The reforming intentions of Conciliarism in the fifteenth century were severely challenged by one of the fundamental issues that was in contention at the time of the Reformation: the nature of the Church. How the following century’s triumphant movement for reform could have divided Europe the way it did will forever remain a mystery until it is understood that for mediaeval Christians, the Church — which included the entire population of Europe — was not an ordinary social entity; it was unique, a divine institution established by Christ himself, which bore only a superficial similarity to other societies. The “divinity” of the Church raised discourse to a supernatural level where all the natural factors of the political equation — power, office, decision-making, command and control, obedience, election, remuneration, crime and punishment, membership, expulsion — took on a new meaning and were no longer subject to the same criteria as in secular societies.
The sixteenth century reformers’ efforts to identify and eliminate the source of Christianity’s resistance to reform resulted in the de-mystification of the Church as a divine entity. For no one knew how to change what was unchangeable, indestructible, infallible, and eminently holy in head and members: the “Mystical Body,” the “Bride of Christ,” the “dwelling place of the Holy Spirit” whose decisions to “bind and loose” bound heaven itself. The Church was virtually a fourth divine person. In order for the Church to change, it would have to cease being “God.” Those who came to be known as “Protestants” quickly realized what they had to deal with.
The “divinity” of the Church was key to the whole affair; it was the ring of power and I insist that it still is. Those who were seriously committed to reform found they had to abandon any pretensions to divinity and treat themselves and their assemblies as human, not divine. And for those others, i.e., the papal Catholics who refused to let it go, it proved to be a millstone collar, crippling every effort at reform and reconciliation. To this day the “divine establishment” of the Church remains the principal claim of the Roman Catholic sect and the single most impenetrable shield protecting papal autocratic absolutism.
We tend to identify this “divine establishment” with Papal Infallibility, but it is much broader than that. It is a property of the Church itself. The conciliarists who challenged Papal power a hundred years before the Reformation did so by grounding “divine infallibility” in the universal community and in Ecumenical Councils as its representative agent, not the person of the pope. But far from questioning the divine status of the Church, it was its very divinity and infallibility — now considered resident in the whole people — that they said defied the popes’ arrogant claims to absolute power. No matter what their perspective, conciliarist and papalists alike, no one questioned the divinity of the Church.
The divine establishment of the Church implying its infallibility and the immutability of its doctrines, definitions, rituals and hierarchical structures remains to this day the single most important datum for those who would understand — root and branch — the current state of conflict in the Catholic Church over the implementation of Vatican II. Doctrinally speaking the issue of the “divinity” of the Church is fundamentally the same for Catholics today as it was in the sixteenth century, the only difference — and it is an important one — is that “divine” infallibility, in glaring contrast with the truly ancient conciliar tradition, has come to be invested in the pope alone. The Conciliar movement of the fifteenth century attempted to restore and protect the ancient tradition of governance by Councils, and for a time it actually succeeded. But the effort ultimately collapsed, and its failure was one of the principal reasons why a reformation, which all mediaeval Christians acknowledged was long overdue, rather than rejuvenating the Church as reforms had done in the past, ended up breaking it apart.
That in our day Catholics are experiencing something of the same divisiveness attributable to the same causes — a hierarchical recalcitrance born of self-mystification — should help us understand what was happening at the time of the Reformation. For, fundamentally, nothing has changed. Catholics today face exactly the same obstacles as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. Current day conservative Protestants, having made peace with Augustine’s “God” through mechanisms developed in the sixteenth century, are now some of the most ardent defenders of doctrinal immutability.
Mediaeval Catholic reformers — later known as “Protestants” — in an effort to prevent the “divine” element in the Church from quashing reform, tended to distinguish the “true Church,” which they claimed was the invisible community of the saved, from the visible earthly institution which, according to the parable of the tares and the wheat in Mt 13, was made up of both the saved and the damned, the holy and the unholy. This “two church” notion came straight from Augustine’s City of God, books 20 -22.
For Augustine, this notion of an invisible true Church dovetailed with his theory about divine predestination. The invisible community of the saved had been preordained by “God” from all eternity to live in his presence forever. It was supremely egalitarian. Status and station on earth (like priests or nobles) did not matter, all were equally destined for the embrace of God’s love. This eternal Church was unchangeable, because God’s will would always be carried out, while the visible temporary Church of popes and bishops, Inquisitors and heretics, priests and layfolk, saints and sinners, was human and could be changed as all agreed it should be because it had become thoroughly corrupt. In fact, it was precisely because the earthly Church was so vulnerable to the influence of the world that it had become the venal institution that all of Christendom cried to heaven to change. Reform was possible for the same reason that corruption had occurred: the Church-in-the-world was a human gathering that had accumulated all kinds of structures, beliefs, habits and practices that did not owe their origins to divine foundation as seen in scripture. The “protestants” took Augustine’s distinction to its logical conclusion: This Church was not immutable, indestructible, infallible. Its claims to be one holy catholic and apostolic were a ruse to protect papal and hierarchical power. It was as human as any other institution and therefore subject to the norms of justice and truth (and scripture) and by those standards it must change or be condemned.
Needless to say, other mediaeval Christians disagreed. They came to be known later as “Roman Catholics” and identified with the claims of papal autocracy. Christians were divided between two parties: those in favor of reform were willing to radically alter the structures of Church life and authority, and those who claimed that all the prerogatives of the Church found in the promises of Jesus belonged to the real visible Church-in-the-world as it was with all its “imperfections.” Thus, for them, authority structures could not be changed or substituted for others; doctrine was infallibly true as stated and believed; discipline and obedience were due to the constituted authority no matter what the level of immorality they displayed. The Church was immutable because it was “divine,” and being good or evil had nothing to do with it.
