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World awaits insights of renewed Catholicism


One of the Roman Catholic church’s 20th century dilemmas has been that the more the institution prized stability, the more it was forced to change.

The century will likely be viewed as one in which Catholicism finally emerged from a hard-nosed defensive posture triggered by 16th-century Protestantism and 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers.

The Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, was the vehicle for Catholicism’s historic accommodations with new signs of the times. The council embraced theological, cultural and scientific insights of the modern age. These shifts triggered their own reactions within the church, and as Catholics enter the 21st century, they are torn between renewal and reactive tendencies.

These conflicts have been diligently recorded and painstakingly analyzed. On the surface, they continue as the most dominant forces shaping the church today.

Eventually, neither may be viewed as the most significant force that shaped 20th-century Catholicism. Two other factors are shaping Catholic thought, for the moment less visibly but no less significantly. Each has the potential to radically reshape Catholic structure and direction.

The first is the entrance of women into the church’s theological ranks; the second has to do with demographic shifts that are slowly and inexorably changing the Catholic center of gravity from its centuries-old Western axis into a new non-Western or global context.

When the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome in 1962, most Catholics lived in North America and Europe. Entering the new century, most Catholics will live in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, where the fastest growing local churches can be found. These shifts will have profound effects as non-European Catholic culture and experiences continue to emerge and become part of the Catholic heritage.

Since the council, the church has witnessed the first and second generations of Catholic women doing theology. This has never happened before. The women are for the first time telling compelling stories and sharing insights denied the church for centuries. The power of what they have to say stems not only from the rigor of their academic training, but also from the explosive energy of their bursting on the scene after such a long absence. That energy rushes like air to fill a vacuum. Their insights are grounded by the experiences of being marginalized and by a commitments to rectifying structural injustices.

Vatican fear

It is understandable that beneath Rome’s most reactionary edicts lurks a pattern of attempting to keep women in place. Vatican leadership fears the structural changes likely to occur as Catholicism benefits from women’s thinking. Rome fears change, reacts to perceived threats, yet is helpless to stop the continued forward movement -- propelled in large part by educated Catholic women.

Meanwhile, another historic shift continues, spawned by the growth of Catholic experience outside the West. The potential of this change was visible at the Synod on Asia held in Rome last spring.

For centuries Catholic missionaries traveled the globe to spread the faith. They often coupled their soul-saving efforts with the colonial designs of their European brothers.

For many Latin Americans, Africans and Asians, the experience of conversion was a mixed blessing. They received the faith but were viewed as collaborators and betrayers of their native heritage. Many lost their lives as a result. It was often not a pleasant story. Nevertheless, the seeds of Catholicism were planted worldwide.

Vatican II, for better or worse, depending on one’s outlook, reshaped Catholicism’s approach to evangelism. Simply put, it took the church out of counting baptisms and into a new way of measuring the success of evangelism, that of service and witness, the living out of the gospel.

This shift coincided with the recognition by the council fathers that other non-Western cultures had their own spiritual insights and traditions that deserved to be preserved. Further, there was a realization that other faith traditions and experiences could and should enrich our church. Such was the spirit of the new ecumenism. Catholicism in Latin America, Africa and Asia began to be viewed as having come of age.

Earlier this year, during the four weeks of the Synod for Asia, the older evangelical model raised its head and was offered to the Asian bishops -- who politely but emphatically rejected it. To them, it spoke of a colonial mentality, a sense that Rome knows best for all. The Asians, on the other hand, had come to Rome to share eagerly what they saw as the faith rewards of their own leadership, the collective experiences and gifts to the church that Asian Catholicism had to offer.

Rome successfully shaped the proceedings to maintain its traditional control, but won few, if any, Asian converts. If anything, the Asian bishops left Rome seemingly invigorated by sharing with one another -- convinced that they would have to wait some time before the Roman curia would be able to understand and accept the new models of being church.

Turning point

Someday the Asian synod may be viewed as a historic turning point: that moment when Catholic offspring fully recognized their own adulthood and began to act as parent to the parent. The Asian bishops told the Roman curia and the pope that the Catholic church must decentralize and respect a multicultural Catholic experience. New laws of governance and episcopal association, the Asian bishops said, are required. Further, they believe, these will certainly come. It is only a matter of time.

Entering the 21st century, increased speed of communication and travel have spawned an environment ready to nurture the global church of the future. The old church tendency to control information as a tool of power is being undermined.

This more inclusive renewed Catholicism, global in reach, empowered by new ways of doing theology, is not a dream but a reality waiting to be enacted and understood. The human family, increasingly suffering spiritual and physical hunger, woefully divided between rich and poor, awaits the power of these new insights.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998