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Spirit guides God’s people, speaker says

Following are excerpts from a keynote address given by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to the annual national gathering of Call to Action. Schüssler Fiorenza is professor of scripture interpretation at Harvard Divinity School.

Despite the lack of structural institutional changes, Catholic churches all around the world have thought to translate the vision of Vatican II into ecclesial praxis. In many parts of the world, the Roman Catholic church has become in the past 30 years no longer Roman. It has become a force for social justice, radical democracy and global peace. It has moved from a form of Eurocentric Roman imperial Catholicism to a pluralistic actualization of world Catholicism that seeks to utilize the gifts and talents of all its people.

Yet these developments have not been nurtured by the bureaucratic center of the Roman church and the well-financed troops of the Catholic right. Rather they are feared and perceived as spinning out of control during the past decade or so. Leading theologians, bishops and sisters have been silenced and have lost their ecclesial standing because they acted in the spirit of the council.

At stake here are two different visions of faith. The church of Caesar -- that means the Roman Caesar -- powerful and rich, and the church of Christ, loving, poor and spiritually rich.

The council interrupted and was believed to have ended for good the regime of silencing and condemnation. The intellectual freedom promised by Vatican II is summed up in the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.” After having expressed the hopes that many of the so-called laity would be schooled in the sacred sciences, the document insists: “In order that such persons may fulfill their proper functions, let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and the freedom to express their minds, humbly, [that’s what I just did] and courageously, about those matters in which they enjoy competence.”

This spirit of open inquiry and freedom of speech, which was praised and advocated by the council promised that all totalitarian measures of silencing and inquisition were a matter of the past. Or so we thought at the time. Yet almost 40 years later we seem to have come full circle. To illustrate my point, in 1984 when I had to make a decision to move from a professorship at a Roman Catholic university to a Protestant divinity school, a Catholic colleague encouraged me to do so. He argued that in the foreseeable future, good -- that is, intellectually credible and responsible -- Catholic theology could be done only in non-Catholic institutions. Unfortunately, Rome has proven him right again and again in the past decade.

The Vatican’s criteria for faithful submission of will and intellect have become increasingly centered on the ordination of women and the legitimization of male officeholders only. (Yesterday, someone said we are committing a mortal sin because we speak about the ordination of women.)

Although the council documents are full of androcentric language, Catholic women have taken the council’s vision very seriously, and we have read its texts in a generic way as applying to ourselves.

While we have denounced the structural and personal sin of patriarchal sexism and have claimed our ecclesial gifts and rights, those who advocate restoration of the pre-Vatican II model of church have appealed to the maleness of Christ, to essential gender differences and to the scripture texts of subordination. They have done so in order to legitimate church practices and structures that exclude from sacramental, doctrinal and governing power all women, and those men who are associated with women. Since the clerical patriarchal hierarchy not only is exclusive of women in leadership positions but also establishes itself as a “Woman Free Zone,” we have mandatory celibacy.

Under threat of heavy censure and punishment, a recent papal letter of June 30, 1998, seeks to eliminate the remnants of the lawful freedom of inquiry, and the freedom to express it, that still exists in Catholic institutions.

Examples given for the authoritative teaching of the magisterium, which may not be questioned are -- and they are curious -- the prohibition of euthanasia and the exclusion of women from ordination. It is obvious that this most recent papal decree attempts to silence women’s claim to full membership in the church once and for all. This most recent attempt of the Vatican to squelch theological discussion reminds one of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who must silence Jesus because of his own fear and lack of faith. This politics of silencing rather than dialogue is a far cry from the confidence and vision of Pope John XXIII, who initiated Vatican II in order to call the church to aggiornamento, engagement and dialogue.

Although the council spoke of theology in passing only, it nevertheless brought about a profound shift in the function and self-understanding of theology. Theology was to change from its neo-Aristotelian servitude to ecclesiastic domination interests, into a critical, dialogic, intellectual inquiry. This shift has just not been a theoretical shift, but also a shift from theology as a prerogative of the clergy to a theology as a task for all the people of God.

The language of the Inquisition, threatening penalization and expulsion from the church, which was rejected by the Second Vatican Council, is at work again in this apostolic letter and elsewhere. As the pope apologizes for the killing of witches several hundred years ago, the Vatican uses the same measures of silencing and exclusion against women today.

Luckily, the Vatican state no longer has power to burn us as witches and heretics at the stake as they have done for centuries. We must not forget that we hold the power of the people. If we refuse consent to dominative teachings, the Vatican bureaucracy loses its power of control. Since ecclesiastic leadership has no longer the power of the stake, it has only as much power and authority as we the faithful grant to it. Without obedience, rules have no force; without the people of God, there is no church. Accordingly, obedience should be put under the other sins we must avoid as much as possible.

With the 1967 Synod of Bishops, we continue to insist ... “The church is bound to give witness to justice. She recognizes that everyone who ventures to speak to people about justice, must be first just in their eyes.” Both models of church, that of submission and subordination characteristic of Roman imperialism and that of the Pilgrim people of God, richly gifted in the power of spirit Sophia, are inscribed in scripture and are embedded in tradition. In this struggle over the future of the Catholic church, understood either as a discipleship of equals or as the embodiment of the Grand Inquisition, we the people have an important role to play.

We the people must continue to exercise our responsibility as the people of God by calling the mainstream church to conversion. Like the early Christians we must continue to fashion and build ecclesial communities that are not governed by control and subordination and obedience but realize the freedom of the children of God. We must celebrate and appreciate all the gifts of the Spirit that are given to us for the building up of the community. We must learn to not pay too much attention to those who would treat us as wayward children when we speak and act in the freedom and equality of the children of God. We must have compassion with the grand inquisitors, who are driven by fear rather than by faith.

Divine Wisdom has brought us to this time and place. She has accompanied us in times when we were tempted to give up the struggle in despair. She has sustained us in the face of repression just as she has succored our Jewish ancestors on the journey through the wilderness and desert and into freedom. The table of Divine Wisdom provides nourishment and sustenance in our struggles to transform the oppressive structures of church and society that shackle our spirits and stay our hands.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998