In anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s attempt to reform Roman Catholicism, I am happy to announce the publication of

Christianity 2017

Reflections on the Protestant Reformation

by Tony Equale

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On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The Declaration summarized and officially sanctioned the many reports of earlier dialogue commissions going back to 1972. In the Preamble the signers state that

on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.[1]

Given the centuries of division that resulted from the mutual condemnations of these two Churches on this very doctrine, that the signatories can announce “a common understanding” leaves many observers baffled and incredulous. If the Churches can now say that “in the light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner”[2] it immediately raises the question of just exactly how important could those once contrary expressions have been?

One is daunted by the thought of parsing the verbal niceties that must have gone into this “consensus” when one also learns that “these condemnations are still valid today.”[3] Apparently this most remarkable concurrence has been achieved without any significant modification by either party.

The correct articulation of the function of faith in justification was of primary dogmatic importance to both Churches in the sixteenth century. If that function was indeed never really a source of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration states, then it has to be asked: besides the dispersal of political power, did anything of significance occur in the transformations we call the Reformation?

In the reflections that follow, the “com­mon understanding” of 1999 must serve as an ever-present caveat, providing us with an ongoing corrective as we reflect on the events that tore Christendom apart starting in 1517. For, however authentically “evangelical” a Reformation event might appear to his­tory, we will be constantly reminded by the JDDJ that in five hundred years time it will be dismissed as irrelevant.

This preliminary analysis, therefore, allows us to begin with a tentative conclusion: the true significance of the Reformation might not lie on the visible surface but somewhere deep underground where neither Church could see it at the time … and still may not. It asks a second question: what still needs reforming?

This is much more than a pious resolution. It has to do with religious truth. We are talking about an alleged foundational distortion in the mediaeval view of the world — an error that made life unbearable for the ordinary Christian — that Lutheran evangelical “justification” claimed to have identified and corrected. But, since the doctrine was never in dispute, it means that no such correction ever took place. Reform at the doctrinal level, in other words, never occurred. In all likelihood the error is with us still, affecting “Protestants” as much as “Catholics.”

It suggests there is a doctrinal “reform” of Christianity as a whole that still remains to be achieved — a reform at depths that “justification” never reached.

Christianity was chosen and overhauled by Constantine to be a new engine for a theocratic Roman machine that was already a thousand years old. Everything important was already in place; all Christianity had to do was to keep it all going. In fulfilling that role Rome’s official religion found it necessary to elaborate a new “doctrine” of “God” that was contrary if not contradictory to the Jewish Yahweh that Jesus knew as “Father.” It is this doctrine, I contend, conformed to the needs of the Imperial apparatus that dares to define a “God” that is transcendent, immutable — a pure spirit ruling a purely material universe — in every sense an emperor that mirrored the society that had conjured him.

This imperial “God,” accepted by all without question from then on, lay beyond reach of “justification by faith,” articulated by Luther in the sixteenth century. Like “justification” itself, “God” is a doctrine that all Christians have shared since the days of Augustine.

I submit for the readers’ evaluation the following reflections as prima facie evidence that the traditional “doctrine of ‘God,’” is the source of Christianity’s intrinsic defects.

[1] JDDJ, Preamble, #5 The document can be found at the Vatican website

[2] ibid., main text #3 ¶13

[3] JDDJ, Preamble #1

 

Christianity 2017 will be available shortly at Amazon and other booksellers.  Until then it can be ordered at Boundary Rock Publishers, 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380, or at Lulu.com.  The price is $23.53 which, if you order from Boundary Rock, includes shipping.  You may order by e-mail at the following address: boundaryrockpublishers@swva.net or you may call: (540) 789-7098.  Please leave a name, address and phone number, and speak slowly and loudly.

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Spinning Your Wheels

“Spinning Your Wheels”the image evokes futility: activity without movement, work without result, redundancy, frustration and a measure of myopia. All the moral issues that the Pope’s “Exhortation” Amoris Laetitia addresses have already been settled by the people.

