If we are to avoid the “slippery slope” that we were warned about, we have to realize that retaining obsolete doctrine redefined as “metaphor” is risky business. Even expressions of moral endeavor and spiritual aspiration should be explicitly based on the new understanding of doctrine that metaphor is intended to elicit. Without such explicitation, the practice in question will itself, out of sheer inertia, evoke and reinforce the traditional doctrinal ground in which those expressions have been rooted for centuries. Current Catholic “spiritual” writers like the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who absolve themselves of responsibility for challenging dogma, continue to support the doctrines that their writings otherwise seem to ignore. For in fact the spiritual practices they encourage have been historically inspired by those archaic doctrines even if now they are not being called on for that purpose. Certainly the divinity of Christ as traditionally understood is the principal one. These writers do not specify another ground. The doctrinal base remains the same and tends to reproduce the same literalist results.
A familiar example of this process is the skewed emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It has been taken by Catholics in such a literal sense for centuries that prior to Vatican II Catholics actually worshipped the eucharistic bread as if it were physically “God” himself. Flat out adoration in a ceremony called “Benediction” and attempts at interpersonal contact encouraged by all-night vigils before the “Blessed Sacrament” were encouraged and served to emphasize the divine presence in the eucharistic bread and the vital role of the priest-magician who made it all happen; it was an interconnected group of literalist beliefs that had displaced the symbolic nature of the sacrament and the “public servant” role of the presbyter. It became the very centerpiece of Catholic prayer life. The emphasis in that direction was so great that the egalitarian nature of the eucharist as the symbol of the “body of Christ” — which is the Christian community — or as a symbolic representation of the memorial meal celebrated by Jesus with his friends on the night before he died, was totally eclipsed. Ritual acts like genuflecting at the consecration, raising the host with the ringing of bells, processions with the Sacrament accompanied by hymns, incense and other gestures of adoration are all presently ongoing practices which of their nature tend to evoke the literalist understanding of eucharist and indeed of the central relationship of a divine Christ (and the priest-magician) to the community of Christian believers. The continued use of those ritual practices without an unambiguous clarification of where the doctrinal priorities reside promotes regression into that obsolete mindset. It is the proverbial “slippery slope.” Those “doctrines” as stated and believed for centuries are simply false, and they will lead believers into blind alleys and dead ends if they are not clarified.
There has to be an integrity between ritual and doctrine, between preaching and practice. Practices that grew out of an erroneous “reification” of symbols will continue to evoke that distortion and draw the practitioner into it. It is not avoidable. Integrating ritual and doctrine sometimes means adjusting the ritual to reflect the doctrinal narrative, but at other times it will require changing the doctrine to conform to an established practice of known and undisputed value — like treating other religions as equals. In the case we are considering here recognition of the validity of other religions trumps the dogma of the literal theist divinity ascribed to Christ. Doctrine must adjust to “truth” discovered by other means. If religion is to grow and develop there is no other way; the refusal to allow that process to take place leaves religion lifeless, hardened and toxic to the humanity of those it touches.
Changes in the Catholic “mass” applying the reforms of Vatican II utilized both these approaches. The intention was clear: the new rite and narrative of the eucharist as symbol was expected to eventually displace the old even while avoiding any direct doctrinal contradiction. Many are now convinced that these minor modifications were not enough to overcome the inertia of centuries, and indeed it seems that even after 50 years the doctrine of the “Real Presence” is as firmly in place as ever, but of course the rituals of adoration have not been abandoned either.
Such a neat and minimally controversial package, however, cannot be expected in all cases. The more difficult issues like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin have up til now been avoided precisely because they will require a substantial modification that corresponds to the radical shift in worldview that has occurred over the last few centuries, due mainly to the discoveries of modern science. The very concept of a theist “God” has been impacted by these discoveries. Progress in these areas is impossible without public acknowledgement and repudiation of the offending doctrines.
Also, there are other issues that aggravate matters from a different angle. Changes in moral perception and practice in the sexual arena will require a radical reformulation of the traditional doctrinal underpinnings used to support them. Blanket condemnations of artificial birth control, homosexuality, and the continued insistence on maleness and celibacy as the conditions for positions of responsibility in the Church are another interlocked set of practices that will never change without confronting the doctrinal roots of the problem. Refusing to confront these doctrinal foundations means addictive knee-jerk attachment to traditional behavior will upend rationality — and the tail will wag the dog.
The kind of doctrinal reformulation required in these areas is extremely threatening for the Roman Catholic Church precisely because all its doctrines, creedal and moral, are ultimately grounded in the infallibility supposedly granted its magisterium by the “divinity” of its founder. Change is theoretically precluded because it would imply error, and an infallible magisterium cannot be in error or the very claim to divine foundation is eviscerated. Doctrine must not only integrate with ritual, morality and prayer, but it is a collection of elements that must be consistent with itself. It is an internally harmonious network of conceptually separable beliefs expressed as a single coherent narrative. It is the coherence of the whole — a coherence sculpted and forged over centuries of tradition — that welds the totality together into a single entity making change in one area virtually inconceivable without change in all.
