The Church We Seek: A Letter from Chile

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:

The Church We Seek: An Open Letter to the Pope and the Bishops of Chile

Featured image: Santiago Cathedral


  1. I think that the true problem lies in the following remarks made by Pope Francis on June 16th 2018:
    “Another thing in married life that helps greatly is patience: knowing how to wait. Wait. In life, there are situations of crisis—major crises, ugly crises—where perhaps there are even times of infidelity. When the problem can’t be resolved at that moment, we need that patience of love that waits, that waits. So many women—because this is more proper to women than to men, although sometimes a man does it too—so many women have waited in silence, looking the other way, waiting for their husband to return to fidelity. And this is holiness. Holiness that forgives all, because it loves. Patience. A lot of patience, of one for the other. If one is nervous and shouts, don’t respond by shouting too… Be quiet, let the storm pass, and then, at the opportune time, talk about it.”

    Reading this made me throw up in my mouth a little.
    The fact that no one is addressing these attitudes expressed by the pope, but we have these people willing to use this crisis as an opportunity to rail against vestments and obsession with orthodoxy. It’s just too much for me. I’m done. #Letthedeadburytheirdead.

    1. I’m not sure at what you’re grasping here.

      I would take Pope Francis’ particular remarks to have a context within married life. Since he’s also recommended to let the dishes fly, the truth is that a couple is more likely to find a calm discernment at a time when passions cool.

      The situation in Chile seems very different. The furor was a few years ago over the appointment of a bishop. The Church was investigated, and all the bishops offered resignations. It seems opportune before Pope Francis and the Congregation for Bishops moves forward to begin talking about important things like orthopraxis, and symbolic things like vestments. The good shepherd isn’t likely to go out naked to search for the lost, but also isn’t likely to put on princely finery to show off for the neighbors or the 99 either.

  2. My one comment is about the alleged “tendency” under John Paul and Benedict to elevate things to a “binding level” (as opposed to the implicitly more open days under Francis).

    I assume we are referring here to issues like ordination eligibility, for one thing?

    Wouldn’t it be more intellectually honest to say, we progressives have our own list of “binding level” teachings, and they are simply different from the “binding level teachings” articulated under John Paul and Benedict?

    1. Lee, very good question. I honestly didn’t have a particular issue in mind. I was thinking of a whole set of decisions and policies that tended to make all teachings more binding, which meant that lower-level decisions about which there was very widespread agreement in the church were elevated to a higher level of quasi-infallibility. I recall from the 80s and 90s various scholarly articles about ‘infallibility creep.’

      I basically agree with your last paragraph. It’s not just that the list differs, but also the underlying principle about how to view secondary and tertiary issues in which there is disagreement in the church.


  3. There is a school of thought which says that the very worst time to enact major experimental changes in the church is when the church is at its weakest or in crisis.

  4. I am not trying to start a flame war, but I often wonder when I see things like this: why do people feel that they need to re-make the Church into what they think it should be when there are already communities that exist which have or are everything that they are describing?
    That’s why I am where I am today. I knew that the Catholic Church would never be a place for me as a married gay man, and one who needs the ritual and solemnity of my youth that She has long cast out. I found a place that welcomes me and feeds my heart and soul. I would never presume that I (even with a million like me) could change the Church into the image of what I want Her to be.

    1. John,
      I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the letter. But I wouldn’t characterize it as remaking the church into what they want it to be, i.e. delegitimizing it. For one thing, a good number of things they propose are entirely possible within Catholic theology and can be supported by principles enunciated by Vatican II. Also, their tone is not one of demanding, but of proposing as a contribution to a discussion, to which they invite other opinions as well. Also, I respect your path but I don’t think that means this has to be their path. Some Catholics feel called to become Episcopal or Lutheran or Quaker – I know people who have done this. Other Catholics feel called to advocate for progressive Catholicism within the Catholic Church because they (this is different from you) want a more reformed Catholic church. What they want is not entirely realized anywhere else – the other options are not a Catholic church (with a pope, etc.) reformed along their way of thinking.Whether I agree with them or not, I think we should welcome their contributions and engage their arguments. Finally, I appreciate that you don’t want to start a flame war!

  5. Somewhere in PrayTell history there was a post about celebrating the anniversary of ICEL. A commenter stated that since so many changes were made to the organization that they should have had the decency to change the name. I hope if signers of the above letter get their wishes that they too would have the decency to change the name of the Church.