The absence of any mention of contraception suggests that the Pope may not be unaware of that. Artificial contraception has not only been recognized as morally acceptable by the people, it has been heartily embraced as essential to reproductive responsibility. The people decided long ago to stop listening to their teachers in this matter and their behav­ior directly contradicts what the hierarchy commands. The Pope’s silence on this is most welcome.

On the question of divorce and remarriage, not only have the people opted for the freedom to dissolve dysfunctional marriages, but the hierarchical Church itself at the local diocesan level has for over forty years pursued a policy of expanding the category of annulment to include virtually all the circumstances that used to characterize divorce. Failure to acknowledge the complicity of the Church in the granting of divorce in practice as annulment tends to confirm the suspicion that there is a selective blindness in play here.

On the issue of gay marriage, after a great deal of debate the majority of Americans have decided that a committed relationship between partners who are drawn to physical union with those of the same sex, should be considered valid and respected by society.   Same sex marriage is supported by Catholics in the same percentages as by people associated with other religious institutions or no religion.

While many welcome the Pope’s more “liberal” attitudes, others criticize his unwillingness to attempt any structural change in these matters, even though the voice of the people is clear. That leaves tradition in place. Hence the nature of the document is merely an “exhortation.” But who is being exhorted, if the people are already convinced and have decided? The target of the exhortation seems to be the hierarchy itself, the majority of whom are conservatives appointed by the two previous Popes as an element of their strategy to chill the reform-enthusiasm generated by the Second Vatican Council. It is addressed to those clergy who continue to base their pastoral practice on the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage, teachings that the exhortation itself declares will remain unmodified as law.

Therefore, while using the “family” as excuse, the real doctrine that is in question here is the self-projection of the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. A thorough reading of Amoris laetitia reveals that this current Pope is not rejecting in any way the traditional teaching about the infallibility of the Catholic magisterium, the primacy of law and obedience to the teachings of the Church with regard to marriage, and the essential mediatorship of the Church hierarchy in the person of its priests and the rituals they administer in the pursuit of a right relationship to “God.” What the Pope “exhorts” is that the members of the hierarchy who come in direct contact with people, apply traditional unmodified “law” with a modicum of compassion … and in order to do that he asks them to relax the uncompromising rigidity with which compliance has been traditionally enforced.

I say Amoris laetitia is a case of the Pope “spinning his wheels” because on the one hand for the laity the exhortation is pointless, and on the other, the predominantly reactionary hierarchy, having identified themselves not as the heralds of the “good news” of God’s free forgiveness, but rather as the agents of imperial theocracy for the control of the masses, will, at best, simply embrace compassion as a clever way of “attracting” a reluctant laity in preparation for ultimately confronting them with the infallible truth codified in Catholic law. How else is one to interpret the section of Chapter Eight with the heading: “Gradualness in Pastoral Care” where it is clearly stated that irregular unions “can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacra­ment of marriage.”

There is no acknowledgement that the marriages of billions of people around the globe whether Catholic or not are valid, and just as certainly attain the “ends of marriage” as any conjugal union between Christian partners solemnized at a Christian ceremony. Since the Pope insists on defining marriage as having a necessarily ecclesial-mystical significance “as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church,” other natural unions that “attain a particular stabili­ty, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials …” are still regarded as second-rate and the legitimate target for being upgraded into Christian marriage.

These marriages that have proven their value are still treated as sub-standard because the ends of marriage as far as the Pope’s mindset is concerned are not just what is natural and good for people, but also include what expands the control of the institutional Church administered by the self-appointed, unelected hierarchy. And since we know that the marriage contract is validly sealed by the mutual consent of the partners, it is the extraneous ecclesial dimension that has been cemented into Catholic “law” and requires the “witness” of the hierarchical Church.

The “law” remains the tacit premise of virtually every “exhortation to compassion” in the document which in their turn then become “exceptions to the law” not gospel imperatives. There is no acknowledge­ment that the only message the Church should have, following St Paul, is the “good news,” not law, neither old nor new, but rather the announcement of a general amnesty — a pardon of limitless proportions. Therefore the “exhortation” to enforce the law compassionately contradicts the gospel message and ultimately the nature of the Church.

