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.


7 comments on “Catholic Universalism?

  1. Harry G MacVeigh says:

    Tony, again I am not able to find fault in your logic. I have thought the same, well,very similar, for many many years. Very insignificant differences. I read you and think”he is expressing what I have believed for many years,just cannot express my thoughts as clearly. ” I think it may have been M. L. King Jr. Who said “organized religions fear nothing more than Reason. ” I believe that to be true.

    I have felt ostracized by my fellow CSsR brothers (I am no longer an active member) for expressing views,found on logic and reason. Tony, they have been weened on R CC teachings all their lives. I have broken away, conquering falseness with logic and Reason.
    The one thing I find fault with you. You do not define your god who is one with us in panentheistic belief. Do we need a God? Are we not one and the same with It ? Fellow brothers with all that exist in the never ending expanse of Multiverses? Or is it that you do not have the answer. Even that material God may remain unknowlable to us. I love you, Tony. Enjoy the Christmas holidays in contented peace and good health.
    Harry MacVeigh

    • tonyequale says:

      Harry, hi!

      It’s always good to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your struggles. I’m sorry you feel ostracized by your brothers. The very fact that you call them brothers makes me think that those feelings are more superficial than your discussions with them may make it appear. I suspect that the deep passion and commitment to ultimate truth that you all have shared from the time you were very young is something that still characterizes your brotherhood. It’s the tie that binds. But it is also something easily lost to sight in the fog of war.

      On my attempt to identify (i.e., “point to” rather than “define”) “God” … In the post before this titled “Religion in the Modern World” dated Dec 17th I say

      “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.

      Then, if you look at my long blogpost called “The Big Picture” posted Nov 17th of this year, the entire section 4 is dedicated to elaborating the encounter / experience that a modern seeker might find corresponds to what in our tradition people have called “God.”

      Thank you for your well wishes. Your brother who shares your passion for truth wishes you the same in return.


      • Noel McMaster says:

        Hello, Tony. There is much I appreciate in what you write. To me it is somewhat from the “high road” where you meet (dismiss) the hierarchs and their entourages. There have been, though, I’m sure you will agree, detours or diversions from the high road in the long history of religion,(or ‘faith’) e.g., within Christianity, those would-be liberating excursions led by Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff and Juan Luis Segundo.These have been gravelly sections, with not a few corrugations that always unsettle.

        Over time I have refined my ‘high road’ take on this, as something of a theodicy, thus:

        Mind/Order/Theory/Singularity … in our phenomenal world can arguably point to One who is a Communicator-of-Self. This One, true to a timeless Redundancy, owns Meaning as it appears within the universal dialectic of entropy and negentropy. Adjudging ourselves to be Communicants now of this Communicating Self we interpret our own complex human agency and there, even in the face of evil, can plausibly encounter true Wisdom and the manifestation of true Freedom.

        Of the many notions there that have to be teased out, philosophically, scientifically, I take the anthropological one and the low road signpost suggested by the word ‘adjudging’. I use it in continuation with the pervading notion of faith, even in theodicy, but in my context it evokes anthropological faith: the way we wager on what we regard as worthwhile, whether as scientists, philosophers, and, of course, anthropologists. We all have to live with that ‘in the end’ question:, what will be verified as the way we ought to have proceeded in life, always learning from worthwhile exemplars as we travelled?.

        To Harry, integral to my theodicy are the threesome, Meaning, Wisdom and Freedom, all, as I said to be teased out, but suggestive of trinity.

        Noel McMaster, also C.Ss.R. in Australia.

  2. tonyequale says:


    As usual I am grateful for your thoughtful contributions and for the sense of brotherhood that gets communicated along with them. Communication is as intriguing a phenomenon as we encounter in this material universe, and serves well as a perch from which to view the mystery of it all.


  3. saluman73 says:

    Tony, Harry, and Noel, I have been too busy celebrating the holidays, and unfortunately, mourning the disaster of American politics. Today, Jan. 2, 2017, I delight in reading the magnificent words
    of Tony Equale from December 21, 2016. It is a challenge to hear you speak so absolutely and so clearly that we have a responsibility, all of us who love the Jew Jesus, to cling to his gospel of Good News , and do all in our power to help the entire human race to understand the teachings on communitarianism that he died for.
    Harry, I love Tony’s reply to you in which he re-states the marvelous treatise on “God” which he has drawn up for us over the last few months. Please reread everything Tony says. We will get nowhere with our pursuit of truth and reason without some consensus on “God.” “God” (Jesus’ “Our Father”) must be the notion that unites us all, not what divides us all, as has been the case since the dawn of homo sapiens. I quote from “Confessions of a Born Again Pagan” by Kronman:
    “A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”
    You have been a card carrying humanist for fifty years, so listen to a fellow humanist.
    Sal Umana

  4. Alexander Campbell says:

    Hi, Tony:
    I am a “former” Oblate (OMI) priest, ordained by Archbishop Denis Hurley OMI of Durban, South Africa, in 1969. I petitioned Pope Paul VI and was granted my “reduction to the lay state” so as to be married in 1978. For a number of years I worked for the Oblates at the Galilee Mission Centre in Arnprior, Ontario. About twenty years ago, for a num er of reasons, I began to be very disillusioned with the RC church and eventually stopped participating at Eucharist and moved towards the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Ottawa., where I am presently a Lay Chaplain.
    I agree that there will never be a Catholic Universalism. But I believe strongly that there IS a Christian Unitarianism. Indeed I call myself a Christian-Unitarian and gave a sermon on this topic (The Hyphenated Unitarian) a few months ago. I’ll send you a copy if you are interested. I find that much of what you have said in this blog speaks to me of Unitarian Universalism. I’d be interested in your comments!!

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