    The letter states that only the doctrines of the New Testament and the Early Church should be foundational. I am sure that St. Paul and the early Patristic era saints would love the signers take of Orthopraxis vs Orthodoxy and human sexuality.

    As for the hopes of bringing greater unity with the Protestants and Orthodox, yes this would bring Protestants and Catholics close together but as a whole the spirit of the reforms would move Catholics and Orthodox further apart.

    But perhaps the most important thing I have to say is that by presenting the proposals for change in this context, they are shooting themselves in the foot. They are making everything (intentionally or not) ideologically connected. As such, it is implied that accepting any individual change is at least a partial acceptance of the whole. For example, a relaxation of the discipline of clerical celibacy becomes symbolically connected with a reform of sexual ethics as a whole and a new look at church hierarchy. There is no intrinsic connection between these items so why unnecessarily connect them. It makes it a harder pill to swallow if one is predisposed to accept one but not the other.

  6. This letter is an intriguing read. That said, one piece that really bothers me if the oft-repeated proposal (implied in the letter) that allowing priests to have marital sexual relations would help reduce child sexual abuse. There is no scientific or physiological evidence that supports this suggestion, or that celibacy has a causal relationship with pedophilia. Fr. Jim Martin S.J. wrote a good article on this in America recently:

    If we want to argue that (diocesan) priests should be permitted to marry, then fine. But not only are there are far better arguments to be made, but in the context of remedying the unfortunate clerical sex abuse crisis this suggestion is a red herring at best.

    1. Mostly agreed on your first point. However, my read of the letter has more of a concern over the culture of secrecy. Husbands can be just as emotionally and sexually immature and predatory as celibates. I wouldn’t focus too much on sex abuse, horrific as that is. What most lay people have zeroed in on is the laziness in administration, the hypocrisy in moral standards, and the hard line taken toward victims. If a priest or bishop were married, I am quite sure his wife would give him a blistering earful about covering up for predators. Fr Jim Martin is right. It’s not about sex. It’s about moral maturity, and the ability to make just decisions in the face of a secretive culture.

      Getting back to the marriage question. A person who has been in a solid and stable marriage for at least ten years would have a certain amount of credibility in the maturity department. A single man of any age would have a bit more to answer for, a bit more to prove–especially if his life had been spent in his parents’ home and a school dormitory.

      As for the discipline, I don’t think priests should marry, unless it were a rare exception granted by the bishop. If I had only two suggestions to make in regard to ordination, it would be to abolish seminaries and institute a minimum age of 35 for entry into formation.

      1. ” If a priest or bishop were married, I am quite sure his wife would give him a blistering earful about covering up for predators.”

        I imagine that would happen in some, maybe even many, cases, but I would be far from quite sure. It is not just possible but quite common for spouses to fiercely protect and defend abusive* spouses. Just as with Orders, Matrimony offers no magical grace in that regard. We’ve also seen how parish communities can rally around abusers and their enablers.

        * In this sense, also including those who cover up for abusers.

      2. Todd – the qualities you describe, such as a proven ability to be in a stable marriage, and being of mature years, are typical criteria the church uses to accept men into the diaconate. FWIW.

  7. “I would be far from quite sure.”

    I suppose I would agree. Hence the danger of an echo chamber of slavish supporters when a leader is surrounded by people who think he or she can do no wrong. The quasi-eremitic life of many parish priests is a further problem on other fronts when there’s nobody there to engage in friendship, accompaniment, collaboration, or even an occasional butt-kicking.

    Like marriage, celibacy is perhaps no cure-all.

    1. “The quasi-eremitic life of many parish priests is a further problem”

      Indeed. If anything, it seems to have offer most of the worst features while handicapping the best.