These diatribes and denunciations reflect the frustration of the Catholic people; but in and of themselves they do not solve the problem. It is precisely the unwillingness of the Authorities to face the depth of change required that has driven so many out of the Church. For people have come to realize two things: (1) that the doctrinal complex as we have inherited it from the middle ages is totally dysfunctional in every category of valid Christian interest: the gospel message, the place of scripture, the role of theology, the evolution of morality and spirituality and especially in the failure to connect with science, and (2) that the Catholic Church Authorities continue to promote as literal the very doctrines, like the infallibility of the magisterium strictly constructed, that make any accomodation impossible. Under these circumstances there is nothing that would even remotely suggest that the Catholic Church will change at the depth required by the extent of the anomalies.
Catholics complain, and they are right to complain, but they do not seem to understand that they are not trapped; the doctrines that they rail against are, in fact, chimeras. They are false. That means that no one is under any obligation to “save the words” of the doctrines — not even as metaphors. To the contrary, unless accompanied by unambiguous clarifications, the use of metaphor can serve as an excuse for not breaking out into the new understanding of Christianity to which we are being prodded by, among other things, our self-revealing dialog with other traditions. Catholics rail against the control of the magisterium, but they continue to look exclusively to the magisterium for the changes they want as if their abdication of creedal responsibility were somehow a guarantee of truth. But we already know from the patently false doctrines that the Catholic magisterium has declared to be infallibly true that such a guarantee is the greatest of illusions. Catholics have been brainwashed into thinking that all change must come from the hierarchy. They have to get over it. The hierarchical Catholic Church will never change. Therefore, Catholics have no choice but to live the changes in their own lives by courageously taking the steps that the hierarchy is incapable of: (1) reformulating the entire doctrinal magisterium with an end to derogating the doctrines that have been used to crassly establish the institutional Catholic Church as a theocratic ruler over the beliefs, morals and spirituality of all people; (2) redesigning the central rituals — baptism, the eucharist, ordination, etc., — to reflect and to deepen the new understanding of doctrine; (3) institutionalize these changes so they they can transcend this generation and be carried on into the future.
I recognize the radical nature of such an undertaking. But there is no alternative. Change at the depth required will never even be attempted much less carried out faithfully by the hierarchy. If it is to take place at all the people have to do it.
This will be a difficult and scary step, just as it was for the Reformers of the sixteenth century. But they had an advantage: their sense of “the Church” was not overwhelmed with a false belief in the infallibility of the Papacy. Papalism had not become the idolatrous expropriation of authority that we have today. The preparatory step for us, therefore, is the re-appropriation of the ancient egalitarian definition of “Church:” the whole Christian people managed by Councils. The fear and reticence induced in the Christian people by the expropriations of an elite hierarchy must be exorcized. But perhaps an even earlier and more remote preparation might be found in the choices to pursue a new spirituality based on the doctrinal changes projected under the rubric of “metaphor” and already underway. Confronting the “divinity of Christ” has got to be at the top of the list.
“We are ALL his children”
These radical changes — like grounding spirituality in the humanity rather than the “divinity” of Christ … like embracing Jesus’ gospel message of forgiveness rather than the codified rationalized morality of mediaeval scholasticism — mean stepping out beyond the ancient paths worn smooth by our ancestors’ feet as they searched for the face of “God.” It is definitely a frightening decision for us. Especially because at one point those very paths led many of us to a vision of things that changed our lives. Our commitments were not made lightly but they were based on the very same doctrinal foundations whose literal truth we have come to recognize is false. The same conscientious analysis that grounds the validity of other traditions, has undermined the security of our own past personal decisions. How can we be sure the new things we are discovering will be firm enough to support our weight as we step out into what appears to be a void?
Poet-activist Patrick Overton wrote:
When we walk to the edge of all the light we have
and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,
we must believe that one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for us to stand on
or we will be taught to fly.
The faint light that has enticed us into taking the first steps into the darkness in this new phase of the journey — the scariest yet by far — can be trusted to continue to lead us to the place of promise … and we need to remind ourselves: we are the children of promise. We have remained together as a community because we responded to that promise.
Can we trust this organic material LIFE that we now bear with such a sense of ownership and right of inheritance? Like children in our own home: we know we belong here. That is solid ground. How could such magnificence — this improbable humanity emerging from this universe of matter whose potential was so beautifully epitomized by the message and character of the man Jesus — be the harbinger of ultimate disaster? LIFE and its processes can be trusted; and as the sons and daughters of LIFE we have a right to seek “God,” the Source
… that gave us life and breath and everything, and that made every nation of mankind to live across the face of the earth, establishing the periods of their ascendancy and the boundaries of their lands
so that they might seek and, by feeling their way, succeed in finding “God,” their Source; and indeed “God” is not far from any of us, since it is in “God” that we live, and move, and have our being, as some of your own writers have said: We are all “God’s” children. (Acts 17:25ff)