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'Can We Save The Catholic Church?' Asks Hans Küng (BOOK EXCERPT)

02/07/2014 10:09 am ET | Updated Feb 07, 2014
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Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "Can We Save The Catholic Church?" by Hans Küng. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

The Arab Spring has shaken a whole series of autocratic regimes. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, might something like this be possible in the Catholic Church as well – a ‘Vatican Spring’?

Of course, the system of the Roman Catholic Church is quite different from those prevailing in Tunisia and Egypt, to say nothing of the absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia. In all these countries, the reforms that have taken place until now are often no more than minor concessions, and even these are often threatened by those who oppose any progressive reforms in the name of tradition. In Saudi Arabia, most of the traditions, in fact, are only two centuries old; the Catholic Church, by contrast, claims to rest on traditions that go back twenty centuries to Jesus Christ himself.

Is this claim true? In reality, throughout its first millennium, the Church got along quite well without the monarchist–absolutist papacy that we now take for granted. It was only in the eleventh century that a ‘revolution from above’, started by Pope Gregory VII and known as the ‘Gregorian Reform’, gave us the three outstanding features that mark the Roman System to this day:

• a centralist–absolutist papacy;
• clericalist juridicism; and,
• obligatory celibacy for the clergy.

Efforts to reform this system by the reforming councils in the fifteenth century, by the Protestant and Catholic reformers of the sixteenth century, by the supporters of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, most recently, by the champions of a progressive liberal theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, managed to achieve only partial success. Even the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of the reformers and modern critics, was effectively thwarted by the power of the papal Curia and managed to implement only a few of the demanded changes. To this day the Curia – in its current form a creature of the eleventh century – is the chief obstacle to any thorough-going reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical reconciliation with the other Christian Churches and the world religions, and to any critical, constructive coming-to-terms with the modern world. To make things worse, supported by the Curia, under the previous two popes, there has been a fatal return to old absolutist attitudes and practices.

Had Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked himself why, until now, no pope had ever dared to take the name Francis? This Argentine Jesuit with Italian roots was, in any case, well aware that in choosing this name he was calling up the memory of Francis of Assisi, that famous social dropout of the thirteenth century. As a young man, Francis, the son of a wealthy silk merchant of Assisi, had led a high-spirited, worldly life like other well- situated young men of the city; then suddenly, at the age of 24, a series of experiences led him to renounce family, wealth and career. In a dramatic gesture before the judgement seat of the Bishop of Assisi, he stripped off his sumptuous clothing and deposited it at his father’s feet.

It was astonishing to see how Pope Francis, from the moment of his election, clearly chose a new style quite different from that of his predecessor: no bejewelled golden mitre, no ermine-trimmed crimson shoulder-cape, no tailor-made red shoes and ermine-trimmed red cap, no pompous papal throne decorated with the triple crown, the emblem of papal political might.

Equally astonishing is the way the new pope consciously refrains from melodramatic gestures and high-blown rhetoric and speaks the language of ordinary people, just as a layperson would do, were the laity not forbidden to preach by Rome.

Lastly, it is astonishing how the new pope emphasizes his human side: he asked people to pray for him before he blessed them; like every other cardinal, he paid his own hotel bill after his election; he showed his solidarity with the cardinals by taking the same bus back to their residence and then cordially taking leave of them. On Maundy Thursday he went to a local prison to wash the feet of young convicts, including a woman – and a Muslim at that. Clearly, he is showing himself to be a man with his feet on the ground.

All of this would have pleased Francis of Assisi, and it is exactly the opposite of everything that his papal contemporary – Innocent III (1198–1216), the mightiest pope of the Middle Ages – stood for. In reality, Francis of Assisi represents the alternative to the Roman System that has dominated the Catholic Church since the beginning of the end of the first millennium. What might have happened had Innocent III and his entourage listened to Francis and rediscovered the demands of the Gospel? Without question, one need not take them as literally as Francis did; it is the spirit behind them that counts. The teachings of the Gospel represent a mighty challenge to the Roman System – that centralistic, juridicized, politicized and clericalized power structure that has dominated Christ’s Church in the West since the eleventh century.

What, then, should the new pope do? The big question for him is: where does he stand on serious church reform? Will he carry out the long-overdue reforms that have become log-jammed in the past decades? Or will he allow things to go on in the way they have done under his predecessors? In either case, the outcome is clear:

If he embarks on a course of reform, he will find broad support, even beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Many Orthodox and Protestant Christians, Jews and believers of other faiths – to say nothing of many non-believers – have long awaited these reforms, which are absolutely imperative if the Roman
Catholic Church is to realize its potential to give convincing witness to the Gospel and to voice the urgent demands for peace and justice in today’s world. The Church can only give such witness when it ceases to be turned in on itself, fixed on defending its institutional structures and its traditional manner of speaking.

If he continues the present course of retrenchment, the call to rise up and revolt (exemplified in Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous!, [2011]) will grow ever louder in the Catholic Church and increasingly incite people to take things into their own hands, initiating reforms from below without hierarchical approval and often in the face of all attempts to thwart them. In the worst case, the Catholic Church will experience a new Ice Age instead of a new spring, and it will run the risk of shrinking down to a mere sect, still counting many members but otherwise socially and religiously irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I have well-founded hopes that the concerns expressed in this book will be taken seriously by the new pope. To use the medical analogy that serves as the leitmotif of this book, the Church’s only alternative to what would amount to
assisted suicide is radical cure. That means more than a new style, a new language, a new collegial tone; it means carrying out the long-overdue, radical structural reforms and the urgently needed revision of the obsolete and unfounded theology behind the many problematical dogmatic and ethical positions that his predecessors have attempted to impose upon the Church. If Pope Francis commits himself to such a radical reform, he will not only find broad support within the Church, but he will also win back many of those who, publicly or privately, have long since abandoned the Church. Such a renewed Roman Catholic Church could once again become the witness to the Gospel of Christ that it was meant to be.

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