Taking Back the Roman Catholic Church
For many “cradle” Catholics, it is difficult to imagine walking away from the communal liturgies and social ministry that have largely defined our lives yet we are daily losing hope that we will live to see a return to the Church promised by the Second Vatican Council.
When I first heard theologian Matthew Fox speak, I was both startled and exhilarated by the talk of pushing back against the conservative tide of the church. When he remarked that those of us who are still hanging our hats in the Catholic Church need to “kick ass,” I knew I wanted to invite him to Kentucky to meet with members of my church’s social justice committee.
I grew up in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and my hope was that that Fox’s visit would rekindle our hope in bringing the church back to the aspirations of that period. It was a time of great joy and renewed commitment to the church, especially for the young people. Put briefly, Vatican II opened the door to a re-ordering of the church’s hierarchy, proclaiming the “priesthood of the laity.” This radical change of thinking meant that everyone, including those outside the ordained clergy, was empowered to act as a minister in the church.
The changes in most U.S. churches were small, but significant. The altar rails that separated the congregation from the mass celebrant disappeared; women were allowed to enter sanctuaries that had been reserved for “males only.” We could start reading the lectionaries for mass and distributing communion; even young girls could wear the white tunics of altar servers to the priest. With the church’s governance structure opening up, except for the ordination of women, we witnessed a profound turning away from the aristocratic trimmings of the church to a wide-spread solidarity with the poor.
In Latin America, small “base Christian communities” formed under lay leadership, especially when priests were unavailable to minister to local parishes. Reading the gospel together, the laity discerned God’s “preferential option for the poor” and ushered in a new age of Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church. Over a forty-year period, however, these fundamental changes have been slowly undone, leaving us with a pre-Vatican Catholic Church that seeks patriarchal control of its laity and clergy.
Schisms in the Church Hierarchy
The opportunity to bring Fox to Kentucky came sooner than I expected. As a program coordinator for the women’s studies and gender studies program at Berea College, I was able to invite Matthew to a campus-wide convocation, and he agreed to stay on for an extra day to meet with dissident Catholics. My living room filled with thirty social justice activists. Someone in the group asked why so many faithful are leaving the church. Fox talked about how the world encountered the dark side of the Roman Catholic Church when the lid was blown off the Vatican’s cover-up of pedophilia among its priests. The Catholic laity was infuriated and lawsuits broke many diocesan banks. More recently, the Vatican clamped down on the female religious community, attacking the very women who have so selflessly educated the young, healed the sick, ministered to the dying, and often lived with the poor. The hypocrisy of covering up pedophilia on the one hand, and censuring women as “unfaithful” for standing up for their own rights and those of the poor, revealed a frightening disorder in the church. It caused Catholics either to look elsewhere for meaningful religious affiliation or to reject religion altogether.
We were taken aback to hear Fox tell us that the pope, bishops, cardinals, and all of the church hierarchy elevated to leadership positions since the papacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are illegitimate representatives. That is, the church hierarchy itself is in schism—an old word describing infidelity to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Chief among those violations is the hierarchy’s refusal to establish meaningful dialogue with today’s world using terms understandable to post-modern humans. Besides this, a general cautionary tone about ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue violates the fundamental spirit of a specifically “ecumenical” council. Such failures, Fox claims, have rendered null and void any of the schismatics’ claims to church authority.
Following Fox’s visit to Kentucky, many of us read and discussed his recent book, The Pope’s War. In it, he gives a full, historical accounting of the church’s scandalous behavior under the forty-year watch of the former Karl Ratzinger. The Pope’s War is a page-turner, especially for life-long, progressive Catholics. Here Fox explains that the men charged with church leadership, namely the pope and his entourage of bishops and cardinals, have re-enacted the Holy Inquisition for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They have become the enemies of theology, silencing the church’s best minds.
I was aware that outspoken priests like Matthew Fox and Roy Bourgeois were excommunicated for advocating the ordination of women. But The Pope’s War recounts the extinguishing of 105 such intellectual lights in the Catholic Church. The result has been a general dumbing-down, not just of the clergy, but also of the laity. Without an intellectual or spiritual compass, Catholics find ourselves searching for a meaningful religious experience in a church environment robbed of adult discourse, meaningful spiritual guidance, and joyful experience in general.
The Canonization of Hildegard of Bingen
The “good news,” however, is that the church has recognized the meaningful spiritual guidance offered by the fourteenth-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen and has finally approved her canonization. Fox, having recently published Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Time, suggested that what Ratzinger took away from the world’s Catholic faithful, Hildegard gives back in abundance. Most recently named a doctor of the church, St. Hildegard provides the healthy tonic for strengthening the multitudes to revitalize the church that Fox terms “the Cosmic Christ.” This is the Christ who, like Krishna and Buddha, is alive in every human being, and who gives life to grass, trees, mountains, stars, planets, and galaxies.
But Hildegard does much more than unseat the exclusiveness of the church’s patriarchal idea of God (and that would be plenty!). She echoes the divine feminine, what Rosemary Ruether has termed Gaia, as she gives us a spiritual, religious mandate to wake up. This rousing names our collective denial about the limits of earth’s capacity to support humanity. Hildegard admonishes us to embrace the work of eco-justice, to be “guardians of creation.” In other words, our work is to steward the earth in a fearless way.
