Of Several Things

This is Dr. Heaney’s final blog post

One of the more courteous features of Western civilization is the respect it commonly affords deathbed statements. They may be wild and wacky, sometimes even profound, but they’re seldom dismissed out of hand.  Presuming on that courtesy, I take this one last chance to offer some observations that I’ve long pondered and that touch deeply the church that I love – the church that Hans Kung many years ago called Ecclesia semper reformanda.  Of many issues, Three unrelated matters come to mind:  i) the gift of Protestantism; ii)  the misunderstanding and abuse of the second commandment; iii)  the ordination of women and with it,  the constricted sense of congregationalism within  Roman Catholicism

The Gift of Protestantism: Historians recognize three “hinge points” in the history of Christianity: the so-called Council of Jerusalem, the edict of Constantine, and the Protestant Reformation.  Each profoundly changed the church and shaped it as we know it today.

This last is my concern here.  A prominent Protestant theologian commented a few years ago that Protestantism had run its course and that it had done its work.  What had that work been? What had it given to the larger Christian Church?  Three gifts stand out: the vernacular, the Bible, and congregational sensitivity.  Today we are able to worship and read the scriptures in our native tongues.  Otherwise they’d be a closed book.  What a gift!  That’s new since the Reformation.  Amazingly, the bible itself had been effectively off limits for Roman Catholics up till just about 70 years ago.  German Lutheran theologians reversed that in the 19th century.  Since then there’s been a tremendous flowering of Catholic scripture scholarship in both Europe and North America, of which we are all beneficiaries.

Congregationalism:  The Roman Catholic corporate model has been characterized (wrongly) as having a CEO in Rome with “branch offices” around the world, and with orders coming down the chain of command.  A tremendous emphasis has been placed on uniformity of both doctrine and practice. That was not how the early church functioned and it is not how Pope Francis seems to see things.  Protestantism typically affords more autonomy to individual congregations and communities.  Pope Francis, it seems, believes that a decision reached in North Africa may not be fully appropriate for North Omaha – a conclusion the Early Fathers would likely have agreed with.  From the very beginning, Christianity has always been a “community of communities.” In this way, Protestantism has preserved for the Christian Church not just the Bible, but some of its own heritage as well.

Without the Reformation, we might have had none of these.  So, thank you, Martin Luther.

The Second Commandment:  For many Christians, and certainly for Catholics, the second commandment is mostly about revering the Holy Name and avoiding cursing and salting our language with “Jesus Christs!” and similar imprecations. But that can’t have been what God was pointing to when Moses got the law on Mt. Sinai. The Hebrews weren’t, so far as we know, cursing and swearing the way so many do today in ostensibly Christian cultures.  No, they invoked God’s name to emphasize and put God’s authority behind what they themselves were thinking and saying – in other words to put into God’s mouth their own decisions and conclusions.  In Mark’s Gospel (Mk 7:9) Jesus tells the Jewish establishment: “How ingeniously you get around the commandments of God in order to observe your own tradition!”   Such seems to be the besetting sin of all hierarchs then and now.

I remember reading, in John O’Malley’s “The History of Vatican II,” his statement that at the time of the great East-West schism the heads of the two branches of Christianity each solemnly excommunicated one another’s entire Christian populations.  I literally couldn’t decide whether to cry or laugh  Actually, I did both.  The thought that God was waiting in the wings to exclude from Heaven nearly half the human race simply on the say of pope or patriarch was so patently absurd as to be both blasphemous and hubristic – downright comical, actually.  Clearly we need to exercise some economy of our pretensions!  The authority of the teaching office has to be based in reality, not in hubris.

The ordination of women to the clerical state:   The ordination of women is something Catholics are not supposed to talk about – or even think about.  But how can you not think about the 800 pound gorilla in the room?  There is, I think, one compelling reason why we must find a way to meet this challenge – find a way to ordain women and gain acceptance of the decision among the body of the faithful. The arguments for or against doing so from Scripture, theology, biology, women’s rights, staffing needs, or what Jesus did (or didn’t do) do not seem to me persuasive. The solution lies, I think, in the last of the gifts from Protestantism. We should ordain women because the Christian community needs them in that role. It’s just that simple.

What is good for (promotes the “health” of) the community/congregation has to be the criterion of the rightness of what we do.  Our highly individualistic, atomized approach to such decisions marginalizes (basically, ignores) the needs of the congregation. We need the special charism of women priests.  (For that matter we need the special charism of male priests, as well.)  The community/congregation needs both. That basically is why we must have both.


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