Of course, one might say what it really reveals is the nature of the Church as the document conceives it. Far from humbly admitting that the Church is one groping religious institution among many in a world teeming with sincere people dedicated to live lives of moral integrity and deep gratitude, the document tacitly insinuates the transcendent superiority of the Catholic Church, its peculiar view of things and its rules of conduct over all other traditions and Churches. At no point are people, Catholic or not, encouraged to associate with any other religious organization nor attempt to find human wholeness by following other possibly non-religious programs. The document does not contemplate the possibility that these other traditions, or no traditions, may provide opportunities for spiritual growth for those who for one reason or another find the Catholic or Christian or traditional religious worldview inadequate or incompatible with their own.

“Human” is the key notion. The hierarchical Church assumes the arrogant attitudes that it does because it thinks it is not human, it is divine.   Please stop for a second and let that sink in. The Catholic Church thinks it is a divine entity and enjoys one of the properties that belong to “God” alone: infallibility in matters of religion, which includes faith and morals. Those of us that come from a Catholic background find this statement all too familiar. We have heard it since we were children. The hierarchical Church thinks it is the specially chosen, protected and guaranteed agent of “God” himself and that acceptance of its message and inclusion in its institutional membership with its ritual requirements is the only way to authentically connect with “God.” All other “ways” are inadequate, even those of other Christian Churches who are committed to following Jesus’ message and differ from the Catholic only in the refusal to accept the authority of the Pope.

Now if we could lay the blame for all this at the feet of Jesus, we might feel more forgiving toward the current hierarchs. But, as a matter of fact, even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus was opposed to any such blasphemous arrogance like the claim to be divine, and was notorious for insisting that “law” should not be the guiding category in human behavior.

So the source of the Catholic Church’s outrageous claim to divine status and infallibility was not Jesus. That particular inheritance came from the Roman Empire which had already been a theocracy for a thousand years when Constantine chose Christianity to be his state religion. Christianity was expected to fill the role once played by the now discredited gods who were responsible for victory in battle and therefore for distributing power, wealth and slaves among the people of the world.   Rome had clearly been their favorite. Rome enjoyed divine protection. Diva Roma it was called: “Divine Rome.”

The “divinity” of the Roman Empire and its highest representative was such an axiom that when early Christians refused to acknowledge it they were persecuted with torture and death. In 410 when the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome, Christianity was faced with the accusation that the gods punished Rome for betraying their contract and switching to the Christian God.  Augustine wrote The City of God to prove that Constantine’s new Christian “God” was just as effective at justifying Roman conquest and the ensuing rape and pillage of other nations as “preparing the world for Christianity.” Augustine was convinced that the Roman Empire — regardless of the methods it used — was the agent of “God.” It was still diva Roma.

Roman Christianity — Catholicism — reshaped and fine-tuned by Constantine himself for its new role, became the Imperial “Department of State Religion.” It was the handmaiden of the Empire in its work of ruling the world. Catholicism was the religious side of Roman governance, but like the “secular arm” which was its partner, it was always focused on only one thing: crowd control. The soft-side of control was to elicit obedience; when that failed compliance was coerced by the sword. The claim to infallibility was a function of theocracy.

Hence the Church turned from transcending law, as Paul explained it, to promulgating law and finding ways to punish those who did not obey. It was now Rome’s Church. It’s job was to rule the world and it transformed itself from the messenger of a Forgiving Father, to the policeman of a Demanding Emperor.

The document fairly reeks of these assumptions. The Catholic Church needs more than a compassionate Pope who is courageous enough to confront the unmerciful among his fellow bishops. It needs to re-appropriate its own humanity before it dares to talk to others about what it means to be human. A Church that cannot err is not human. And a Church that has erred conspicuously and yet refuses to admit its error, beg forgiveness and display a “firm purpose of amendment” will never be free of the weight of its errors. It is speaking to a world that has moved on and is no longer listening. It will stay stuck in place forever insisting on its divine prerogatives, spinning its wheels.

 

The Church and Reformation

1

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.

2

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.

Tony Equale