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Reforming the Roman Catholic Church

by John McNeill

It should be evident to all that the paternalistic hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has lost contact with the Spirit of God and is no longer its instrument. The clergy sexual-abuse crisis, the effort of the hierarchy to cover that up, and the attitude in the hierarchy that their primary objective is not to convey the message of Christ but to do anything to protect their own power, prestige, and wealth has made their very existence idolatrous. The hierarchy as presently constituted is the exact opposite to the movement based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that Jesus announced at the Last Supper.

The perfect example of that loss of contact with the Holy Spirit occurred when Pope John Paul II heaped all sorts of honors and privileges on Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the religious society Legion of Christ (the Legionaries), a pedophile who bought his way into the Vatican. At the same time, Pope John Paul humiliated and deposed the saintly Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Archbishop Rembert Weakland made this comment about Arrupe:

“Arrupe resembled perfectly what I imagined St. Ignatius would have looked like. He laughed easily and made us all feel at home. For the next two years I found myself working closely with him. I counted that relationship as one of my great blessings during my years as primate. As I came to know him better and better, I realized he was the most saintly person I had ever encountered, free of all bias, truly compassionate, deeply prayerful, trusting of others, and intellectually very sharp. Perhaps his experiences in Japan during the war, his presence at Hiroshima with the dropping of the atom bomb in August 1945, and his many years as a superior contributed to making such a holy and yet totally human personality. If from all the people I have known in my life in the Church, I had to select only one for sainthood, it would be Pedro Arrupe.”

This spiritual blindness that prevented the hierarchy from being able to recognize the evil of Degollado and the saintliness of Pedro Arrupe is a clear sign of their lack of contact with the Spirit of God.

This process whereby members of the hierarchy lose their commission from God and need to be reformed and replaced has occurred several times in the history of the Jewish-Christian church. Ezekiel sees God in a vision detaching himself from the Temple in Jerusalem in the form of a chariot becoming flexible and mobile (Ezekiel 10). Ezekiel then has a vision of God upbraiding the shepherds (the hierarchy) of Israel (the Temple Priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and abandoning them, to meet their own self interest (Ezekiel 34:1-10). This is an exact parallel with what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church at this point in history.

God then revealed a new understanding of shepherding in which God himself would be the shepherd, “Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep!” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).

Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and the Spirit of God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. It was the collapse of the Temple in 587 BC which led to the creation of text-based Judaism. And, again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.

In every case the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to his people and help them to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of them. It took a long time, but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any intermediary.

In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit. I am sure that anyone who has experienced God's love and has been freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step under the guidance of God’s Spirit of freeing themselves from external Church authority, will also hear the call to ministry in their hearts. In this very process they have become members of the Church of the Holy Spirit.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are at present in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. In the 13th century, Joachim of Flores saw three stages in the development of God’s church. The first was the Church of obedience to the Father, the Church of Israel; the second was the Church of the Son, Jesus, which he identified with the hierarchical Catholic church. He prophesied that there would come the day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. I believe that time is now.

Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from a direct call of the Holy Spirit to any baptized person from within their spiritual self-awareness. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. All authority will proceed from the bottom up and not from the top down. Every community should prayerfully discern spirits to select among their members the one whom God is calling to leadership. That individual could be a man or woman, married or single, gay or straight! The Church of the Holy Spirit must become a totally democratic church with no caste system, no higher or lower; rather, totally equal, women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them; everyone an authority.

For example, who knows what God wants from women? Obviously, only women can discern what God is asking of them. The task of authority in the evolving Church of the Holy Spirit is to enter into dialogue with its women members and discern carefully what God is saying to the Church through its female members.

Another example, who knows what God wants from the lesbian and gay members of the Church? Obviously, only the lesbians and gays! No one can tell us from outside what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and brings with it the kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.

How, then, can we help the Holy Spirit in her task of transforming the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church into the democratic Church of the Holy Spirit? As I see it, the whole Protestant reformation was a premature and aborted attempt to bring about that transformation. Many Protestant communions have developed a much more democratic structure, closer to the Church of the Holy Spirit that Jesus intended. The Roman Catholic Church, in the spirit of ecumenism and respecting the charism, i.e., the special gifts the Holy Spirit has granted the Protestant churches, should open itself to a humble dialogue to see what it can learn from their successes and failures. A similar dialogue should be held with all the world's major religions.

The urgent necessity for reform makes the call of a new world-wide Church council imperative! But if the new council is just a repetition of Vatican II with only male hierarchs present, it will necessarily fail to undertake a radical transformation of the Church. The very existence of the hierarchy is the problem and we cannot expect the hierarchy to vote themselves out of existence.

The Second Vatican Council took the first step when it redefined the Church as “the People of God.” The new council, then, must be a council that truly represents “the People of God.” The Second Vatican Council also set the agenda for the world council of “the People of God” when it restated the Christian doctrine of freedom of conscience:

Every man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships (Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 16, pp. 213- 214).

Three major considerations and tasks for the new council will be:

  • How to guarantee that church leadership makes its primary task to listen carefully to what the Holy Spirit is saying to it through the people of God,
  • How to organize the church so that every baptized member has a say, or at least a representation, in the governing body of the church,
  • To seek out what church organization respects the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every member of the church.

Let us all pray to the Holy Spirit to come and rescue the Roman Catholic Church from its present bondage to a male clerical hierarchy!

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