Christian Autonomy and the Church

by John Wijngaards

Theological Conference, Newman College, Birmingham, 24 June 2000

The present crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is due to a multiplicity of factors. One is a mismatch between existing pastoral practice and a new sense of self worth among Catholics, especially in the developed world. People are better off. They are healthier and more educated. They have a greater control over their own lives. They participate in media discussion and political decision making. All this has given them a new sense of personal autonomy, an autonomy which clashes with the antiquated authoritarian structures of the Church.

What does this mean for the Church in our post-modern world? I will reflect on the fact of Christian autonomy, the theological justifications for it and the opportunity it offers for Church reform.

Social change towards greater autonomy

I will start with a Gallup research known as ‘The European Values Systems’ study. It examined 210,280 Europeans from Great Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, West Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark and Italy who expressed their opinions in interviews covering 480 questions each. It is the most extensive survey of this nature ever done and covers the whole of life: relationships, leisure, work, politics, religion, the meaning of life, family and ethics. The European Values Studies of 1981 and 1990 have documented a steady shift in people’s basic motivations. From having been security seekers, people are gradually becoming fulfilment seekers.

The terms security seekers and fulfilment seekers are my own. They need to be carefully explained. The older generations in Europe are security seekers. Having experienced the uncertainties surrounding the Second World War, they are chiefly motivated by the need of economic and physical security. They cling to traditional certainties in the family, at work, in ethics and religious practice.

The younger generations become progressively more fulfilment seekers in the sense of being motivated more strongly by the needs of self–realisation, belonging and quality of life. One consequence is a growing resistance to religious creeds and to organisations that impose restrictions on one’s views or personal behaviour.

There are marked differences in attitudes. Within a family context, security seekers stress marriage stability and the traditional role of women; fulfilment seekers stress a woman’s right to work even if she is a mother, and prefer divorce to an unhappy relationship. In their job, security seekers give priority to hard work, good manners and obedience; fulfilment seekers want interesting jobs. They rate imagination, creativity, independence and tolerance.

Security seekers tend to be traditional in their religious convictions. They believe in a personal God, adhere to orthodox doctrine regarding heaven, hell, sin and the devil, and are committed to traditional moral standards. Fulfilment seekers on the other hand are more likely to see God as a Life Force, to have doubts on orthodox doctrines, to be more permissive in morality and to be more critical of the Church.

Comparative studies through the years document a steady shift towards the values of freedom and autonomy. In 1981, 33% of Europeans were outright security seekers, 14 % outright fulfilment seekers, and 53% mixed. In 1990, the outright security seekers were down to 21%. Outright fulfilment seekers were up to 21%, mixed fulfilment seekers to 58%. That makes the total of fulfilment seekers 79% of society.

These social changes have also affected the Christian Churches even though the Churches proved, to some extent, havens of traditionalism. A significant proportion of the Churches’ core members (weekly church attendance) are security seekers. The unchurched are predominantly fulfilment seekers. The intermediate group of marginal Christians (the 41% who occasionally attend a service) are also mainly fulfilment seekers. Indications are that people in this middle group are aware of their religious needs, but feel out of tune with institutional Christianity.

A number of follow-up studies in Australia and the USA demonstrated similar trends in other parts of the western world. Of interest to us is especially an analysis of the Catholic Church in the USA which describes a parallel shift among Catholics from ‘security seeking’ to ‘fulfilment seeking’. The author, Eugene Kennedy, speaks of two cultures which I will characterise as ‘external-authority culture’ and ‘internal-authority culture’.

According to Kennedy, external-authority Catholics emphasise the stability of the institutional Church. They are concerned about the credibility of the Church and its persistence as a social institution. These Catholics are rooted in the traditional, hierarchical exercise of authority. They stress the importance of private confession, where priests, representing the external authority of the institutional Church, give counsel and absolve sins. Kennedy argues that this cultural orientation is found most often in Catholics who were raised in the pre-Vatican II years of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

Internal-authority Catholics conceive of religious authority as internal, flowing from the exercise of one’s conscience. They believe the locus of authority is within the believer — that God speaks through the experiences and reflections of individual Christians. From this perspective, Catholics are to take personal responsibility for their faith, which is intimately related to one’s daily experience in the world. According to Kennedy, this cultural orientation is most common among Catholics raised in the post-Vatican II years of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

It is obvious that we are speaking here of two poles, rather than two clear-cut divisions. For our purpose it is enough to observe that a major social change has taken place and that it has also made Catholics different. Many of us have, to a varying extent, become fulfilment seekers and internal-authority believers. This can be illustrated at the hand of some examples.

