The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition

(A shortened version of this article appeared in The Washington Post 061411: People who came of age in the past forty years have known only one version of the Roman Catholic Church—a version of an iron-fisted ideology that first a Polish pope and then a German pope have enforced in the process of condemning liberation theology, creation spirituality, women, gays, the “secular world,” and much more.  Not only all bishop-making has accrued to the Vatican headquarters but also all teaching, calling itself the only “magisterium” or teaching arm of the church to whom all must kneel or get out.  Since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as Catholic historian Lord Acton observed on hearing of the declaration of Papal Infallibility in the nineteenth century, we have also seen of late immense corruption in the way the hierarchy has and has not responded to pedophile clergy and in the way it has denounced theologians and others who bring ideas to an age-old tradition.

But looking at the long and varied history of the church one gets a different impression.  Diversity and pitched battles abound before the time of instantaneous heresy hunting made possible by faxes, phones and emails changed the rules of the game.  Back when it took mail weeks and months to go back and forth by horseback and river boat, much gestated that was creative.  Let me offer a few examples.

In twelfth century Germany, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, author of ten books, the first opera of the West, dozens of songs, and a healer, awakened popes and abbots alike, firing off letters that would make a Cardinal blush with shame in our day.  Her favorite topic when she preached all around Europe (Yes, a woman preached!) was the laxity of priests.  She writes of a vision of a “very beautiful lady,” who is the church who speaks thus to Hildegard: “This fact, that the wounds of Christ remain open, is the fault of priests.  For they are the ones who are supposed to make me radiantly pure and serve me in purity; but instead in their limitless greed they move from church to church in their practice of simony.  And even my robe is torn thereby, for they are violators of the law, of the gospel, and of their priestly duty…..They cover my face with dust, tear my robe, and make my cloak dark, and my shows black….They do not adhere to the straight ways, that is, to the hard and rough ways of justice.” (329f)

In a letter to Abbot Helenger who complained to her of dryness in his vocation, she offers this advice: “Sometimes you have the style of a bear who often grumbles to itself in secret; sometimes you have the style of an ass, for you aren’t solicitous in your duties but are glum and in many things bungling as well….. (303f)

And to Pope Anastasius IV she wrote these blunt words: “O man, the eye of your discernment weakens; you are becoming weary, too tired to restrain the arrogant boastfulness of people to whom you have trusted your hearts.  Why do you not call these shipwrecked people back? And why do you not cut out the roots of the evil which chokes out the good?  You are neglecting justice, the King’s daughter, the heavenly bride, the woman who was entrusted to you.  You are even tolerant that this princess be hurled to the ground.   Her crown and jeweled raiments are torn to pieces through the moral crudeness of men who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night.  They are hypocrites ….Therefore, O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you don’t hurl from yourself the evil but even worse, embrace it and kiss it by silently tolerating corrupt men.  The whole Earth is in confusion on account of the ever recurring false teaching whereby human beings love what God has brought to nothing.  And you, O Rome, are like one in the throes of death.  You will be so shaken that the strength of your feet, the feet on which you now stand, will disappear.  For you don’t love the King's daughter, justice.”  (273ff)

In addition to criticizing churchmen, Hildegard composed marvelous music (I call it “erotic Gregorian chant”) and poems, painted over 40 mandalas that we still possess, wrote ten books including books on trees and stones and medicine.  She has been accredited with discovering vitamins and the need to boil and purify water.  She says “all science comes from God” and taught that the Cosmic Christ or Divine Wisdom lived in every being (“there is no creature that lacks an interior life”).  She wrote: “I, the fiery life of divine wisdom, I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.”   She was a Renaissance woman.

Thomas Aquinas followed a century after Hildegard and just after Francis of Assisi.  Aquinas was a genius of the first order whose intellectual output has rarely been equaled.  He died at 49 (the last year of his life he was struck dumb and neither wrote nor talked) but he wrote numerous works including commentaries on ten of the works of the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, who was being translated in Muslim learning centers in Baghdad for really the first time.  Aquinas said he preferred Aristotle to Plato because Aristotle “did not denigrate matter.”  A pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle but thanks to an Irish professor in Naples (a stone’s throw from the pope), who put scholarship ahead of obedience, Aquinas was introduced to Aristotle as a young man at the newly born University of Naples.  Aquinas committed his life to integrating Aristotle into Christianity—a direct affront against the fundamentalists of his day (and ours) who prefer Plato’s dualistic matter vs. spirit rap that appealed to Augustine and forms the basis of the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control and homophobia to this day.  (Augustine said that all sex must be justified by having children.)   So controversial was Aquinas in his day that at one point the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from…Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy who insisted that believers did not need the science of “pagan Aristotle” since they had all their answers in the Bible.  For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.”  Thus, the importance of science and scientists.

