the first time. His choice of cabinet made it clear to any astute observer that this was not going to be a reformer, and the refrain of many (perhaps most) liberals became: he needs more time etc, with some liberals even voicing such claptrap after his second election! Many Catholic progressives are now listening to a Vatican siren song. Revolution from below in the Roman Catholic Church is the only way it will jettison its reactionary baggage.


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