|Musings from the Christian Left
by Michael Bindner
Rebuilding the Body of Christ
The first step in rebuilding the badly fractured Body of Christ is to confront the question of whether personal salvation from sin is sufficient to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. My impression of both the Traditionalist Catholic and Evangelical Protestant branches of the Christian Right are that they answer yes, although the Evangelicals say that being saved is the key, while many Catholic traditionalists rely on adherence to the Magesterium and the avoidance of sin. The Christian Left takes a different view. While personal salvation is an essential first step, as is the avoidance of sin, to stop at one's personal salvation is self centered, and is not worthy of people who call themselves children of God. Many moral people will be surprised on judgement day if they stop at mere personal salvation. The essential response to the message of Jesus is to take up his work, his cross, and begin to follow in his footsteps. The way I see it, the cross has a double meaning. The traditional meaning is that the Christian must die to sin and undergo self-mortification. This meaning misses a whole dimension of discipleship, building his Church and serving the least of Jesus brethren. Jesus was known to be a carpenter. When he first commanded his followers to take up the cross, they heard him in that context, to take up their end of the cross beam and build the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus was on earth, the way he built up the kingdom was to cure the sick, feed the hungry and comfort the oppressed. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he states that those that do not do likewise will find themselves in Hell on the last day, even those who think themselves saved. If Christians everywhere, and indeed non-Christians as well, heed this message, we are well on the way to rebuilding the body of Christ. Putting on Christ involves an openness to his message of service, to other Christians and the world at-large. Jesus said in his last discourse This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another. (John 13:35). Unless the various sects put down self-righteousness and take up love and service, there is no hope for Christian unity. To be born again is to have an openness to our fellows, acceptance of Love, and an end to blame. It is time to stop accusing and start doing the work Jesus commanded in the parable of the last judgement. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me...as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me. (Matthew 25:35-40). When we do these things we create the kingdom on earth (as it is in Heaven).
Part of doing Jesus work is to work for justice for the oppressed, to do charity on a societal level. The Church must teach mercy and forgiveness, rather than focusing on morality as a fetish. Individual moral justice is less of a concern than personal salvation and forgiveness. It is not the Church's place to sit as a judge of morals. It is the Church's role to teach forgiveness, healing and a moral life for happiness in this world as much as the next. To reiterate, faith is all that is needed for salvation, though, forgiving the sins of those who harm us is necessary for forgiveness. All this is for naught without a response of love and works of mercy to fellow Christians and to all of God's children. If we can agree on all of this, we can settle the political and organizational issues.
A good first step is ecclesiastic humility, especially in the Roman church. However the office of bishop evolved, it became perverted into a feudal honor in the Middle Ages. This is contrary to the lesson of Jesus during the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the apostles and demanded that he who would lead must serve. A step in that direction is for Bishops and the Roman Curia to forsake earthly power and wealth and give administration and finance over to a lay deaconate (both male and female, as in the early church). Bishops and priests then stick to teaching and ministry. A church leadership without worldly power more effectively teaches social justice and performs it. It emphasizes that morality is humanizing, that salvation comes from a God who understands what emptiness is, and that doing the work of Jesus is the reason He established His church.
Healing is necessary in a sinful world. Ways are needed to increase reception of both of the healing sacraments: confession and Christian healing. There has been reluctance in recent years to seek the former from a celibate clergy. It is natural to want to take everyday sins and problems to someone who better relates to them. One way to accomplish this is to give the power of absolution to both male and female deacons, as well as male and female priests. In the early church the Agape Meal, which was the forerunner of the Mass, was often led by women. When the Roman culture of misogyny seeped into the newly official church, this practice stopped. It is time to bring it back.
Another example of this misogyny is priestly celibacy. Religious historian Philip Jenkins reported in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the true origin of priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite is not, as many wrongly suppose, the desire to keep control of Church property by making Episcopal heirs illegitimate. Its origin also has nothing to do with the modern justification that the vow of celibacy frees Priests to fully minister to their flocks. He reveals that in the ancient church, priests were required to abstain from sexual intercourse the night before offering Mass. When they began to offer Mass on a daily basis, celibacy became a practical necessity. If this is the case, and I have no doubt that it is, then priestly celibacy is based on what most modern Catholics view as a warped notion of sexuality, particularly sexuality within marriage. If sexuality is a gift from God, which is part of being a whole person, than such a reactionary view of sex has no place in a mature spirituality. As a married person, I find such a view of sexuality in this day and age to be deeply offensive, as well as an insult to my wife. Perhaps the best reason to end priestly celibacy is to dignify marriage, women and sexuality within marriage.
The clerical system currently in place in the Church is a reflection of a feudal system that no longer exists. In the Protestant denominations, the administrative arrangements are more reflexive of democratic structures originating in England and America, which are growing in popularity world-wide. Perhaps the best way to meet the Protestants half way is to adopt a political structure more like theirs.
At the parish level, the people can select a lay deacon-administrator to manage the physical plant, the finances, and the school - all the non-sacramental duties that a pastor performs. There are still priests and a pastor for each parish, but their work is confined to teaching, counseling and celebrating the Sacraments.
At the diocesan level, the deacons elect from their own number a diocesan administrator and meet as a council to decide issues of policy not related to doctrine and celebrating the Sacraments. The diocesan administrator nominates the director of the local Catholic Charities agency, the superintendents of schools and the heads of any church owned hospital and mental health facilities (all of whom are deacons), with the advice and consent of the assembly of deacons. On a national level, there is an assembly of diocesan administrators, who elect a President. They decide issues of national policy, again not related to doctrine.
More democracy is also possible in clerical affairs. The election of the bishop by the local clergy should be final, not advisory to the Holy See, provided three bishops are found to consecrate the bishop-elect. On matters having to do with the personnel, a more collegial structure is appropriate - especially given how the bishops mishandled the recent scandal - mostly by accepting the legal strategy proposed by the lawyers they employed. As much as possible Bishops oversee and teach rather than attempt to control the priests. Diocesan tribunals on such things as discipline and annulments are constituted of both deacons and priests, appointed by the bishop and the deacon-administrator.
On the national level, the National Council of Catholic Bishops is to be strengthened. One way to do so is to create more patriarchs in the western Church. There is nothing doctrinal which prevents this, and everything to recommend it. Patriarchs are needed for both the Latin American and English speaking churches. It seems healthy under ecumenism to have a Patriarch in the Western Church for every continent, rather than on relying on the Bishop of Rome for this role. This eases the reunification of the Catholic and Anglican churches.
Where would this leave Rome? The Roman Patriarch, and his successors, is the first among equals of a Council of Patriarchs. He or she is the symbol of Christian unity, rather than the ruler of the Catholic Church. Where does this leave the Curia? Each member serves his own Patriarch, and the Roman Curia serves Western Europe, not the planet. Hopefully most go to ministry rather than administration. The Pope then rejects the royal power assumed over the centuries. As reported by Gary Willis in his second book, Why I am a Catholic, the Pope was originally the symbol of Peter, rather than the administrative head of the Church. It is sad that what was once a symbol of Christian unity is now a cause for division. By emptying himself of secular power and administrative authority, the Pope again becomes that symbol of Christian unity that Jesus intended. Such a symbol ends the current sectarianism that runs so counter to what Jesus commanded, allowing the Church to fulfill the mission of service Christ set out for it.
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