Aquinas rejected Augustine’s “introspective conscience” in favor of a cosmic perspective as when he says: “Every human being is ‘capax universi,’ capable of the universe.”  And again, “all beings love on another,” and “the order of the universe is the ultimate and noblest perfection in things.”  Aquinas says “joy is the human being’s noblest act” and he endorsed conscience in a big way, saying that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority.  (Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King jr. cites Aquinas on this point in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail—Aquinas as a basis of civil disobedience.  We are to obey conscience, not necessarily man-made laws.)  Aquinas was condemned by church authorities three times after he died but eventually he was declared a saint.  Carl Jung has said that by bringing scholasticism from Islam to the West he inaugurated the beginnings of modern science since scholasticism was a method for learning that emphasized questions and answers over recitations of past “authorities.”  To the credit of the Dominicans, they protected their brother against the ire aroused by his forward-thinking teachings.

Another Dominican, Meister Eckhart, came right after Aquinas and he stood on his shoulders becoming the most important preacher in Europe.  He is probably the greatest mystic the West has produced and his writing abound with depth, humor, paradox and challenges to establishment Christianity.  For example, he declares, “I pray God to rid me of God” and he emphasizes what contemporary Biblical scholars are saying, that Christ is found not just in Jesus but in all of us.  Eckhart says, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not do so in my time and my person and my culture?”  And again, “we are all meant to be mothers of God.”  He declares that “the highest work of God is compassion” and that “compassion means justice,” in fact, “compassion is where peace and justice kiss.”  Eckhart was condemned by Pope John XXII a week after he died.  It was reading Eckhart that converted Thomas Merton from a dualistic monk of the 1950’s to a prophetic mystic of the 60’s.

Today’s eco-prophet, the late Thomas Berry (a priest in the Passionist Order and author of The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work and The Universe Story with Brian Swimme), often talked of how much he owed his twin mentors, Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard de Chardin.  Chardin was a French Jesuit mystic and scientist who was banished from his home country to China early in the twentieth century but who found plenty of scientific and mystical work to delve into in his exile.  He spent his life researching the deeper meanings of science and spirituality and, being forbidden to publish most of his works in his life time, he left his books in the hands of a woman (not to his Order) who got them published shortly after he died.

A fifteenth century scientist, mystic and cardinal in the church, Nicolas of Cusa, taught that “every face is a reflection of the One Face,” that is of God.  He called for deep ecumenism saying that while we call ourselves by many religions there is only one wisdom.  The late physicist David Bohm said he owed more to Cusa than to Einstein!

Recently I was giving a retreat at a Unitarian Universalist Center in Rowe, Massachusetts and a woman said to me: “I am so grateful that you, unlike Teilhard de Chardin, did not remain silent as the church asked.  You spoke out and took the consequences.”  I remarked that we live in a different time than Teilhard (who died in 1955), but I did appreciate her comment.  Ours are not a time for keeping silent.  The old wine skins are no longer holding the rich wine that is still flowing from the teachings, the life, and the story of Jesus.  New wine skins are needed to hold not only the rich lineage of the past but the mixing with other faith traditions, with scientific breakthroughs, with contemporary movements such as the women’s movement and the eco-justice movements, and today’s Biblical scholarship that can and ought to occur today.

Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council of the early 1960’s which inspired many Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been called the “greatest religious event of the twentieth century.” It set the stage for a new future in religion to happen including a spreading of decision-making beyond Rome and empowerment of lay people and deep ecumenism.  It gathered  great theologians from all around the world—people like Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, M.D. Chenu, Yves Congar, Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Schillebeeckx and many others.  Sadly, the papacy of John Paul II crushed it all including the courageous response of Latin American Liberation Theology that supported the poor and oppressed in direct expression of Gospel values and, contrary to the spirit and law of Vatican II, launched a modern day Inquisition with Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as its chief inquisitor.  It is my opinion (and that of many other theologians) that in squelching the Vatican Council, the Vatican has been in schism for 40 years.

Can the Catholic Church resurrect from its self-dug grave and experience another renaissance in giving great souls and ideas to the world?  Can it move beyond eras of Inquisitions, crusades, witch burnings, sexism, anti-semitism and other dark temptations?  Certainly not in its present form where curial bureaucrats take it upon themselves to censure all thought and creative movements.  But, as I point out in my recent book, The Pope’s War, if an angry and demanding lay movement rises up and declares the present and past papacies schismatic and moves ahead to deconstruct the church as we know it and reconstruct It on the authentic principles of Jesus’ spirit and teaching, and puts spirituality ahead of religion and travels lightly, surely something wonderful and needed could occur.