The locus of moral authority

Numerous studies have detailed far-reaching psychological and cultural changes in the Catholic Church in the decades following on Vatican II. Rather than synopsising all of them or trying to cover the vast information contained in them, I will just highlight a few salient data that will illustrate the shift to personal autonomy.

The Pro Mundi Vita study ‘The Roman Catholic Church and Europe’ (1976) is informative for our purpose. Research was done on the Catholic Church in England by Spencer (1975), by Pro Mundi Vita (1978) and especially by Hornsby Smith (1979), whose book was at the time hailed as ‘the best study of Roman Catholics in England and Wales to date’. An extensive research was conducted in the Netherlands known as ‘Opnieuw: God in Nederland’ (1970 & 1979). Also worthy of mention in this context are the study of Dutch Catholicism by the American sociologist Coleman (1978), and a number of excellent reports by the Dutch Research Centre Kaski.

Information on Catholics in Australia is available through the National Catholic Life Survey (Mason 1997, 1998) and through research on Catholic students preparing to be teachers (McLaughlin 1999). Data about Catholics in the USA can be found in three successive Gallop Surveys (1987, 1993 and 1999).

From such sources we can analyse some test cases.

The use of contraceptives for birth control.

Ever since Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1967, the official position of the Church has been that artificial birth control goes against the natural law and is intrinsically evil. In 1987 John Paul II reiterated that “this teaching of the Church has been written by the creative hand of God in the nature of the human person”. Disputing the doctrine, he said, is “equal to refusing to God himself the obedience of our intelligence.” This assessment is rejected by the vast majority of Catholics in the western world.

In the USA, 73% of Catholics maintain one can be a good Catholic while using contraceptives. 61% believe the Church should not interfere in this: it should be left to one’s own conscience. Even among weekly Mass-goers, only 21% say this is a matter for Church leaders to determine, nearly half (45%) consider it a matter for one’s own conscience.

In Australia only 2% of students accept the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception; 89% indicate it is a personal issue for the couple involved.

The Church’s teaching on birth control is almost universally ignored by the laity in developed countries. The important question is: why? Has Rome’s stand been rejected by a lack of self discipline, by a surrender to convenience, by moral degeneracy?

Though such factors may always play a part, the decisive element is the fact that people have begun to reason things out for themselves. They judge matters differently from the Pope and base decisions on their own conscience rather than on his guidance. This can be proved in two ways.

(1) Catholics dissent from Rome’s teaching also on other questions of sexual ethics, but to varying degrees. To stay with the US statistics, two-thirds of Catholics condone remarriage without an annulment or a marriage without Church sanction. But in the complex question of abortion, opinions are more divided.

53% state one can be a good Catholic while practising abortion. The same percentage would agree to abortion being made legal in all circumstances, 33% only in rare circumstances. 41% believe abortion can often be a morally acceptable choice, 41% rarely, 13% never.

In other words, people are thinking about the issues and attempting to decide them on their own merit. In all these matters of sexual ethics, however, including abortion, not more than 20% of Catholics hold that it is the Church hierarchy that has the final say as to what is right and wrong.

(2) The same is clear from extensive records of people’s personal testimonies. They have reasons for rejecting the Church’s official stance:

I think that the Church’s ways of thinking are absolutely ridiculous, especially that contraceptives are sin . . . . In the 90s AIDS and unwanted pregnancy are very common. People being told that contraception is a sin are probably more likely to contract a disease. (student)

Humanae Vitae is a beautiful document except for the few pages about artificial contraception that don’t make sense. The rest is beautiful. They almost have it. The Church teaches beautiful things about sex and marriage and I use it so much in my life. And it is very useful when I try to explain sex to my children. But then they negate what they are saying by adding, ‘But we still believe that men and women should not practice artificial contraception’. And I reply, ‘But you just spent 20 pages telling me why we should!’ (mother of two children)

The sociologist Andrew Greeley maintains that since the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Vatican has lost its credibility as a teacher of sexual ethics. “Many have left the Church. No one takes it seriously on sexual matters anymore, not even its own members, not even devout ones.” By its wooden and conservative views, Rome has undermined its own credibility. But the development was unavoidable for other reasons too: people have learnt to think and decide for themselves.

