This is an article wrote for the Journal, Soul and Vision, by Father John K. Thekkedam (also known as Swami Dr. Snehananda Jyoti). We published the first part on October 6th. As the serialization could not be done we are publishing it completely (With the permission of Soul and Vision)
The Journal, Soul and Vision, provides a very necessary and important service in conscientizing Catholics for the Reformation of the Catholic Church, especially in Kerala, through challenging and enlightening articles. Now the primary question is: What are we reforming the Church into? In other words, what do we envision it to be? what is its new shape? How will it look when it is finally reformed? Using a simple metaphor to illustrate the point, when we embark on rehabilitating an old house we have a plan or blueprint in our mind as a model for the outcome - the newly rehabilitated house. We know what are the portions to be torn down, what are the parts to be preserved, and what are the additions to be made. Putting new wine into old wineskins (Mathew 9: 17) will not do. An old Latin saying ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church is to be always reformed) is very relevant here. Let us briefly look at the universal Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, the most important council of all time, called by Pope John XXIII, perhaps the most important pope in history, and attended by 2625 bishops and their experts for theological consultation from all over the world besides observers from Orthodox Churches and Protestant Denominations, was to usher the Catholic Church into the modern world from the dark middle ages. Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, attended the council. And so did Father Josef Ratzinger, the present Pope, Benedict XVI, as a theological consultant. Pope John Paul II through his benign neglect of the spirit of the council turned the clock back, managed the Church in an autocratic way by appointing hand-picked bishops and Cardinals to very responsible positions in the church and by censuring and disciplining creative theologians mainly through Cardinal Ratzinger, and failed to usher the Church into the 21st century. After the death of John Paul II, out of the 115 Cardinals who assembled to elect his successor 113 were appointed by Pope John Paul II. A reporter in the Time magazine quipped after the election that Cardinal Ratzinger was as close to cloning Pope John Paul II as the Catholic Church could get. And so it was. The Catholic Church is languishing without a bold and visionary leader at the helm of the church affairs. The time for a third and fourth Vatican Council is long overdue considering the rapid changes that are taking place in the fields of theology and medical ethics. Moral issues related to marriage, divorce, re- marriage, family planning, death penalty, and celibacy for priests, poverty, unbridled capitalism, social justice, and human rights need to be dealt with in the light of the Gospels. Many churches are being closed or combined in the United States for lack of priests. Vocations to priesthood and religious life are abysmally low. The credibility of the church is all-time low especially at the wake of child sexual abuse by so-called celibate priests. Exodus from the Catholic Church is increasing. Quite a few Catholics are joining other Christian denominations. In the last interview given two weeks before his death on August 31, 2012 Cardinal Carlo Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan and a Jesuit biblical scholar, who was favored by progressives to succeed Pope John Paul II until he revealed he had a rare form of Parkinson’s disease, portrayed Catholic church as a bureaucratic, pompous institution failing to move with the times. He stated in the interview: “The Catholic church is two hundred years out of date. Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous. The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation. A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion to look after her and her children. A second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not just the mother will be cut off but also her children. The church loses the next generation” (Posted on September 1, 2012 by Reuters). While I appreciate his views on the church at this late hour, I wonder why he was silent all this while. As a Jesuit he could not have been free, while alive, to talk publicly against his superior, the pope, because of his vow of obedience. I would not have been able to write what I am writing now had I continued as a professed Jesuit. A vow of obedience where a person cannot express his legitimate views in public does not serve God who gave us freedom, the most precious gift. A self-serving theology that justifies that kind of obedience needs to be confined to the dustbin of history. In no uncertain terms Paul opposes Peter to his face and condemns him for his insincerity and double standard with the gentiles and the Jewish circumcision party (Galatians 3: 11-21). The noteworthy thing is that Paul did not have any problem in exposing the first Pope’s (Peter’s) condemnatory behavior to the Galatian Christian community by writing about it in his public letter to them. So who the church leaders think they are? Are they above Peter and Paul of the early Christian community? What are they afraid of? Why every dissent has to be shrouded in secrecy? Jesus said: “..Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known..” Mathew 10: 26-27). A church that is not transparent cannot bring it out of the wilderness and achieve its spiritual destiny. A church leadership that is autocratic is incapable of bringing its members to full spiritual development. Only truth can set us free (John 8: 31-32). No secrecy, no obedience can set us free. Any serious searcher who discerns God’s will and follows it knows obedience to God’s will. No further obedience to a human being is required. Certainly we need to obey legal rules that are also moral. All who follow the teachings of Christ are representatives of Christ, nay, they are other Christs. Christ has mediated for us once and for all. We do not need any other authority of mediation and create a glorious theology to support it. Autocracy is about power and control. It does not trust others. It does not disseminate information. It controls knowledge and information, and decides who receives them. In olden days the high castes in India deprived the low castes of education. The whites in USA forbade education to the blacks during the days of slavery. They knew knowledge was power. Now the autocrats know information is power. Autocracy makes persons dependent, anxious, oppressed, unsure, and unfree. It creates a class system, a hierarchy. Christ came to free us (Luke 4: 18-19), to serve not to be served (Mathew 20: 28), to provide a model of service (John 13: 14-15). His authority came from serving others. He came to set us free from bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21). For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians, 5:1). Autocracy, a fall-out of the discredited, convoluted theology that advocated the divine right of kings in the days when the pope was also considered to be a temporal