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World moves on, but Rome resists

It has been an eventful millennium, full of sound and fury, great advancements and dreadful inhumanities. Among the most significant aspects have been the pas de deux of faith and reason, the changing fortunes of secular and sacred as church and world jousted to impose purpose on human life. This essay looks at highlights that may help the past throw light on the future.


It is not healthy to live and work in one world and to believe and pray in another. The harmony of these two worlds is an issue in the development of a contemporary spirituality.

Gospel, church and world are three pivotal points in the church’s life over its first two millennia. The gospel dominates the first five centuries as the canon of scripture, the creeds and Christology are formulated. The sixth to the 15th centuries are engaged with the church, its structure, councils, sacraments, judicial system and religious institutions. The last five centuries are concerned with the autonomy of the world and the discovery of its own sacred character.

Let us focus on this latter period, an epoch beginning with the discovery of the New World in 1492 and leading to the birth of the new Europe some 500 years later. The task of the 21st century, I believe, will be an integration of gospel, church and world. The present crisis in the church derives from the lack of synthesis. Each of these last five centuries might be illustrated by choosing a person or event to represent it.

Columbus (1492)

Columbus overcame the limited vision of the planet by finding, within the very world he thought he knew, a new world. This led Europe and the church to redefine their sense of the planet’s center and it revealed that there was more to the world than they supposed. The world after Columbus was more difficult for the church to control. It manifested its integrity independently of the church’s sense of it.

The New World resisted defining itself in terms of monarchy; it saw the secular order as valuable in its own right, separated church and state, inaugurated national democracies, fused together ethnic, racial and religious groups, and generated pragmatic as well as liberation theologies. The world was forever different after Columbus and more autonomous than it was before him.

The 16th centry: Luther

If Columbus redesigned the world in the 15th century, Luther redefined the church in the 16th century. Columbus helped us to see that the center of the world was not where people supposed it was. Luther shifted the center of the church from the papacy to the New Testament, from the hierarchy to people, from sacraments to conscience, from authority to consensus. Luther called for a new relationship with the world, one that saw marriage as a good in itself and not as a concession to human weakness, one that expanded the notion of vocation to include not only clerical callings but worldly tasks. To be a lay person in Luther’s church was to exist in a fully privileged state of life, not inferior to ordained pastors; a lay person could be wholeheartedly a citizen of the world and need not go to a monastery or join the clergy to enhance one’s relationship with God. The world was different after Columbus; it began to be seen as sacred after Luther.

The 17th century: Galileo

It was especially with Galileo that the world took on a different significance. Galileo somehow makes the world both sacred and insignificant. It is sacred because it is addressed in its own terms. It is insignificant because the world is no longer the stationary center of the solar system. Galileo does not yet have the key to how to endow the world with significance again. Einstein will show us that the relationship of the insignificant to everything else in the cosmos is what makes it significant.

“Truth,” Galileo declares in Bertolt Brecht’s play, “is the daughter of Time, not of Authority.” Authority, we might observe, adds nothing to truth; it is truth that gives moral force to authority. Truth is larger than the church. The church only proclaims the truth effectively if it learns first how to serve the truth. In the case of Galileo, the church demands that the truth be judged in the church’s terms, as though the truth were smaller than the church.

The drama between Galileo and the Inquisition is heightened by the tension between the validity of human experience and the demands of those who dismiss data that displease them.

Brecht’s “Galileo” reminds us, “You can’t make a man unsee what he has seen.”

Galileo, unfortunately, gives in to the Inquisition. He consoles himself with the thought that “there is not such thing as a scientific work only one man can write.” When his disappointed colleagues speak of how sad a land is when it has no heroes, Galileo replies, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

A church that requires one man to write its theology and set its policies, a church that needs only one man to be a hero in it, is an unhappy church. If theology is truth, then anyone can write it. The truth is compelling in its own right; it does not have to be obligatory. If the church is a healthy community, then it needs no hero; its own life is the heroic deed, and all its members are the heroic gesture. A family does not need a hero; it needs love and forgiveness and relationship so that all its members come to believe they are valued.

Galileo once invited Giulio Libri, a philosopher at the University of Pisa who was a persistent critic of Galileo, to come to Florence and look through the telescope. Libri replied that there was no need to do so because he knew the truth already.