The ordination of women to the priesthood.

In 1976 the Congregation for Doctrine set out its reasons for opposing the ordination of women. As opposition intensified among theologians, Rome heightened the stakes. In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”. One year later the Congregation for Doctrine stated: “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium”. This means that, according to the Congregation, the teaching has been infallibly decided by the collective body of bishops world wide. It was the highest and strongest endorsement it could give to the ban on women priests.

However, here too the reception by Catholics in the developed world has been overwhelmingly negative.

  • Surveys in the USA show that 63% of Catholics would want celibate women to be ordained priests, 54% even married women. 63% also state that the laity should have a say in deciding the question whether women should be ordained or not.
  • Among Catholic college students in Australia 62% believe priestly ordination should be open to women.
  • By the most recent statistics, Catholics in other western countries also favour women priests: Spain 71%, Ireland 67%, Italy 58%.

It should be noted that most Catholics who support the ordination of women do so because they feel strongly that openness of women to Holy Orders is implied in our faith priorities. They sense unresolved contradictions.

“I hate the double standards that the Catholic Church produces. Our school is an all-girl school and we are encouraged to be strong women of the nineties. But the views of the pope and the church just hold women back. Will the pope ever understand the injustice that women have suffered? When will the law on women in the priesthood be changed? The church will never have my full support until women receive the equality they deserve.”

“I have sometimes wondered whether this is not a logical deduction: the premise that it is impossible for women to be ordained implies ultimately that women cannot receive salvation. I think it would be possible to prove the connection — thus giving the lie to the premise as there have been many women saints.”

Others reject Rome’s arguments against women priests more directly.

If Catholics make up their own minds on morals and doctrine, will we not end up with complete relativism and individualism? What about humility, docility, obedience? What about the teaching authority? Are we not heading for a chaos in which everyone ‘does his own thing’ or ‘starts her own cosy cult’, and this without regard to anyone else? Is this not an exaggerated liberty, a liberty which turns into sheer licence?

Since the quest for greater autonomy arose in secular society, we should first turn to it for some fundamental considerations.

The secular context

The demand for a radical human autonomy reared its head in Europe as a basic alternative to Christianity. The Enlightenment attacked the conventions and superstitions of religion. “Humanity is coming of age”, wrote Kant in 1784, “Up till now the human race has depended on powers beyond itself. But human beings have reason. They must have the courage to think and choose for themselves. — Dare to know! Have the guts to make use of your own understanding!”

The new ideal was presented most forcefully by that demented genius Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) whom we will take as a useful starting point. Nietzsche began by reacting against the ‘believer’, the person brainwashed by priests, teachers and political leaders, the weakling who sacrifices his autonomy for the comfort and salvation promised by religion. Nietzsche chooses to be a ‘free spirit’ who follows his own reason and takes his own decisions. He compares this person to an audacious mountaineer. “You are reaching the higher slopes. The wind blows fresher. Your step treads more surely and energetically. Your path, however, is lonelier and riskier than before.”

Soon Nietzsche’s thoughts rose to even grandioser heights. Man should break the shackles imposed by clerics, moralists, poets and saints who have told him what is supposed to be good and evil, false or true. Man should rise free by becoming the Superhuman.

You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now a human being is more of an ape than any ape . . . . What is human is something that should be overcome. Behold, I teach you the Superhuman!

The most anxious ask today: ‘How is humanity to be preserved?’ But Zarathustra’s first and only question is: ‘How is humanity to be overcome?’ The Superhuman is my concern, not my neighbour, nor the poorest, nor the greatest sufferer, nor the most virtuous . . . At present petty folk have become your master: they preach submission and humility and charity and all the long list of petty virtues . . . Overcome these masters of today, my brothers — these petty folk; they are the greatest peril to the Superhuman.

I, Zarathustra, found people convinced they knew what is good and evil for human beings. They were asleep . . . This sleep I broke when I taught that nobody yet knows what is good and evil – unless it be that he becomes a creator! A creator is he that creates a human being’s goal and gives earth its meaning and its future: it is he that first makes good and evil to be.