ruler in the mode of an emperor, has no place in Christian theology or spirituality. The dogma of infallibility for the pope, that smacked of the times when the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians were considered to be gods, and the Supreme Pontiff (pope) as the spiritual and temporal emperor of not only the Holy Roman empire but of the entire world with no restriction in power and authority modeling their life on the power, pelf, titles, and visible display of the power Roman emperors, was imposed on the Church in 1870. This dogma served no useful purpose, and did more harm than good. It further burdened the faith of a Christian who already had great difficulty in believing the Incarnation of Christ as God and his resurrection from death. It only exposed Church to ridicule through such an unreasonable demand. I was appalled by the recent news (September 24, 2012) coming out of Germany that German Catholics lose church rights including Holy Communion or church burial if they stop paying a special church tax. In this modern age this position of the church seems to be even more serious than the one on indulgences which Martin Luther denounced at the start of the reformation. This kind of position on the part of the official church leaves no doubt in my mind for the need for urgent reformation as the foremost priority. We who love the Church as much as anyone including the pope cannot allow the Church to be hijacked by a particular view. We need to awake from years of slumber wherein we followed church authorities unquestionably. The time has come to learn our history and reflect on it prayerfully so that we can form enlightened opinions based on facts.
What do we need to do? 1. In general, we need to reform ourselves first through a passionate search for truth and an unrelenting commitment to follow the teachings of Christ. 2. In particular, we need to familiarize ourselves with the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, the Word of God. A Revised Standard Version of the Bible with the Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical Books approved by the Catholic Church is a good Bible translation in English, used by many Catholic seminaries training priests is a good ecumenical Bible to have. It is important to know Bible first hand before someone else’s interpretation, however scholarly it may be. Protestants generally are more familiar with the Scriptures. Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, interpret Scriptures literally or even selectively to prove their own particular view-points. At a discussion I had with some Catholics, they did not know who the first pope was. They did not know the first pope, Peter, was married (Mathew, 8: 14). They did not know that the Apostles and the disciples of Christ including Peter (Cephas), except Paul and Barnabas, were accompanied in their ministries by their believing wives (I Corinthians, 9: 5). 2. We need to study the history of the church to get acquainted with our traditions. To get a quick history of the Church is to read a good life of the popes as the history of the popes is also a history of the church. A very balanced ‘Lives of the Popes’ (from St. Peter to Pope John Paul II) by Richard McBrian, a catholic priest and a former chairman of the Department of Theology of Notre Dame University, is a good book to begin. In the tortuous and horrid history of the popes and the development of papacy as we know it today, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In all charity, at the most one can say is that God permitted the institution of Papacy. According to the Second Vatican Council the Church is the people of God. In that Church you and I and the pope have the same rights. Nobody needs to excommunicate or be excommunicated by any one. We all belong to the same family. We know what happened in 1054 when the Pope Leo IX’s legates excommunicated the Ecumenical Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Cerularius, who in turn excommunicated the Pope’s legates. Centuries later, in a saner world in 1965 Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Athenagoras I, nullified the anathemas (excommunications) directed at each other.
We need to be assertive and take back our own God-given rights that have been usurped by authorities in the church for their own ends with perhaps good or misguided intentions. We also need to remind ourselves that according to the Second Vatican Council the Church is the people of God. We are not second class citizens. Each one of us is as important as any bishop or pope as members of the Church. The Church is not the Magisterium or the governing authority brought about or appointed by the Pope. The vicious cycle is complete. The Magisterium is not the church as a political party ruling a country is not that country. The magisterium changes but the church does not.
The early history of the church shows that the Bishop of Rome (who is also the Pope) was selected by popular acclaim or chosen by powerful kings or emperors. In the history of the church there were popes who were married. There is report of at least one pope who was a son of a pope, another pope who was a grandson of a pope. The youngest pope elected was only eighteen years old who came to be known as the boy pope. Popes created cardinals who were their nephews giving origin to the very despicable practice connoted by the word ‘nepotism’. The youngest nephew made cardinal was only five years old. In the medieval times there were instances of popes being imprisoned, starved, poisoned, or deposed by vying political factions. There was a nauseous instance of one pope calling what is historically known as Cadaver Synod to put on trial the exhumed corpse of another pope to condemn him and then throw the body into the river Tiber. That kind of cruelty, barbarity, and inhumanity does not befit any Christian much less the Head of the Church, the most visible representative of Christ on earth. There were popes and anti-popes. At one time there were three popes each one of whom claiming legitimacy. There were also popes who were notorious for extreme debauchery and rampant immorality. There were popes who resigned. So popes do not have to be for life. All human beings age and become physically and mentally weak and frail at a ripe old age. Popes are no exception to this human condition. So they need to voluntarily quit and make rooms for others or are made to retire through appropriate mechanisms in place. There is no special sanctity attached to the person of the pope as pope. The honor is given to the title as head of the church. Citing a few statistics related to the lives of popes, I am giving a little flavor of what went on during dark and or unenlightened ages. One might also ask what all this has to do with holiness and the message of Christ and the Kingdom of God. One thing is certain that there is no need for carrying over the feudalistic, authoritarian, autocratic structures and practices of less enlightened past to this day and age. The church as a spiritual institution should set a shining example to the secular institutions, and not merely trail behind them or, worse, build road-blocks to legitimate human aspirations and progress.