In 1600, Rome burned to death Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno for teaching that the earth moves. Ten years later, Galileo published the same thesis and proved with his telescope that the world was different from the church’s definition of it. In 1633, Galileo, threatened with torture and death, capitulated to the Inquisition. He remained a prisoner, despite his recantation, until his death in 1642.

All the world knows this: It was not Galileo that Rome imprisoned but a truth it could not control and could not make less than itself.

It has been said that Galileo shouted out in moral triumph, “Eppur si muove.” The earth moves and Rome cannot stop it. It moves because the world is sacred, with its own integrity and meaning, regardless of what Rome says of it. The truth is not made in Rome. Before the truth, Rome is a servant, the servant of the servants of God.

Rome can no longer be the immovable center of an ecclesiastical solar system. It cannot sit in judgment of Columbus and Luther and Galileo; it must relate to them and move with them and learn from them and correct its errors and become a mobile part rather than the immutable center of reality.

The truth cannot be arrested in its forward movement or confined in the prison of lesser worlds.

The 18th century: the American Revolution

Moving into the 18th century, one must become delicate with one’s choices. The sacredness and autonomy of the world are accelerating. The world’s value is proclaimed, not only by Galileo but also by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, not only by the American Revolution but also by the French Revolution. The truth is seen as something that abides in the world as it does in the church, in the minds of other human beings as readily as it does in members of the magisterium, in the texture of everyday life as surely as it does in the texts of scripture. When modern people wish to have their experience validated or the truth tested, they go not to the church first, but to the world.

Truth is now clearly seen as the daughter of Time rather than of Authority. It is not the work of one person, even a pope, or of one institution, even the church, but the collaborative and collegial work of the entire human family.

The truth, like the Risen Christ, is not obliged to reveal itself in the temple or even in the priesthood. Like the Risen Christ, the truth may appear anywhere. It is not the task of the beholder to predict or to control the appearance but to recognize its validity. The disciples had no authority to proclaim Easter and needed none. They were convincing because they themselves were convinced; it was what they saw and experienced that they proclaimed; they, too, were imprisoned by a religious system for their convictions. They did not fear open debate or disagreement, but the religious leaders of their time did.

As one enters the 18th century, the work of Columbus, Luther and Galileo are seen to be essentially correct. Perhaps I might be forgiven the choice of the American Revolution as the representative event for this century, partly because I am an American, more substantially because it succeeded, I would argue, in keeping church and world in friendly alliance even though the revolution made the church and world separate, liberating the world from a need to be defined by the church.

The American Revolution returns the nation to people just as Luther returned the church to the laity. Like Columbus, it had no maps to this new world of national democracy and constitutional limits. It built its new structures from observation and experiment, as Galileo did, and it defined the truth in its own integrity without seeking the church’s endorsement. Legitimacy would come not from the church but from the electorate, now seen capable of validating the truth from the work of the Spirit, if you will, in its midst. America trusted people as Luther once trusted the laity.

If Columbus changed the geography of the world, and Luther the definition of the church, and Galileo the boundaries of the solar system, the American Revolution changed the constitution of the political order in the modern world. The Bill of Rights declares the autonomy and sacredness of the human person; checks and balances restrict the ability of one minister of government to define Truth as the daughter of its own authority.

In all of this, I do not wish to give America more than its due, nor do I suggest that there was not a dark side to the American Revolution and its aftermath. Nonetheless, the world is profoundly different and autonomous after the American Revolution as it was after Columbus, Luther and Galileo.

The 19th century: Darwin

My choice of Darwin is not done without competitors. Marx and Freud are also candidates. I choose Darwin because the work of Marx and Freud may be less clearly correct in as many of its parts. In any case, it is my intent to discern patterns and dynamics rather than to achieve universal agreement or to exclude alternative possibilities.

Darwin’s thought will be condemned by the church as was the American separation of church and state. Eppur si muove. The Truth goes on even when Authority calls a halt to its march through time. Since Truth is not Authority’s daughter, Authority has no parental rights or moral influence over it.

