Towards a New Council of the Church

Towards a New Council of the Church

By Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ

Have we a new Council of the Church in our near future?

As we all agonize through the child sexual abuse crisis, we are asked to pray, in the words of the Pentecost Novena recommended by Cardinal Law in Boston, "that the Spirit will renew and reform the whole Church in the likeness of Christ." A tall order, that! If we take it seriously, we must expect serious questioning of some basic habits in our Church, fundamental enough so that they may likely be the matter of a council.

Attitudes toward sexuality will figure among those. It does not stand to our credit if we regard one of God's most precious gifts to us with the disdain and evasion that human sexuality has received in much of our tradition. That may well have contributed to the retarded psychosexual development we see in many of the predators who so shock us now. Discussion of this whole area has long been treated with such reluctance and suspicion as to contribute to widespread immaturity in our community, and consequently too many sorts of bizarre consequences. Many commentators, some with pre-conceived agendas, want to approach this pathology with instant solutions, like the abolition of mandatory celibacy, without going through the more fundamental reflection that the matter truly requires. We owe it to the integrity of our faith to examine this void in our understanding of the human person more carefully.

But the even more pressing question has been of authority structures in the Church, of the readiness to set protection of the institution above even the most basic moral responsibilities, of the lack of accountability within our structures. We are supposedly the Church in which it shall not be as among the rulers of the gentiles, whose great men make their authority felt (Matthew 20, 25), where "there is nothing hidden, but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light (Mark 4, 22)." To appeal to such fundamentals of Christ's teaching sounds simply ironic today, and we need to ask why.

We have become a very law-bound Church, and that in itself accords ill with the priorities set in the letters of Paul, where our salvation is by faith, not the works of the law. We search our Scripture for a "Law of Christ," and what we find, in such places as the Sermon on the Mount, is instead an insistence that we never satisfy ourselves with observing the minimum requirements set by a law, but instead always strive to do more, to put ourselves at the service of others: never by constraint, but by willing offering of self...

...There are, of course, multiple systems of law we could draw on, many of which are free of either the arbitrary, unaccountable character of the Roman law that now governs our Church or the exclusively retributive character of the Common Law. Many of these systems of justice exist among people we in the West would stereotypically regard as primitive. South Africans, seeking a more wholesome system of justice than they received from the European colonists, are attracted to the native African concepts of ubuntu. It remains a novelty in our country, and also in some parts of Europe, for lawyers and judges to experiment with systems of restorative, rather than purely retributive justice. Those so inclined have found some useful lessons in the practices of American Indians, the circle sentencing concept among their most attractive features. None of these, however, though helpful, have specifically the inspiration of Christian Gospel behind them, as our current Roman-Law-inspired!

Law of the Church most distinctly has not.

Are we capable, then, of constructing a system of internal order for our Church, through the necessary instrumentality of law that would genuinely spring from sources within the Christian Gospel tradition? The process would have to begin by recognizing the profoundly a-Christian and even anti-Christian character of the law we presently have, disruptive of Christian living, corrosive, as we are seeing in the sex scandal, of the most fundamental values of our faith. We would have to reflect long and carefully to build an ordered Church community that truly reflected the values of that faith, and could not expect to construct it at one stroke. We have a time before us to learn some of the humility that is so conspicuously lacking in the system by which we now operate.

The Second Vatican Council in fact went some distance toward constructing such a system in the first two chapters of Lumen Gentium, but they have since been negated, first by a distrustful period of anxiety, and then by a concentrated period of clawing back from any tendencies toward the accountability of those who govern.

Is this the work of a Council? Surely yes, and one much needed in the face of the deservedly low esteem into which the governance of the Church has fallen. There are essentially two questions such a Council needs to face: the sexuality question and this of law and structure. On the sexuality question the Church needs to hear from many persons of authority, intellectual and spiritual, other than bishops. Just as much, on this matter of law and a structure of service, humility and accountability, many other than the bishops of the Church need to be heard and respectfully consulted. The crisis of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, not merely a Bostonian or an American problem but an Irish, a French, an Austrian, an Australian, a Canadian, a Polish, an Italian and, universally, a Church problem, so long smoldering but only so recently exploding in our faces after long concealment has made these questions so acute that they can hardly be evaded any longer.

-Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ, is a part-time faculty member in the Theology Department.


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