From a church wracked by scandal and division, the Holy Spirit raises up voices of renewal and hope. A group of 51 Catholics in Chile have penned “The Church We Seek: Open Letter to the Pope and the Bishops of Chile” (full text below).
The letter, while striking an admirable tone of humility and dialogue, is forthright in calling for massive reforms in the Catholic Church. Some of the proposals have been heard before and rejected by church authorities; some proposals will be considered by some to be contrary to unchangeable church doctrine. But much of reform agenda has to do with policies and practices that are indisputably able to be implemented by church authorities.
The letter states that it is “born of desolation” that “Christ and his gospel are not getting through and calling the new generations.” An overarching concern is to return to the message of Jesus, even if this means removing undesirable developments from the church’s tradition.
The letter emphasizes the role of the laity, lamenting that “for centuries the idea that the religious life was the most perfect state prevailed.” But building up the Kingdom is the work of “all, not just a few.” The letter charges that
“[t]he role of the laity in the church is almost totally atrophied due to the reigning clericalism of centuries past, based on a theology that expired with Vatican II.”
The letter praises Pope Francis for his example of simplicity, “consonant with the simplicity of Jesus and the Gospel,” but laments that “the example of Pope Francis is more the exception than the rule.”
The letter questions titles such as “Most Reverend” and “Your Excellency”:
“Are not such titles anachronistic? Perhaps in the monarchical era it would have made sense to be called a ‘prince of the church,’ as the Cardinals are, but does it today? The only prince mentioned in the gospel is Satan!”
It criticizes the fact that the offices of the Archbishop of Santiago are called a “palace,” evoking power more than service.
In a passage on liturgy which will interest Pray Tell readers, the letter states:
“[M]any of our liturgical ceremonies are pompous, full of incense and archaic clothing, which made sense in other eras, but are alien to contemporary culture. Would Jesus feel comfortable with such rites? No doubt he would see the good intention, but it is certainly a style at odds with his way of life. Would it not be more attractive today to opt for ecclesial symbols more in keeping with the simplicity and inner purity preached by Jesus and his disciples, fishermen of Galilee?” (all emphases in the original).
In a passage which can’t help but recall disputes around Liberation Theology, the letter cites Matthew 25 to affirm that
“for Jesus the essential thing for salvation is orthopraxis, not orthodoxy. This implies reversing the current emphasis on doctrinal purity toward purity (never fully attainable) of praxis. … Doctrine is important only to the extent that it leads us to orthopraxis.”
Against the tendency under John Paul II and Benedict XVI to elevate all levels of church teaching to a binding level, the letter says this:
“It is also necessary to distinguish between doctrines of fundamental importance and doctrines of secondary or tertiary relevance. The doctrines of ‘first importance’ will be those that have historically been shown to be closest to Jesus and his message, so they can be considered a condition for professing the Catholic faith. … If this distinction is not made, there is a risk of confusing what is fundamental for a Christian life with what is not.”
The letter expresses the hope that such a distinction would foster ecumenical rapprochement with Protestants and the Orthodox.
Without naming Amoris Laetitia by name, the letter affirms those interpretations of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation which consider moral teachings to be an “ideal” rather than an absolute demand in all circumstances. It cites favorably the practice of Protestants and the Orthodox which allow the divorced and remarried to remain in full communion with the church. Regarding sexual relations it states:
“[T]he voice of an open and educated conscience has the last word, predisposed to doubt the impulse of desire and counteract it. However, we believe that Catholic morality would benefit from a systematic review of its traditional positions under the magnifying glass of the distinction between what is the ideal and what is the minimum required of each person.”
Regarding the character of the institutional church, the letter charges that it
“today resembles much more the structure of a ‘Prussian army’ than a community of the faithful, with an apex of those with power and a base which is passive and obedient.”
It calls for decentralization, with some “oversized” authority now held by the pope devolved to the level of bishops. “[H]owever much respect we owe the Pope and his teaching, not everything that he or his predecessors say and do is necessarily good and correct,” the letter states.
The letter proposes greater equality for women in the church, stripping the leadership of its historical machismo. But “[p]erhaps, for some, it is too soon for the idea of a female priesthood.” Regarding clerical celibacy the letter states that
“it is time to return to the practice of earlier eras in the West and to this day in the Eastern rites of our own Catholic Church, that priests, at least diocesan priests, can be married. Celibacy would be required only for monastic life and religious orders whose labor requires it.”
It is very possible that this letter will be dismissed in whole or in part as the “same old liberal agenda” that has been articulated repeatedly in some quarters ever since the Second Vatican Council. But on the other hand, when a crisis is as severe as that in the Catholic Church in Chile, the possibility increases that previously unthinkable proposals are given serious consideration. An important factor in all this is Pope Francis, who has strongly called for church reform, questioning of tradition, reaffirmation of the Second Vatican Council, criticism of clericalism, and enhancement of the role of the laity.
While Pope Francis does not always fit in neat categories of “liberal” and “conservative,” surely his call to shake things up will affect how this letter will be received – in Chile and elsewhere.
Here is the full text of the letter in English, translated by Google and checked against the original Spanish:
Featured image: Santiago Cathedral