Nietzsche’s Superhuman is the free and autonomous individual, who overcomes the limitations of the past by creating a new world for himself:

  • in which life, the body, health and the joys of the flesh reign supreme;
  • in which the passions are turned into virtues and joys;
  • in which achievers are extolled, that is: the strong such as warriors and soldiers, rather than scholars and teachers;
  • in which struggle is esteemed, and the will to power;
  • in which the winners are rewarded without pity for the losers.

The danger of absolute human autonomy as exemplified in Nietzsche’s thinking is clear. We only need to remember how the Nazis based much of their ruthless brutality on Nietzsche. The ideal of the Superhuman is also manifest in the arrogance of secular society that sanctions the rule of the winners, that drugs individuals with pleasure and entertainment, and that claims implicit ownership over nature, the earth and even the universe. Catholics who seek autonomy may well fall into this trap.

The generally accepted ‘secular’ ideal of human autonomy, however, is much healthier than the one proposed by Nietzsche or other extreme thinkers. In fact, it is in this secular ideal itself that we find some necessary corrections.

Among the characteristics of a mature personality listed by psychologists we find the following:

  • the ability to judge situations and people accurately;
  • feeling at home with one self, with nature in general and with human nature;
  • spontaneity and creativity;
  • the aptitude to focus on authentic problems without being preoccupied with oneself;
  • a good measure of detachment and independence;
  • openness to learning new things, to wonder, awe and joy, to looking at the world around us with new eyes;
  • basic feelings of identification, sympathy, and affection for others in spite of occasional anger or impatience;
  • a democratic character structure which respects any human being just because he or she is a human individual;
  • and, last not least, the ability to take one’s own considered and responsible decisions.

This kind of analysis shows that concern for oneself needs to be balanced with concern for others. Nietzsche’s Superhuman is, in fact, no longer human because he/she lacks a realistic view of his/her own dependence on others and is not really open to sympathy and affection for others. Nietzsche’s Superhuman is nothing else than a spoilt and overgrown child who, by modern psychological standards, would be judged immature and psychotic.

The full realisation of human autonomy implies not only a commitment to one’s own freedom but also acceptance. It implies acceptance of what I am, my past, my origin, my place in the world and, crucially: the Other. The Other meets me in human faces, in persons I cannot reduce to myself, who also are free and autonomous, and whom I cannot treat as objects in my control. The Other also meets me in nature, in the universe, in the laws of science, all of which I do not own but which give me life. Accepting the Other sets the environment in which my freedom and autonomy become possible.

Psychology tells us that responsible decision making is at the heart of being a fully developed person. The autonomous person observes reality, reflects on its implications, weighs up good and bad, and chooses a particular course of action. Both the ability to discern data accurately and the freedom to choose between various alternatives are essential in decision making. A full human being is conscious and free.

In a way it is correct to state that we only become truly human to the extent that we make our own decisions. We build up our own personality through it. By nature we have a certain disposition or temperament. These do not form our character. Our ‘character’ develops as the result of the decisions we take in the course of our life.

Personal decision making and human autonomy have, as never before, become the hallmarks of our society. Through science and technology we try to control and steer the world in which we live. In democratic processes we take responsibility for our own welfare. We select our food, our clothes and our entertainment from an incredibly rich spread of choices. We elect and reject the leaders who govern us. We are learning to critically sift the information presented to us through the media. We may not always use our freedoms wisely, but as members of a society that honours our freedoms we have changed.

But are true human freedom and autonomy compatible with our Christian calling?

The roots of ‘Christian’ autonomy

Is the secular ideal of the mature and autonomous personality in conflict with Christian faith? I believe it is not. What is more, I am sure that our Christian beliefs enhance and deepen true human autonomy. I will outline this in three steps.

a. We are made in God’s creative image

Human autonomy springs from God’s creative action in us. This should be properly understood. We do not just find traces of the Creator in God’s created works. We also find God in the work God has left unfinished, in the freedom and autonomy that he leaves to us. God has not just created the universe as a marvellous clockwork, a divine toy. He has created human beings as ‘clockmakers’/‘creators’ in their own right: people who can think, plan and create. This is the fullest meaning of human beings having been created ‘in God’s own image’.

