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Sister Joan Chittister, OSB

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Catholicism: A Changing Church -- Despite Itself

Posted: 02/24/10 10:23 AM ET

John Henry Newman, whose own life was riddled with pressure from the church for thinking beyond the institution to the nature of the church itself, made a comment which in that period of church history was its own kind of heresy. Newman said, "To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often."

The application of that to the church -- the world is changing, therefore the church will have to change as well -- sent shivers up ecclesiastical spines. In this age, of course, the statement may even seem benign to a world struggling to understand the implications of Darwinian science for the teaching of theology, for instance. But then, in the mid-19century, plagued by the myth of changelessness, the Roman Catholic Church defined itself as immutable, as fixed and frozen in time. Every question had been asked. Every answer had been given. Church was a settled science. "Every Catholic church you go into," I was taught as a child, "is exactly like your own. The songs are the same, the mass is the same, the language is the same." Conformity had become the hallmark of the Catholic community.

But before you knew it, in the length of one lifespan, none of that was true anymore. Nor was it ever, if truth were known. The world had been changing, too, for a long, long time. The church has always been in a process of change -- from house churches to royal Roman courts, to the fiefdoms of Cardinal-princes, to theocracies, to a small newly displaced postage-stamp of a nation called The Vatican. The church had indeed changed with every wisp of political reality in the world. Its monarchical liasons disappeared, its missionary character reemerged, its regional quality became stronger with time and marked by its various 'rites' or adaptations to various ethnic churches.

This century, too, is sweeping away what had long been the givens of a pre-WWI world. In this world national borders are seeping as never before in history. The whole world is becoming one. Universal education, if it is not already the norm, is now the goal everywhere. The whole world is becoming literate.

Evolution, with its completely other explanation of the origins of life, is a given. The whole world is beginning to understand itself as only a small part of the planetary system. Gender equality, however slow in coming to some areas of the world, is nevertheless an international objective and a political issue everywhere. The whole world is beginning to accept -- or at least to recognize -- that there are gifts in the other half of the human race that are going unused and to the peril of the whole human race.

The church itself is no longer part and parcel of the national political identity anywhere. Not in Poland, not in Ireland, not even in Italy.

Clearly the church will be forced to deal with the effects of all these things, and more. Or, rather than being an international force, a credible voice, it will soon become an international relic. Some of the necessary changes implied by these realities are already beginning to be clear. In the church of the 21st century, in order to be a vibrant and effective factor in society -- as well as an institutional remnant of the past -- four issues strain for attention and promise more change to come.

Clericalism, the by-product of an illiterate society, has already come head to head with the levels of professionalism around it. To be acceptable in the 21st century, priesthood will need to be a purely ministerial function, not a civic, academic or social office. People look to the church for worship and succor, for justice and social model, for preachers of peace and harmony, not for authoritarianism. The local parish priest is neither qualified nor authorized to pronounce on secular subjects like elections or curriculums or the tenets of another faith. In the 21st century, the church must see itself as part of the conversation, not as the last word on it. This world is not anti-clerical. It is aclerical. In this world, the faith is becoming more about faith than about institutional pre-eminence and privilege every day.

Gender equality will be one of the major social issues of the 21st century. Churches that cling to sexism in the name of God will find themselves ignored on other issues. Young women will begin to wonder how it is that churches that teach equality are the last bastions of sexism in the modern world. People of faith will be hard pressed to explain how it is that the question of equality of the sexes is being led by secular institutions rather than by ministers who proclaim the Good News and then stop it from coming.

The laity will become a driving force behind the declericalization of a patriarchal church if for no other reason than the need for personnel. Educated in every dimension of life now to the highest degree, including theology, the laity will expect both to lead and to be listened to in the church. The kind of clerical deference that once came out of ignorance will be replaced only by a spiritual deference for those the laity find deeply holy, unerringly kind, and respectfully open to a world in the throes of remaking itself scientifically as well as socially.

Finally, theology itself, in the light of evolution, will need to be rethought, revised and reshaped to honor a God big enough to believe in, a God beyond the maker of a child's heaven and more an impelling force than the laws of those who take literalism as the measure of the spiritual life.

The rethinking of these four things -- clericalism, gender equality, the lay vocation and theology in the light of evolution -- will grow the church up to the measure of a global world. It will change the church as clearly as did Constantine, Galileo, the Reformation and the printing press. It will be the remaking of a church glorious then for its vision, its openness, its strong sense of community and its courageous faith in the God of Surprises rather than simply for its longevity.

Then, as Newman says, the church will be truly alive again, a sign to all of what it is to believe in an ever beckoning God.

Sister Joan Chittister is an internationally known writer and lecturer and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality. To learn more about her, visit www.joanchittister.org.