Catholicism Locked into Old Struggle: This Hierarchical Government Has Always Rested Uneasily on Its New Testament Base

By Ruether, Rosemary Radford | National Catholic Reporter, July 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Catholicism Locked into Old Struggle: This Hierarchical Government Has Always Rested Uneasily on Its New Testament Base


Ruether, Rosemary Radford, National Catholic Reporter


Roman Catholicism today is locked in a struggle between two churches: a church of autocracy centered in papal monarchy and a popular church based on local communities, dedicated to justice and the well-being of all people.

The Vatican insists that only its written version of the church is legitimate. It is the church founded by Christ. The popular church is illegitimate and schismatic.

The popular church believes that its vision is in true continuity with the Jesus of the New Testament.

This conflict between two churches is deeply rooted in Christian origins. The earliest community gathered by Jesus and reassembled after his execution, convinced that he was not dead but alive in their midst, did not imagine themselves as building a huge institution modeled after the political structure of the Roman Empire, which had just crucified their beloved teacher. Rather, the followers of Jesus experienced prophetic gifts and miracles of healing that they understood as the outpouring of the spirit, anticipating the messianic age. This redemptive community overcame former divisions between human groups. The "pure" and the "impure"; women and men; gentile and Jew; slave and free: All were "one in Christ."

As the Jesus movement converted increasing numbers of gentiles and expanded into the cities of the Greco-Roman world, it began to replace this spontaneous community life with structures based on the dominant institutions of society: patriarchy, slavery, city and provincial government-culminating in a replication of the Roman emperor and imperial government. But this hierarchical government has always rested uneasily on its New Testament base. Its claims to be the church founded by Jesus Christ are open to question whenever Christians discover the vision of the gospels. The New Testament is and remains the primary subversive document of the Christian church.

This subversive vision of an egalitarian community filled with infectious joy and mutual service, with particular concern for the poor and oppressed, is ever rediscovered in moments of Christian renewal. But it is also repressed again and again as new hierarchs take over. This happened in the 16th century with the proclamation of the "priesthood of all believers," only to tee soon replaced by state-appointed clergy that persecuted popular movements and told women to keep silent.

The subversive vision was rediscovered among Catholic Christians in the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council released a wave of renewal, sparking many forms of popular communities: base communities in Latin America and Africa, small Christian communities and women-church in North America and Europe. But during the pontificate of John Paul II, there has been a systematic effort to expel these forms of popular church and silence the bishops, priests and theologians who favor it, to reassert the church of papal absolute monarchy. The result is an internal schism among Catholics.

Many who have caught the vision of church as a life-giving community where all share in ministry continue to go to parish churches while supplementing parish worship with small gatherings in homes for prayer, liturgy, study and discussion. …

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