If some of the creatures are not just part of nature but are themselves centres of freedom and creativity, then God’s creation can no longer be considered as, from his point of view, a toy or even a work of art. It has become a potential partner with God able to respond to him and to join with him in a continuing work of creation. Of course, since freedom is in itself neutral, the free creatures of the universe might turn against God. Man is God’s risk. But even when one allows for the risk, how much richer is a universe that can freely respond through some of its members than one which can be no more than an object of contemplation, however infinite?

The Renaissance theologian Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494) describes human autonomy in a powerful image. God is a sculptor who carved all creatures. But God left the human being unfinished, as a block of marble with vast potential. God says to each human being: “Other creatures have a limited nature confined by laws laid down by me. But because I have entrusted free intelligence to you, you are confined by no bounds and you will fix the limits of your nature for yourself . . . I appointed you your own guide. You are the moulder and maker of yourself; you may sculpt yourself into whatsoever shape you prefer.” It is interesting to reflect that this come close to Nietzsche’s idea that a human being becomes autonomous by becoming ‘a creator who creates his own goals and gives earth its meaning and its future’. Creative freedom is at the heart of human autonomy. It differentiates us from animals and is a breach from the rest of created nature, a mystery of ‘God in us’.

b. Each believer carries the intrinsic principle of love

In the course of history human beings became trapped in multiple kinds of slavery, but Jesus Christ restored our autonomy by liberating us from sin, from death and from ‘law’. Here ‘law’ stands for all the trappings of organised religion. We live under grace and not under law (Rom 6,14), which means: we are liberated from the domination of external religion.

To understand the full implications of this, we should recall that traditional religions, including the Old Testament, rested on a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Every-day realities, such as houses, cattle, eating and sleeping, doing business, and so on, were ordinary or ‘profane’. God was not really directly present in these realities. Other realities of our world, however, were considered to be filled with divine presence and to have become ‘sacred’ on that account. This is the origin of ‘sacred’ times (the Sabbath and feast days), ‘sacred’ places (mainly the Temple), ‘sacred’ objects (e.g. vessels used for worship), ‘sacred’ persons (priests) and ‘sacred’ actions. It was the Law that, through its ‘sacred’ rules and prescriptions, imposed the yoke of external religion.

When Christ came, he did not substitute new holy realities for the old ones. He went further. He radically abrogated the edifice of organised religion that separates us from God. This may seem startling to some who continue to think along Old Testament lines. They imagine the New Testament to be an updated version of the Old. They think our churches have taken the place of the Temple at Jerusalem, that our Sunday replaces the Sabbath, that our paten and chalice continue the Temple furniture and that the New Testament priest is a polished version of the Old Testament one. They consider Church laws as improved extensions of Old Testament legislation. They do not realise that something has radically changed.

Yes, we do have quasi-sacred realities in the Church: feast days, basilicas, a hierarchy of ministers, law books and regulations, rosaries and chasubles. These things re-entered Christianity as tools of an established religious community. But they are only instruments and helps. The basic reality remains that we have been given the freedom of the children of God (Rom 8,21). “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm then and do not submit again to any yoke of slavery!”, Paul says (Gal 5,1).

Traditional Catholics still think that the structures of the Church are the fundamental reality and that people somehow have to fit in. Just the opposite is true. The core reality is the Holy Spirit in each believer. The external structures are there to support their freedom and autonomy. Even the Son of God became human ‘for the sake of us human beings and our salvation’. The Church which is the sacramental extension of Jesus Christ is totally dedicated to service, not to building up its own structural power.

Christians know they are free from any external law. The only law they acknowledge is the Holy Spirit in their hearts. “If you are led by the Spirit, no law can touch you” (Gal 5,18). When Christ taught that love of God and love of our neighbour is the highest commandment, he brought about a religious revolution. It is not the external laws that matter, whatever they are. It is love, the interior principle of responsible action, that supersedes any law (Luke 10,25-37.) This does not need to surprise us. For Jesus revealed that God himself is love, and that all morality can be summed up in a living up to the principle of love (1 John 4,7-12).

Paul says the same thing. We cannot be saved by fulfilling external laws. We are saved by a new law which God has written in our heart: the law of the Spirit of life. This law is the love which has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit of God (Rom 8,1-2; 5,5; Gal 5,1-6.) St. Thomas Aquinas, who is traditionally seen as the norm of orthodoxy, explains it as follows:

It was necessary for Christ to give us a law of the Spirit, who by producing love within us, could give us life.