In Darwin, human biology is freed to pursue its own autonomy or truth since it has not been set rigidly by God but formed, almost capriciously, by time. The church’s ability to base its ethics on the absoluteness of human biology is dealt a severe blow by Darwin. The church will reject the data once again without examination and will declare in the 20th century that human biology, seen as absolute and unchangeable, predetermines the ethical judgment on contraception and abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and the right to die. All of these realities are supposedly resolved by the priority of human biology over human choice, indeed by making human biology the immovable center of an ethical solar system, if you will.

Once again, the church declares it has no need to look through the telescope. All of these issues, Rome declares, are settled in advance and without exception. Indeed, the sovereignty of human biology is invoked to define the ethics of homosexuality and even to dictate whether women may be ordained to the priesthood. I am not saying that Rome is incorrect in all these instances, though it may well be, but I am suggesting that Rome is working again with the wrong solar system.

In the 19th century, church representatives declared that human biology was not developed from lower forms of life, that it existed in splendid isolation from them and that the church knew this with certainty. In a previous century, the church had declared that the earth was the center of the solar system and that it knew this with certainty.

One is astonished, in the light of how often the church was simply wrong in the modern era, at its audacity in proclaiming papal infallibility. It could only do this effectively under a pope, Pius IX, who rejected the entire modern world and its political order as evil and who sought to control the truth in a papal center. Pius IX did this in the “Syllabus of Errors” before calling the First Vatican Council to define his infallibility.

The 20th century: Einstein

With Einstein, we come to understand that the universe has no center, and that interrelationship is what holds the whole of reality together.

It has been said that we pattern our lives on the models of the universe our culture gives us. There have been three models during the two millennia of the church’s existence.

The first of these was the Ptolemaic model. It envisioned the universe as an earth-centered reality and arranged the spheres or planets around it in a strict hierarchical order. The empyrean, or the stars, for example, were seen as pure and everlasting; the earth was dark and mortal. We find this model in Dante’s Divina Commedia.

This model prevailed through 10 centuries, the fifth to the 15th, when the structure of the hierarchical church was put into place. The pope and bishops existed in splendid isolation from the rest of the church; they had direct communication with God and were sacred personages in a way the laity, unless they were royal, were not. This Ptolemaic universe gave us a Ptolemaic papacy.

The second of these models was the Newtonian model, developed after Galileo by Isaac Newton. It is a helio-centered system dominated not by hierarchical spheres but by absolute clarity and translucent mathematical laws. All is in movement but nothing is in doubt; everything is mechanistically determined in a clockwork, impersonal universe. This model prevails from the 16th century to the 20th century.

These centuries give us what I would call a Newtonian magisterium. The church now accelerates the development of a teaching authority in which everything can be settled, clarified and resolved on the church’s terms. There is to be one model theology for the church, one form of worship, one canon law, one approved catechism, one celibate priesthood. The Newtonian magisterium eventually declares itself infallible. The question raised now in the church, especially among the bishops, is not whether what the pope says is true or even useful but whether the pope has decided to teach infallibly or not. Certitude and clarity are seen as primary values; doubt and ambiguity are considered weaknesses.

When Paul VI issues Humanae Vitae which is, after all, only an encyclical and not a council, the question raised anxiously in the church is whether this teaching is infallible or not, clear and final for all time or whether Catholics are permitted to discuss it. John Paul II appoints bishops whose teaching on all matters of church doctrine and discipline is to be unambiguously clear. The Newtonian magisterium is certain, unbending, mechanistic, impersonal and unreachable. Truth is no longer the daughter of Time but of Authority.

Einstein gives us a third model, a universe relative and relational in all its parts, participatory in every instance. Every atom influences every other so that nothing exists in isolation. There is no hierarchy; the universe is catholic and universal. There is no clarity; the universe is a profound mystery, and we stand in awe before it.

The only Ecumenical Council held since Einstein, Vatican II, is a council that reflects this. It calls for collegiality and community, declares none of its teaching infallible and gives us participatory images of the church as the people of God and the liturgy as the work of the priesthood of all believers. It tells us the church is a mystery and calls for a community of local churches with different cultures, theologies and traditions.

Vatican II is vastly different from the Ptolemaic papacy of an Innocent III, for example. It does not require, as Vatican I did, Newtonian clarity, papal infallibility and rational certitude to make its point.

