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Plea for a consiliar church

By Christoph Theobald and Dietmar Mieth, editors,
Issue One in the 1999 volume of Concilum
Orbis Books, $15


“Unanswered questions after Vatican II” was the theme that caused editors of the Netherlands-based Catholic journal Concilium to present their latest issue in the shadow of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

They held a news conference introducing this issue at the end of a colloquium held in the same room where 35 years ago Concilium was initiated by publisher Paul Brand with famous theologians such as Frs. Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx and Yves Congar as its godfathers.

Both the issue and the colloquium offer important food for thought.

Some of the still unanswered questions as this dialogue-oriented publication views it today: Are we marching back to the pre-conciliar reading of the Bible? Are we prepared to encounter “neighbors of other faiths” in our global village? How much headway has liberation from the straits of church morality made? Has the new paradigm of sexuality been fully grasped? Has doctrinal teaching concerning women’s ordination met the test of conciliarity? Why is the magisterium afraid of a creative instead of a blindly obedient reception of its teachings? Hasn’t pre-conciliar fundamentalism and integralism crept back into our church? And finally: Should we strive for a new ecumenical council?

The call for decentralization of church power, of conciliar ways of decision-making, and for the application of subsidiarity within the church was clearly audible during the Rome meeting and is vehemently voiced in the new Concilium.

Brazil’s José Oscar Beozzo, lecturer at the theology faculty of São Paulo University, calls, among other things, for a strengthening of mechanisms for shared authority at all levels of church life. Diocesan synods and less formal diocesan assemblies should become the principal forums for decision-making. Synods of bishops “should mature in the direction of greater co-responsibility with the bishop of Rome in the governance of the universal church.”

Beozzo argues that baptism should be re-evaluated as the “founding sacrament,” which would not only allow for more synodality and conciliarity in decision-making, but also for a greater role played by the educated conscience of Christians in their decision-making.

The colloquium also issued a clear plea for a stronger role for theology and theological thinking within the church. “We need theologians more urgently than ever,” Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliff, master general of the Dominican order, said to the assembly. “Happiness must be the fruit of theology. I am happy to be a theologian,” he said.

Dominicans and Jesuits have had a close association with Concilium since its founding.

Participants in the Rome colloquium, like the contributors to the new issue, were unanimous that theologians must not evade problems like war, injustice and poverty. Karl-Josef Kuschel, professor of culture and interreligious dialogue at the University of Tübingen, made a passionate plea for interfaith communication to bring about better preconditions for nonviolent problem solving.

Kuschel argued that Jewish-Christian relations should be “on the agenda forever,” and that Islam must be taken much more seriously by Christians who in the past have mostly demonized or ignored it. There has been no serious theological reflection on the passages about Islam in Nostra Aetate (Vatican II’s declaration on other religions), Kuschel said, and he welcomed the reported intention of the pope to invite religious leaders of the world to a prayer meeting in the Vatican this fall.

The idea of another ecumenical council came up repeatedly in the colloquium, as it does in the Concilium issue. “Of course we are not suggesting to readers the agenda for a future Vatican III,” publishers Christoph Theobald (professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology in Paris) and Dietmar Mieth (professor of theological ethics in Tübingen) profess in their introduction.

“It is not certain that the time for such an ecumenical assembly has come. Rather, we need to enter collectively into a period of experimentation in which the church accepts becoming more like a laboratory, in which many experiments are being carried on.” And they do not hesitate to add: “Doubtless with unforeseen results.”

In this connection it’s worth noting that the Swiss bishop of Basel, Kurt Koch, and the auxiliary bishop of Vienna, Austria, Helmut Krätzl, recently discussed the question of calling a new ecumenical council during a session at the University of Vienna. Koch said that a new council might be needed to resolve the issues of priestly ordination for women and married men. Krätzl, however, issued a caution: Today, he said, the votes aren’t there among the bishops to assure progress on either issue. So, he seemed to suggest, be careful what you wish for./P>

Hubert Feichtlbauer is the chair of the Austrian “We Are Church” movement and a columnist for the Austrian newspapers Die Presse and Die Furche.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999