This “Catholic” position recapitulated the status priorities and definition of “Church” developed in conjunction with the doctrine of the ex opere operato effect of the sacraments that had emerged from the Donatist controversy in the fifth century; it was another of Augustine’s elaborations. So, since both parties, the “reformers” and the “papalists,” had Augustine to fall back on, his authority could not be cited to resolve the question. Reconciliation and unity eluded the age. The inability to achieve unity eventually meant that where people ended up had to do with the politics of the region where they lived. What was convenient for the ruler — whether it was more advantageous for a King or Duke to ally with the Pope or to escape his control — was usually what determined what kind of “Church” was protected and permitted to function in their realm.
For both Protestants and Catholics, the Church was “divine.” By projecting its divinity into a future “communion of saints” the Protestants demystified the earthly Church and turned it into a strictly human institution, radically capable of reform (or rejection) while simultaneously maintaining the traditional teaching. Catholics, however, (i.e., the “Papal” party) continued to claim it was the earthly Church in the real world that was the residence of the divine prerogatives promised in Matthew 16. No analogous solution was open to them then or now because the “God” they assume and project makes revelations and erects structures that correspond to a truth and an eternal “will” that does not admit change. Everyone believed in that kind of “God.” The Protestants with their emphasis on the “Church of the predestined,” however, were able to avoid its implications for ecclesiastical immutability without having to reject belief in it. It was another instance of the leap-frogging — like Luther’s “faith” — that contributed to the survival of the West’s autogenic disease rooted solidly, even irretrievably you might say, in a metaphysically dualist, supernatural theism. They found a way around a doctrine that needed to be removed, and in so doing contributed to its survival.
From this point of view the very basis for the Catholic vision of the Church is, and always has been, the traditional theist concept of “God” — “Pure Spirit,” anthropomorphic (taking biblical imagery literally), personal, paternal, authoritarian, providential to the most minute detail, issuing commandments and punishing those who do not obey them. It was a “God” made in the image and likeness of a human monarch, the work of human hands. The salient point is that once you drop that untenable concept of “God” in favor of a pan-entheism that is compatible with what our science and other modern disciplines have revealed about reality, it doesn’t matter how “divine” you think the church is, it will not get in the way of its thoroughly human character. The pan-entheist “God” is the material LIFE all things share in this cosmos; it is that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Changes in structure, doctrine, practice and self-projection can occur because what is “divine” about the Church is its full organic humanity.
The traditional theist “God” by definition is “other” than human — transcendent and inaccessible. Divine reality is “spirit,” the only thing that is “fully real” in our universe, and it has nothing in common with all the various “less-than-real” things made of matter. “God’s” interventions in our world are imagined to originate in that other world of “spirit” and to “reveal” a changeless and otherwise unknowable spiritual truth to human material (changing) history obviating any further need for search and discovery.
The notion of a theist “God” produces a log-jam of conceptual incompatibilities: eternity and time, immutability and evolution, the permanent and the passing, the supernatural and the natural … all historically rooted in the Platonic ground of spirit and matter. The “Church,” as one of those revealed truths, becomes permanent and unchangeable. Suddenly, an historically evolving human community becomes an immutable “supernatural” entity.
A pan-entheist vision on the other hand, says that what we are calling “God” is “not-other” than human. The term “God” is a placeholder that stands for that unknown factor that gives rise to our sense of the sacred; it falls into the categories of participation-in-being, immanence, sameness, and shared reality. Paul himself referred to “God” as that “in which we live and move and have our being.” With such a “God” revelation does not mean some new and unknowable conceptual truth introduced from another world, but rather the discovery and thorough comprehension of the hidden depths of this one. The “Church” is one of the historical edifices which we humans have constructed to express and direct the energies released by our sense of the sacredness of LIFE. There is no other world. Nothing is “supernatural.” The Church is a natural human phenomenon — a tool that our “God-sense” has forged to help us live humanly — and that is precisely the source of its “divinity.” The Church is “divine” to the degree that it is creatively human as an integral part of a sacred material universe. And of course … it is open to development, and reform.
Notice that the difference in these visions does not turn on whether the earthly Church is “divine” or not, but whether “divinity” refers to an eternally changeless humanoid “person” who manages the universe minute by minute from a world apart from this one and stands in relation to humankind as a transcendent inaccessible source of revealed truth, behavioral obligations and the post-mortem recovery of a “lost immortality.” I contend there is no such entity, and therefore those relational items do not exist.
If you lock yourself into that traditional pre-scientific definition of “God,” you are stuck with the “Catholic” version of a permanent changeless and infallible Church … unless you tack on innumerable gratuitous nuances in the form of disclaimers, riders and amendments to the immediate implications of an institution founded and managed by “God” himself. Contrariwise, once you allow that there is no opposition between what humankind is and what “God” is — that they share a fundamental reality — the “divinity” of the Church is no longer an obstacle to its reform and restructuring, for it is authentic response to our sense of the sacred and its creative development that is the principal characteristic of the divine LIFE that all things share, not an other-worldly changelessness.
To the objection that this would basically erase any difference between the Church and every other social institution, I answer that other social institutions which are not intentional mutual-support communities whose only explicit purpose is the full flowering of our sense of the sacred, achieved through the use of poetry: in drama, dance, art, architecture, song and story and expressed in a life of justice and love, are not churches. Those that do those things fulfill that role, whatever they may call themselves. “Churches” in this ideal sense, are communities dedicated to a constant creative self-renewal driven by their own enhanced sense of the sacred without being seduced into narcissistic self-worship by exclusivist delusions of superiority. They are eager to recognize the “divine” in other communities and traditions which are attempting to accomplish the same goals. Protestant and Catholic disappear. These churches display an ecumenical character that is one of the sure signs of the “divine” energy pulsing at their core.