Of course, this is all the work of the old goddess so vigorously suppressed by the patriarchy over the last 4,000 years. The early papacy suppression did its best to squelch the work of the female divine. However, the faithful wouldn’t allow it. They insisted on putting the Virgin Mary on the throne of the divine mother God. Recognizing the inevitable, the church patriarchy demoted Mary to a position below, and subservient, to the will of the father and the son. With that demotion, the proper order seemed restored. And for centuries the model of Mary was used to keep women in decidedly secondary positions while appearing to give them honor.
Now, St. Hildegard has broken that mold. Unwittingly it seems, the hierarchy has allowed an uppity woman a place in the hierarchy of recognized spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church. She has become one of only four women to be recognized as a “doctor” of the church. As Fox suggests, the church knows not what it has done. For the church faithful can now call upon the teachings of Hildegard to challenge and redress the archaic structures of Roman Catholicism.
In his interpretation of St. Hildegard’s teachings, Fox takes us into imaginary encounters with contemporaries such as Einstein, Mary Oliver, Howard Thurman, and two of my favorite women, German theologian and mystic Dorothee Solle, and the “Wild Woman” prophetess, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. What binds Hildegard and Dorothee Solle is a reverence for the mystical tradition of the church. For both women, it is the mystical certainty of faith that moves us away from patriarchal hierarchies and into a full communion with God and all creatures of the earth. The notion of excluding women from participation in the Church has no part in Hildegard’s worldview. Moreover, Hildegard embraces the creativity and healing powers of the Wild Woman archetype that is also in the work of storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This is the true feminine energy that “thunders after justice,” and brings both men and women back to our most basic instincts for compassion, wisdom, beauty, and justice. In this kind of church, we experience a love of learning, music, art, and creative movement.
In fact, the church that is promised in the teachings of St. Hildegard is embodied in the “Cosmic Mass” that Fox has introduced to progressive interfaith communities. In these liturgies, all participants give expression through dancing, singing, and praying to all the divinities that are cherished by the human family. This is an ecumenical Christian ritual that celebrates the cosmological vision of love and understanding that includes us all, and in particular the earth that supports us and gives us life.
The Pope’s War ends with a very radical proposition for Roman Catholics who long for the re-enactment of Vatican II values of peace and justice. Fox tells us that the 1,800-year-old Roman Catholic Church is crumbling—falling apart before our eyes. And we all need to run for cover. But first, we should grab the finest gifts of Catholicism, including Hildegard of Bingen, to start the new church. This is the momentous decision for Vatican II Catholics who have not already been ex-communicated for challenging the church. And it is happening in parishes all over the country.
In the midst of this revival of the laity, the church has appointed a Latin American to the papacy. This promising development has evoked from Fox his latest book, Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion. There Fox echoes his familiar warnings about a church falling to ruin. He describes the decades-long schism of the church on the one hand, and on the other, the movement of the laity to reclaim the principles of justice that belong authentically to Catholicism. The curia has a choice, Fox argues. They can either begin to act like real church elders listening to the imaginative voices of Catholics (especially the young) or they can watch the Vatican crumble.
Well before the election of Pope Francis, and not long after Matthew Fox’s visit to Berea, a small interfaith group called the Ecumenical Table formed in our community. For the past several months, late on Sunday afternoons (after we have already attended the Sunday liturgies in our respective churches), this new community of the faithful gathers at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond to celebrate the Eucharist. In the liturgies, we strive to balance male and female leadership, so that the wisdom of St. Hildegard is felt in our communal prayer. When I performed my first Eucharistic blessing, I fell into tears as I practiced the words I have heard all my life at mass, “This is my body…. This is my blood.…” For me, the sense of belonging that comes with co-celebrating the liturgy with other faithful progressives is key to reclaiming the beauty and boldness of ecumenical Catholicism.
Of course, our small community has a long way to go in our re-visioning of the church. We have Muslim friends who want to join us. How do we embrace our deepest ecumenism while centralizing the sacrament of the Eucharist? At the end of his book, Matthew gives us a long list of spiritual practices inspired by Hildegard. Those include singing, dancing, and meditating on the beauty of creation. As we incorporate these rituals of St. Hildegard into our liturgies, we may find ourselves moving toward a more cosmic version of worship that extends beyond the boundaries of the Eucharist.
For most progressive thinkers, it is no longer easy to be shocked by the turn of global political events. We are savvy about the reality of deceit, self-interest, and corruption at work in our social institutions. Sadly, many of us have succumbed to defeat in our collective struggle to create a just and loving world. In 2013, “giving up” on transforming systems of oppression is an understandable social posture. But in these important contributions to culture and ecumenism, The Pope’s War and Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Time Fox challenges this defeatism of the faithful” by providing his readers with an alternative vision. It is this new focus for a twenty-first-century church that will both renew and strengthen the resolve of ecumenical Catholics to keep up their struggle against the church patriarchy. The spoils of this battle of the faithful against the papacy are a return to love and justice, and perhaps a female pope.