Structures and the Spirit

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 12 October 2002, pp. 32-33

The ‘We are Church’ movement met in Leganes near Madrid from 19 to 22 Sep­tember. The theme: ‘Another (kind of) Church is possible.’ The director of the Housetop centre for communications was there to represent ‘We are Church’ UK.

The “We Are Church” reformers had not counted on support for their international congress from Cardinal Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid. But even the Spanish branch of We are, Church, which hosted the event, were stunned by the harsh verdict contained in a note, dated 11 July, in which the bishops’ secretariat warned that We Are Church was not a Catholic movement, could not be trusted, and promoted ideas harmful to the Church. The national newspaper El Pais described the conflict with the hierarchy as the classic struggle of David challenging Goliath, with everyone praying for a truly biblical out­come.

This was undoubtedly a people’s congress, throwing together young and old, academics and activists, campaigners and dreamers, reflecting the myriad involvements of a pas­sionately caring Church. Of the 486 partici­pants, two-thirds came from every corner of Spain. There were 21 official speakers and 17 workshops, covering topics which ranged from a married clergy to refugees, American Indians, feminism, inter-religious dialogue, women priests and grassroots evangelism. But reform of Church structures featured on everyone’s agenda. Should they not be radi­cally overhauled?

A proposed constitution for the Church lay before the assembly, incorporating the so-called Charter of Rights of Catholics in the Church. Of the 32 rights listed in the charter, 26 are enshrined in Vatican II decrees and canon law, even granted that they are not honoured in present church practice. The prevailing view among the Catholic faithful, however, is that members of the Church have no rights as such. To ultra-traditionalist Catholics, a detailed assertion of rights trumpets rebellion: the right to follow one’s conscience, to express one’s opinion responsibly, to take part in decision-making, to have a voice in the elec­tion of church ministers, to receive an account from church leaders, and similar principles. No, Catholics should gratefully enjoy the privilege of being shepherded by the benign hierarchs who, from the Pope down, rule God’s people with God-given authority. The trouble is that such a system

The proposed constitution incorporates the basic human rights and baptismal rights of Catholics, but then continues to model church government on democratic princi­ples: co-responsibility, decision-making through councils, election of leaders on all levels, accountability even of ordained ministers, resolution of conflicts through consul­tation and dialogue.

In other words, the constitution counters the frequently misused maxim, “The Church is not a democracy”. Why not? Because Christ founded the Church? Or because the power to minister is passed on through sacramental ordination? But why should such an input of grace preclude the com­munity of believers from functioning as a democracy in so far as organisation goes? The elements that are decried as too demo­cratic have a solid base in early Church tradi­tion. Bishops, for instance, were elected by local communities. And why should a con­clave of cardinals be a better body to elect a Pope than a representative international council with delegates from all continents, as the Charter of Rights of Catholics in the Church recommends?

In a surprise appearance at the congress, the renowned scholar Fr Raimundo Panikkar urged the participants not to seek a solution in terms of law, structure, constitu­tion. “The Church is not an organisation, but a living organism. Our present predicament arises precisely from structure dominating Spirit. We, however, should not make the mistake of seeking a remedy in structural reforms. The Church is life, mystery, won­der. If we lose the mystical dimension of the Church, we lose everything.”

The national newspaper El Pais described the conflict with the hierarchy as the classic struggle of David challenging Goliath.

The down-to-earth American reformer Leonard Swidler sees it differently. “All we have heard these days is valuable”, he told the general assembly. “But have no illusions. What you have experienced in the Spirit will be lost if it is not incorporated in the basic law of the Church. Pope Paul VI called for a constitution of the Church at the end of Vatican II. A commission met in Rome, then the idea was buried. If we do not change Church law, all our sharing will have been just a pipe-dream, our talk an ego trip.”

In March, an initiative was launched in Brazil calling on the Pope to convoke a new ecumenical council “in the spirit of Vatican II”. As of today, the appeal to the Pope has been signed by 36 bishops, 1,200 religious, 780 priests, 295 theologians and thousands of lay men and women. Enthusiasm for this plan has so far been largely confined to Latin America, and its sponsors were hoping to marshal support for it in Europe. But will a new council be the answer to our prayers? What if it happened tomorrow?

Sr. Angeles Martinez, co-ordinator of renewal of religious life in Chile, responds with panic: “No! Not now. With all our bishops, yes-men hand-picked by the Curia, the outcome could be disastrous.” Marcclo Barros, a Benedictine abbot from Brazil, agrees. “A Vatican III held now would be the tomb of Vatican II. But we need to start a conciliar process.”

The Jesuit Professor Juan Jose Tamayo, secretary of the John XXIII Theological Association, publicly defends the notion of a permanent council, as opposed to the bishops’ synod that has been hijacked by the Roman Curia. He asserts this is nearer to the genuine Catholic tradition of Church councils.

The We are Church congress, which adopted no general resolutions, could so easily have deteriorated into a cacophony of contrasting voices. Yet it somehow present­ed an amazingly unified perception: “We could be such a different kind of Church than we are.”