Catholic Universalism?

1800 words

I come out of a Catholic background, and based on the ecumenical projections of Vatican II I have tended to be sympathetic to the possibility that an updated Catholicism could provide if not exactly a universal religion, at least a reasonably universalist version of itself and contribute to the humanization of the global community.  Roman Catholicism is, after all, the largest and most prestigious of Christian denominations; a universalist modernization — which would include admitting that its doctrinal narrative was largely metaphorical — would set an example that others would be moved to emulate.  But in recent years I have become firmly convinced that, certainly in the case of Roman Catholicism, and almost as surely in the case of its “reformed” western Christian successors, such an evolution is simply never going to happen.  There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Western Christianity is the quintessential example of a supernatural religion, allegedly revealed by a transcendent humanoid “God,” a Roman Imperial version of the local war god of the ancient Hebrews.  A supernatural religion must necessarily be revealed because its elements have been designed in “another world;” there is no way humans could be expected to discern the features of such a religion on their own, much less feel they could modify it.  Revelation traditionally has also meant a humanoid “God,” that is, a personal “God” who communicates to humankind in human terms and expects a human response.  Such a religion is eternal and changeless from its very foundation.

Western Christianity’s convoluted belief system concerning the origin and significance of sin and the role of Jesus in human redemption based on his allegedly divine personality are firmly in the hands of a hierarchy who are now invested in it as a “brand” identifier — they will never allow it to change.  The con­viction of being the “one true church,” inherited from the ancient Roman theocracy and caste system, pervades all of Christianity but has been most aggressively asserted in the Latin West after the Greek and Latin Churches divided in 1054.  The claim of “divine foundation” is used in the case of Roman Catholicism to sustain the upper-caste hierarchy’s exclusive hold on power.  Anyone who thinks that these ideological guardians will ever allow the source of Christianity’s self-proclaimed superiority to evaporate by acknowledging parity with other religions is delusional.  The entire system of western global dominance, created in the colonial era, is held in place by belief in that superiority.  If  the current leaders of the Christian churches failed to support that myth, there are plenty of others, religious and secular, who would take their place.

The Roman Catholic (Augustinian) version of the Christian story — redemption from Original Sin by the atonement of Christ — by its very nature, demands universal submission to the exclusive saving power of the death of Christ applied to the individual in baptism.  There are no options.  The alternative is eternal damnation.  The story cannot be universalized for it does not acknowledge the possibility of a similar salvific effect coming from anywhere or anyone else.  Universal submission is the opposite of universalism.  For instead of encouraging and strengthening the work of other religious traditions in the same universalist direction, this version of Christianity requires that all other religions must accede to the demand (supposedly of “God” himself) that each of their members submit to Christian baptism.

An alternative Christian narrative of redemption has been offered by the Greek Church claiming to follow the apostle Paul.  In that version Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of a promised universal salvation.  It gives hope to a humankind made desperate and selfish by mortality.  Christ conquers the fear of death and so inspires selflessness.  There is nothing in this interpretation that would prevent any other religion from similarly inspiring hope, helping their believers to conquer the fear of death and living lives of selfless love.  Jesus, in that scenario, is one inspiration among many other potential inspirations.  There is no metaphysical transformation needed to repair a metaphysical deformation created by Adam’s disobedience as is prominent in Augustinian Christianity, nor is there an absurd insulted “God” whose anger is assuaged only by the death of his own son.

Prior to the opening of the Second Vatican Council in the early ‘60’s, Catholic theologians were rediscovering the ancient Greek Fathers and wrote innumerable books highlighting the alternative interpretations found in them.  Those theologians and their discoveries were integral to the vision that produced the Council.  It might be fair to say that the Council was predicated on this rediscovered way of looking at the “Christ event” and the kinds of changes anticipated and encouraged by the Council were not at all unthinkable in the light of this new understanding.

But the Curial establishment did not agree.  The Popes and Vatican Officials responsible for the recalcitrant rejection of the ecumenical spirit in the aftermath of the Council had to have been aware of the theological basis for the more progressive vision, for they accompanied their negative decrees and instructions with a theological document designed to put an end to all discussion about alternative narratives of Christ’s significance.  They called it the “Catholic Catechism.”  It was published by John Paul II in 1992 after years of preparation.  It was meant as a compendium of the faith, and emphatically re-presented the traditional story of “redemption” as it had been concocted by Augustine of Hippo less than a century after Constantine and elaborated by the mediaeval and Tridentine doctors of the Latin Church for the next thousand years.  It obviated recourse to any other narrative.  That Catechism and the systematic appointment of conservative bishops across the globe are enough to preclude even the possibility that the universalist spirit awakened by the Council would survive the death-blow dealt it by the Vatican authorities.  Their intention is clear: ecumenism shall mean only one thing, submission to the Pope and the Roman vision for the world.  This is what the Church teaches.  All you have to do is read the Catholic Catechism.

