Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.
— G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Eminent American historian and Catholic thinker Garry Wills begins his latest book by observing “Pope Francis heartens some Catholics, but frightens others — both of them for the same reason, the prospect of change.” He quotes Francis that: “To be faithful, to be creative, we need to be able to change.” The notion of a perfect church based on institutional and doctrinal “immutability” may be of comfort to conservatives but is an illusion that ignores the actual history of a Catholic church that has changed early and often.
Understood in a catholic sense, evangelically and inclusively, the church as “the People of God” is in constant historical evolution guided by the Spirit and the sensus fidei. Indeed, Pope Francis goes so far as to write in The Church of Mercy (2014) that: “In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the pope is proposing to rebel against his own office and position. Rather, argues Wills, Francis should be regarded like John XXIII as a mover and facilitator, encouraging and setting in motion a deep renewal involving both the hierarchy and the laity as a whole.
Wills then examines in detail five major aspects of church teaching and practice which have experienced a marked “coming and going” over the two millennia since the foundational life of Jesus.
The first is that of Latin as the “universal eternal language . . . of a universal eternal church.” In fact Latin was a later addition and never a universal language. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek, then the main language of the Roman Empire. But when the church became an established power with its leadership asserting sacred authority, the static “dead” language of Latin was useful as, in effect, the exclusionary dogmatic code befitting an exalted clerical caste who alone could properly interpret Scripture. The Bible was not to be trusted to the vulgar lingua franca of the common people. That could not last. Although the printing press and Protestantism had destroyed any Latin monopoly centuries ago, Catholicism saw ultimately futile reactions against “modernism” up to Vatican II when the vernacular was allowed and a Pentecostal spirit prevailed to spread the “Good News” to all in their own tongues.
Wills’ second section takes on the coming and going of “monarchy.” How is it that a persecuted minority church of martyrs became an enormous structure of imperial power? The earliest church had no priests or hierarchy. Some of its adherents appeared to seek martyrdom; there were aspects of an eschatological death cult. All that changed when Christianity became the established religion under the fourth century Emperor Constantine. Martyrology was still celebrated but the pious found new forms of zeal in the form of asceticism, self-denial (including virginity), and penitential practices as in the monastic orders which began to flourish. During these centuries most church activity and conciliar gatherings (e.g. Nicea) took place in the eastern empire closer to Constantinople than to Rome. Although the Apostles Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome, the city had no bishop until the second century and the (much-disputed) primacy of Peter was first asserted in the third century. The many blanks in the Roman apostolic succession were filled in with fictional papal histories and a fraudulent “Donation of Constantine” (concocted in the eighth century). It took over a millennium for the Roman pontiff to assert, as “vicar of Christ,” a divine right to rule over the whole world. Of course, like the divine right of kings, such claims of maximal papal power have been renounced long ago. Still, into the 20th century the church was fighting rearguard actions against religious pluralism, liberal democracy and civil rights. Old habits of authority can be hard to break.
A third section delves into the shamefully long history of anti-Semitism which Wills describes as a “tragic absurdity” given that Jesus and the Apostles (including Paul who preached the Word to the gentiles) were “observant Jews.” This hostility to a Jewish people blamed for killing Christ was not accidental, as Wills’ lengthy scriptural exegesis shows. A theological “supercessionism” arose in which the new Christian covenant was seen to abolish the old one between God and his chosen people. Jews became the object of fear and loathing (accused of imagined offences up to and including the ritual murder of Christian children), subject to persecutions and massacres. Indeed it took the Holocaust to definitively change attitudes because its “monstrous quality shed a terrible light on all the prior history of ‘Christendom.’ It made Jews too much the victims of a threatening world for us ever to see them again as agents for threatening the world.”
During Vatican II theologians such as Canadian Gregory Baum (a convert from Judaism) played an important role in revising the church’s stance. As Wills puts it: “There could be no better instance of a long course of error followed by the church, corrected at last from the original springs of faith. The church can live because it can learn, correct, and change under God’s direction. We are never more Christian than when going back to Paul, ‘a Jew of Jews.’ ”
The book’s fourth section tackles justification by “natural law.” Male superiority and exclusivity (e.g. for the priesthood and higher church offices) have long been asserted to be the “natural” order of things as ordained by God, with the pope at the apex of such right order. In effect, this arrogated to the papacy the Godlike power to proclaim what is natural law, although it took 19 centuries before the doctrine of papal “infallibility” when speaking ex cathedra was promulgated under the reactionary reign of Pius IX. Another result was to turn the pope into a kind of “sex monitor” over many things that “have nothing to do with the Gospel.” The church hierarchy lost touch with many of the laity by tying itself in knots and convolutions having scant scriptural basis over issues like “artificial” birth control. More seriously, at the same time as women were treated as inferiors in regard to moral decision-making, church authorities neglected, or worse, covered up, instances of grave sexual abuse by the clergy, with devastating consequences for the faith. While Wills doesn’t expect sudden radical reforms, he concludes: “This pope shows by doing. He not only treats women as equals, (he) consults them. . . . The official church has been one of history’s sturdiest bastions of patriarchy. But it seems to be listening again to Paul, and to Jesus, ‘Clothed in Messiah, (you are) no longer ‘male and female.’ ”
A final section reviews the coming and going of “confession,” observing that “the whole idea of a sacrament of penance was the fruit of repeated innovations and drastic alterations” over the course of church history. The practice of private confession only emerged in the eighth century in Irish monastic communities. What eventually became an obligation to periodic secret personal confession to priests holding the exclusive power of absolution lacks any solid scriptural basis. What the gospels do continually emphasize is the “duty of forgiveness.” As Wills says, “Jesus was always ready to forgive.” He doesn’t expect Francis to endorse abandoning a sacrament. Rather, he sees the church coming to a gradual acceptance “that the People of God have moved on. With regard to confession, they have voted with their feet. On the side of mercy. On the pope’s side.”
In a brief but powerfully optimistic epilogue Wills envisages a future “church of surprises,” citing Pope Francis’ 2013 reference to “three simple attitudes: hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy.” Wills notes how Francis has candidly confessed to the errors of authoritarian ways when he was thrust into the position of Jesuit provincial superior during a terrible period of Argentine history. He atoned for that later when as archbishop of Buenos Aires he truly lived the preferential option for the poor in word and deed. Moreover, his formal acceptance of the papacy was strikingly as “a sinner . . . in a spirit of penance.” As Wills sums up: “For Francis, being heir to Peter does not mean sitting on a throne of power but following the penitence of Peter, the sinner. . . . That kind of pope bodes well for the future of the Catholic church.”
Of course positive change needs to happen organically, and it’s not all up to the pope. Wills reminds us that: “Welcoming change does not mean dismissing the past, as if it does not exist. It means reinhabiting it with love, a sensus fidei, a reliance on the People of God.” Every Catholic can benefit from reading this book because every Catholic has a role in moving the church forward.