That which predominates after Christ’s coming is the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently, the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.

To put it in the words of Cardinal Seripando, who presided over the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563 AD): “We have received the Spirit of God in our mind, to take the place of external law”. External laws, which tell us what to do and what not to do, will not really change us. But God’s Spirit can. God’s Spirit gives us a new autonomy. It enables us to act responsibly and in harmony with selfless love, which is Christ’s own, inner commandment (Jn 15,12). People who act like that are not under any law. They live by grace and not by the law (Gal 5,18; Rom 6,14.) As Paul so aptly says: “The letter (of external laws) kills, the Spirit (who works in our hearts) makes alive” (2 Cor 3,6). Even the commandments found in the Gospel, in as far as they would be external ‘laws’, would fall under the letter which kills:

The letter that kills denotes any writing that is external to a human being, even the moral precepts such as are contained in the Gospel. Therefore the letter, even of the Gospel, would kill, unless there is the inward presence of the healing grace of faith.

The true source of Christian autonomy, therefore, is the Spirit in the heart of every believer. Jesus Christ came to bring us life and bring it abundantly (Jn 10,10). This abundance of life is unthinkable without the full development of our personality. We have been created ‘in God’s own image’, that is: with some of God’s own maturity and autonomy. When humankind had fallen into various kinds of slavery and bondage, Jesus redeemed us from these chains and raised us to a new dignity. Yes, in spite of being Christians we are still weak and need the support the Church can provide. But the principle of our autonomy lives in us. It is God himself/herself.

You have been anointed by the Holy One and you know all things . . . You have not lost the anointing that [the Father] gave you, and you do not need anyone else to teach you. The anointing he gave teaches you everything. You are anointed with truth, not with a lie.

1 John 2,20.27

God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God lives in that person . . . In love there can be no fear, for fear is driven out by perfect love. To fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love.

1 John 4,16.18

c. The overflowing measure

Precisely because God’s love is the guiding principle in us, Christians should be prepared to give, rather than take. It is the theme of the sermon on the mount. Jesus declared that we must outdo others in tolerance and forbearance. We should turn the other cheek, give our cloak if someone takes our tunic, go an extra mile if we are forced to carry a pack (Mt 5-7). “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who treat you badly . . . . If you love those who love you, what blessing is in it?” (Lk 6,27-28).

According to Jesus, there is no ‘blessing’ in just giving quid pro quo. If we truly are children of God who live under God’s leadership, we will transcend a short-term view of things and decide to be patient, kind, forgiving, never mind how people respond. We will be loving on principle; not because others are patient, kind and forgiving to us, but because our goodness will eventually, in the long term, win the upper hand. There is blessing and reward in such an attitude, not only in the sense of us finding favour with God, but in our improving the overall situation itself. This is a higher logic. It is God’s logic. It transcends the human law of mutuality.

Paradoxically, it is by adopting this attitude and putting it into practice that we will realise our autonomy to the full.

What will anyone gain by winning the whole world and losing his own self? Or what shall a person offer in exchange for his own self?

Matthew 16,26

You must be ‘whole’ as your heavenly Father is ‘whole’.

Matthew 5,48

God’s shows his autonomy by being generous. He does not abandon his kindness even if people oppose him. God provides rain and sunshine to good and bad alike (Mt 5,45). This unshakeable inner goodness of God derives from God’s wholeness. The word Jesus used wasthamîm. In translations it is often rendered by ‘perfect’ (via the Greek). But thamîm means ‘whole’. Jesus saw that we too should have this inner wholeness in us, as God has it in himself. “If you greet only your relatives, what extra is it you are doing? Don’t the pagans do the same? No, you must be whole as your Father in heaven is whole.”

“What extra is it you are doing?” This sentence provides the answer to the question: How does the disciple differ from a pagan? What makes his autonomy Christian? The truly Christian element adds the extraordinary gift, the extra tolerance, doing more than normal, daring to be different from the usual, offering the not so obvious. However, this ‘extra’ should not be imposed by external law; it should be freely given. It enhances a person’s freedom, character and autonomy only if and precisely because it is freely given.

In summary we can say that Christians have good reason to treasure their autonomy:

  • by being free and mature individuals they share in the creative powers God entrusted to them;
  • by relying on the Spirit in their heart they can enjoy the freedom of the children of God;
  • by generously responding in love and dying to themselves, they can realise themselves in a transcending manner.