There is to be no “dialog” because dialog will necessarily change “doctrine.”  Another way of putting it is: Catholic “doctrine” is so hostile to other traditions that it would have to change in significant ways if any mean­ingful conversations are to take place.

Just the Christian claim that Jesus is “God” exactly as the Father is “God” is enough to stop any conversation with non-Christians cold.  It is my belief that as far as universal humanity is concerned, all energies that are focused on the reform of Catholic Christianity are a waste of time.  For no matter what the reformers’ level of influence, and that includes the Pope himself or even an ecumenical council (haven’t we already seen it happen?), whatever “changes” they may be able to install during their lifetimes will be swallowed up in the historical tsunami of Catholic knee-jerk reaction, and eradicated.  The Catholic hierarchy, the heir and symbolic placeholder of the recently overthrown European aristocracy, will never change; therefore the modernization of religion, if it is ever to occur, is in other hands, and that means ours.

Catholic “democracy”?

An acknowledgement of this magnitude, for a Catholic, is a game-changer.  For there has been nothing more defining of “practicing Catholics” than obedience to their religious authorities.   To suddenly declare that those authorities are incapable of guiding people through precisely those changes necessary to make religion relevant to the modern world, is to pronounce the hierarchy unfit to implement the decrees of Vatican II.  The Catholic authorities, over the course of the last 50 years, have enervated the decrees of the Council and attempted to do nothing less than invert its fundamental intentions with regard to ecumenism.  To convict the Catholic hierarchy of insuperable resistance to the commands of an ecumenical council, is to deny that they any longer exercise legitimate authority over the Church.

They have abdicated their responsibility.  In doing so they have simultaneously robbed obedience of its significance and gospel power.  Obedience in the Church, as in the military, correlates with authority to theoretically guarantee unity of purpose and coordination of collective action.  Without legitimate authority, there is no legitimate obedience.  Concerted action, guaranteed to be gospel-inspired, is no longer a real possibility.  We know that to obey what the bishops are commanding us at this point in time is in gospel terms to be led astray, and responsible Christians universally have opted to select among the instructions of the hierarchy what they believe to be authentic Christian belief and practice.  Picking and choosing means the people have begun to fill in the gaps left by the bishops’ abdication of gospel leadership.   The people are already making auto­nomous choices inspired by (1) their own understanding of Jesus’ message disregarding that of the bishops and (2) relying on their own discernment of the needs of the people in our world.  In other words, laypeople, without explicitly intending it, have begun to exercise gospel authority in the Church.

This development is fortuitous if not providential, and cannot be allowed to wither and die.  It represents an evolution of major significance.  It must be encouraged and expanded as the point of the lance bringing a long overdue democracy into the last bastion of the ancien regime: the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has 1.2 billion “members.”  It is an unmitigated autocracy / oligarchy and as it is currently governed stands in direct contradiction to the principles of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries that installed republican forms of government across the globe.  While hardly utopia, these republics are a great step forward.  Such meager democracy as we now enjoy is prevented from being swallowed up by a money-based ruling class only by the constitutional protections that these republics provide.  That the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has resisted those changes historically, and  as we speak refuses to incorporate even a modicum of democratic participation in the exercise of gospel oversight and responsibility, confirms the conclusions of this analysis.  The hierarchical abdication of gospel responsibility has effectively left the Church, as a gospel community, in a state of anarchy.  The hierarchy’s claims for an unbroken episcopal succession of divinely conferred authority is not only pure fable, it is contrary to gospel values and Jesus’ explicit instructions about the exercise of authority.  There is absolutely nothing in Jesus’ message and chosen mission that would condone or tolerate the way authority is currently exercised in the church.

This second phase of our reflections on modernization, as far as Catholics are concerned, has helped answer the dilemmas unearthed the first.  For Catholics, reform is not only necessary, it has suddenly become possible because the hierarchy — in fact — has stepped aside.  The people have assumed the mantle of authority abdicated by the hierarchy, and from now on any appeal for reform has to be made to the people.  The future of religion is in their hands; it will be what they make it.


Religion in the Modern World

1,657 words

Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.