  8. The Church We Seek: An Open Letter to the Pope and the Bishops of Chile, seeking reform because “Christ and his gospels are not getting through and calling the new generations.”
    How did this topic accumulate responses as diverse as: Pope Francis’ encouragement of patience in married life, ordination eligibility, arguments about imaginary wives filling their clergy husbands ears with “blistering” comments, even, the quasi-eremitic life of many parish priests?
    It’s as if “Alice” fell down a hole or wound up on the other side of the looking glass. The responses got, “Curiouser and curiouser,” as Lewis Carroll would say.
    The heart of the Chilean letter is written in love by those seeking to know Christ and his message. How did we hear anything but that?
    The Chilean letter strongly challenges clericalism and the machismo it has engendered. It envisions a church willing to move beyond archaic rituals in order to attract the faith of young people.
    This week, I participated in the annual AUSCP (American United States Catholic Priests) Convention. It was a great gathering of priests. However, we too can be so many “Alices,” often unable or unwilling to think outside the constraints of our own ecclesial boxes and agendas.
    There was strong, overall agreement on the liturgical chaos caused by the linguistic mess of RMIII. The majority solution: use the shortest Eucharstic Prayer (II). (That’s the best we can do? Less of awful is better than more of awful?).
    Wednesday’s liturgy was presided by the wonderful Archbishop John Wester. Inspiring in many ways, yet so sad that the dozen or so vested altar servers and mass assistants were all male!
    A Catholic sister recently asked about the AUSCP. She said “Isn’t that for retired priests.” “No,” I told her. “We are an active, progressive group that welcomes clergy of all ages.”
    Older guys in the AUSCP. Older folks in our emptying churches. Until we change what we are doing (in church), can we really expect young people to return?”

  9. A serious question: is there a concrete example anywhere of liberalizing Christian teaching or practice that resulted in more people going to church?

    1. I’m wary of this question because it’s driven by numbers rather than theology. The question sounds innocent but it oftentimes used with a selective conservative agenda. Should the Roman Catholic Church become more like the Mormons, or the Assembly of God, or nondenominational churches, because the numbers would be better? I don’t think so.

      Engage the issues. The authors are proposing what they think is greater fidelity to God and the Gospels. They may well be wrong on some points. If so, argue against them on grounds of fidelity. Not numbers.


      1. I take it, then, that the answer to my question is “no.”

        I believe what the Church teaches on human sexuality. Those teachings are clearly grounded in the New Testament and Tradition. The early Christians who rejected the libertinism of the Roman world certainly viewed them as normative, not as mere “ideals.” They are also supportive of human flourishing, as the fallout from the Sexual Revolution shows. To abandon those teachings would be disastrous, and not simply because it would further empty the pews.

      2. Actually, not. I do know of left-liberal Catholic communities (with a worship style I don’t care for) that are a magnet drawing from a wide area and that have grown greatly. But that’s not my point, and you didn’t respond to my point. My point is that the issue is truth, not numbers.

        Do you know of any community that came to believe in their consciences, rightly or wrongly, in very left-liberal positions but said, “Let’s not go with our convictions. Let’s put out a strict line we don’t really believe, just for the sake of numbers.” ? I don’t.

        Again (I’ll try once more), the issue is truth, not numbers. The numbers argument is not convincing to me, or anyone, apart from the issue of truth (as held by various people).


      3. A serious question: is there a concrete example anywhere of [insert opposite of liberalizing] Christian teaching or practice that resulted in more people going to church?

        From my experience the answer is also no.

        Actually, any change in teaching or practice? Still no.

        Fidelity to God and the Gospels? Authentic witness to the gospel? Good pastors who smell like sheep? These are the things that attract people to the Christian faith.

  10. I addressed the issue of truth: I believe what the Church teaches on human sexuality is true. I also explained why I believe those teachings are true.

    As for numbers, I don’t want to see the Catholic Church go the way of Anglicanism, which has both moved to the left and hemorrhaged members throughout the developed world. Maybe God is trying to tell us something through that experience.
    At the very least, I think those who want the Catholic Church to follow the same leftward path as Anglicanism did owe the rest of us a reasoned explanation for why they think things will work out differently this time.

    1. Tom,

      You’re misunderstanding. I’m not talking about your understanding of truth (which I already guessed), but rather about the understanding of truth among those liberals you disagree with who are in decline. My point was that there are convictions about truth causing them to hold progressive/liberal positions, even if those positions which they hold to be true don’t translate into church growth.

      The response to your last paragraph is that people aren’t claiming it will work out differently this time – they’re claiming it’s the right thing to do based on their understanding of truth, of God’s will, of what Jesus’s call is.

      Progressives have a different view than you of what the truth is.

      That was my only point and I’ve made it three times now. Let’s conclude this thread since I’m repeating myself.


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