Implications for the Church

Church leaders should be happy that today’s faithful are becoming more autonomous. Christian autonomy can easily be grafted on secular human autonomy. It can gain from it and complement it. However, the present paternalistic structures and modes of practice in the Church clash with both secular and Christian autonomy.

It is not my intention to detail all the reforms needed if the Church is to salvage its role as the sacrament of Christ’s salvific presence. But some closing comments seem appropriate in the context of my topic.

From a management-theory point of view, the Church is a voluntary organisation. Members are not controlled by physical constraint, economic profit, or cultural necessity, but by internal motivation. This does not mean that members’ wishes or opinions replace revelation or pastoral authority. It does mean that members will want to understand the reasons. They need to be persuaded of what is right or wrong, convinced of what is true or not true. Coercion will backfire. Especially now that people are better educated and sure of themselves.

This is precisely what we have seen happening regarding obligatory celibacy for priests. Since the motivation has proved inadequate, priests have walked out in the hundreds of thousands. Married couples too have voted with their feet. Sexual ethics need to make sense before the majority of people are willing to commit themselves to it. Surely, personal weakness and the secular environment also take their toll, but what we see now in the Church is that its lead is rejected by dedicated priests and practising Catholics.

The Church is an organisation that exists to support the inner action of the Holy Spirit. It is internal and spiritual values that enjoy priority status. This applies in particular to truth and love. The organisation will not function properly if its actions fail to safeguard these values.

A case in point is the question of the ordination of women. The arguments of the Roman magisterium are not supported by theological research. They fail the test of truth. Attempts by the Congregation for Doctrine to regain the upper hand by ever more strident declarations, by imposing oaths of loyalty, and by harassing theologians have produced a silence of repression in the Church. They have not won over theological consensus. The attempts are doomed to fail.

The authority enjoyed by the pope and the bishops does not operate in a vacuum. It needs to respect the cultural values of our time: openness, media scrutiny, participation of an informed membership in issues facing the Church, public opinion. Though the authority does not derive from the members but from God – and is not democratic in that sense – , it needs to be collegial, credible and accountable in the way it is exercised. After all, its authority is a public service, justified only when exercised for the good of the body of Christ. From being a power-conscious top-down, paternalistic practice, pastoral authority will need to become a people-focussed, caring and empowering service.

The laity has to be rescued from the periphery and re-instated in the centre of the church. With regard to doctrine this implies giving due weight to the sensus fidelium as an important carrier of Tradition. It requires an abolition of all restrictions imposed by canon law on the ministry of women. It calls for a true implementation of the co-responsibility called for by Vatican II, so that the laity share in the decisions affecting the life of the church. It means a transfer of many external church activities, such as finance, administration and planning to lay ministries.

The bishops should be freed to exercise their crucial spiritual responsibilities. Bishops should not be officials of a sacred and powerful bureaucracy, but the living expression of Christ’s love and guidance to their people. The election of men and women to the episcopacy should incorporate a prudent consultation among the laity. Bishops should be given more local autonomy so that they can shepherd their dioceses as vicars of Christ, rather than vicars of the Roman Pontiff as they are perceived to be functioning now. The synods of bishops convened in Rome to discuss the world church, should allow the bishops to express their own views and contribute to real decisions.

This is not the first time that the Church has needed to undergo reforms, nor will it be the last. As on previous occasions, today’s crisis offers the Church a precious opportunity to live up to its own avowed aims.

Jesus Christ did not want to crush our individuality and autonomy. “I do not call you ‘servants’, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I call you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father ” (John 15,15). In other words: Jesus does not treat us as servants who are simply told what to do; he treats us as friends, because he explains his Father’s will to us and expects us to freely give of our best.

Jesus promises that as his friends we will make our own individual contribution to his kingdom. “Whoever believes in me will do what I do – yes, he will do even greater things than I did” (John 14, 12). By giving us the new inner principles of life and love, each member of the kingdom is like a new Jesus who can honour the Father by doing the same things Jesus did. “My Father’s glory is shown by your bearing much fruit” (John 15,8). It is as mature, autonomous Christians, by taking decisions inspired by love, that we will produce fruit pleasing to the Father.