Our only real or worthwhile goal in life is to attain holiness by living the way God wants us to live and by working for the Kingdom of God. We do this by living in the light of the Gospels, by discerning God’s will for us, by carrying out God’s will every moment of the day, and by dealing with all humans the way Christ dealt with. We may need to thoroughly overhaul the old structures and develop new structures. The pope might be a nominal or symbolic spiritual head that unify all Catholics or all Christians. This pope can be elected by elected representatives or spiritual elders of various regions. A few elders comprising of patriarchs or cardinals and bishops and non-clerical leaders from different parts of the world chosen by priests and other members of the church will work under the leadership of the pope from Rome or other strategic places in the world to provide guidelines and spiritual leadership for all members of the Church. Each church or place of assembly needs to be a training center for meditation, awareness, prayer, living according to the teachings of Christ, and spiritual enlightenment. All need to be challenged when they fall short of the standard set by Christ. The current theology based on the Judeo-Christian concepts of original sin and fall-redemption is woefully inadequate. This theology constantly making us look at ourselves as worthless sinners reflects poorly the Glory of God, and robs us of our self-esteem as children of God and friends of Christ. We need to develop a positive theology of God’s love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace and human’s celebration of life and striving for perfection modeled on Christ. We need to replace eternal damnation in hell with some form of purifying centers. It is very difficult for me to imagine the Father of the Prodigal son (the best image of God, the compassionate Father, that Christ describes) sending his son to a place of eternal non-relationship with him, no matter what he did. Doctrines and dogmas aside, we need to focus on the process of living the Christian way in the here and now. We need to look at how we behave toward one another. We need to see if our life is characterized by love, the New Commandment, Christ came to give. That way we ourselves become symbols of God’s Kingdom and signs of realities beyond this world. When we do this (1) we get into the real discourse of the essentials of Christian living and Gospel values, (2) we realize the magnificent but speculative formulations of dogmas and doctrines become less relevant in that they will not become instruments of separation inhuman acts among Christians, (3) our focus ceases to be on male or female priesthood, married or celibate clergy - matters of discipline and not of core doctrine and faith. Then (1) we do not need to spend our precious energy and resources on beatifying and canonizing a special breed of persons as blesseds and saints, (2) we will realize who we really are, that is, saints, as early Christians were known, in varying degrees of holiness and perfection in this vale of joy and sorrow.
A note on the condition of the Catholic Church in Kerala (India) is relevant here. After leaving Kerala at the age of in 1957, I came to Kerala after about 50 years, and started living in Kerala, purely by chance, and, I believe, through God’s providence, in our Siddashrams (Centers for Realization). I knew I would return to India from USA but never thought I would be spending most of my time in Kerala. My experience in living in Kerala tells me that, if the universal Catholic Church is 200 years behind times, the Kerala Catholic Church is out of date by at least 300 years. I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor, the Cardinal, in the novel, Brothers Karamazov, of Dostoyevosky, who investigates Christ for his Christian doctrinal orthodoxy. I also wonder about the sentiments of Changapuzha required to study his own poems for the degree program in the University of Travancore! Besides, the Kerala Church, while it is fully capable of financially taking care of itself, has become a beggar church that looks for financial hand-outs from Europe, America, and Australia. Kerala Catholics would spend their money on pompous weddings, celebrations, new church buildings, and unnecessary English education schools in competition of one parish, community, or family outdoing another in the vicinity. I do not think bishops in the US are eager to receive bishops or priests from Kerala knowing their proclivity for fund-raising. I often wonder why Christ, the author of creation and all wealth, did not come to this world with money bags to help the poor and the destitute! That in no uncertain terms tells me that we need to do only what we can in any given circumstance – no more, no less – to help the poor and the disadvantaged. God does not expect anything more. So let us celebrate life wherever we are. The glory of this world is passing. It is nothing compared to the glory that is to come. And that glory of God is nothing but the glory of human alive here and hereafter in communion with God.
Father John K. Thekkedam (also known as Swami Dr. Snehananda Jyoti) / October 3, 2012.