In Einstein’s universe, all is in movement and nothing is at rest. If movement could stop for an instant, the universe would end. “I move, therefore, I am,” one might say.

It is foolish in such a context to continue obligatory celibacy only because we have done this for a long time or to reaffirm the prohibition of contraception because change might confuse people. It is unconvincing to deny the ordination of women because we have not ordained women in the past.

Change, in Einstein’s universe, is not frantic but creative; all is held in check by its relationship to everything else. Einstein tells us that the universe has a shape but no center and that no part gives direction and purpose to all the other parts.

By theological application, we might maintain that God does not exist in any center but is somehow everywhere. There is no privileged place to be; it is a privilege just to be. And God is fully there. All parts of the body are fully alive, no one part more alive than any other. Indeed, it is the whole body that is alive as all its parts come together so that the body is somehow less a body when a part is missing.

Einstein put the separate pieces of the universe together and showed how they relate to one another. He joined light to time and time to space and space to gravity and energy to matter. As he did this, he could not know that he was giving us the dynamics that would lead to Vatican II. John XXIII opened a window and looked through Galileo’s telescope and called a council.

And so, now, we seek to join the papacy to the bishops and bishops to people and priests to community and authority to conscience and sacred to secular and gospel to world and Christianity to other religions and Catholicism to Orthodoxy and Protestantism and male to female and America to Europe and socialism to capitalism and stability to change and marriage to priesthood.

Our voyage is to a new world, sometimes without maps but never without one another, always with a measure of fear but not without hope, able to recognize a new continent in the pale October moonlight of 1492 or a new church in the open window of October 1962, when Vatican II begins. Our voyage is through the broken Berlin Wall and beyond Tienanman Square and it enlists the free hearts of former Soviet citizens and the free spirit that now brings all of Europe together. Our companions on this journey are the people we love and the children we bear, the dreams we fashion in darkness and the prayers we formulate at dawn, the commitments we choose and the love we make and the tears we shed and the songs we sing.

Only a static church in a changing universe could deny all this life or seek to punish it. Had that church had its way, Luther and Galileo and democracy and evolution would all have perished. This static church would prefer that we look to the infallible papacy to settle all questions about the church and the solar system, about the priesthood of all believers and the origin of the species, about the separation of church and state and even the issues we may publicly debate. In a universe of infinite majesty and movement, a Ptolemaic papacy and a Newtonian magisterium are quaint and inert.

John’s window

Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was a friend of Galileo and receptive to Galileo’s ideas. When he became Pope Urban VIII, however, he threatened Galileo with torture until he recanted and denied the validity of his data. How could Urban VIII have done this to a friend whose theories, he realized, were persuasive?

In “Galileo,” Brecht gives us a plausible solution. He portrays Urban VIII discussing the Galileo case with the Cardinal Inquisitor. During their conversation, the pope attires for a ceremony. Before he vests, he is open to Galileo. As each vestment is put on him, he becomes more hostile. When he is fully vested, he finds torture acceptable.

Brecht shows us a pope who lives and works in one world, who believes and prays in another. Urban VIII denies the validity of his own experience for the demands of an institution and his own position in it. Truth is the casualty in this denial of evidence. Galileo and Urban VIII are separated by the papacy and by their choice to live in two different solar systems. In Galileo’s system, Truth is not discovered by Authority but in Time; human experience, the world’s intellectual concerns are seen as convincing. In Urban’s system, Truth is made by Authority. Human experience, the world and the intellect are discarded. This tension between two solar systems, so to speak, is at the heart of the crisis of the church.

In our lifetime, a very different pope, John XXIII, opened a window and the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He declared in the inaugural speech at the council that “violence inflicted on others” gives us “no help at all in finding a happy solution to” our problems. The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, described the world as meaningful in its own right; it saw marriage as a relationship of life and love and it discovered God in the signs of the times.

Out of these correlations and connections an utterly new spirituality will be generated, one that derives as much from the world as it does from the gospel, as much from the personality of each person as it does from the church and its tradition. As believers move into this new universe, they will discover that it has no center; the center will be created where life happens intensely and where it maintains a relationship with other life.

This spirituality will not develop from general principles enunciated by a universal church in some theoretical manner but from those passionate experiences that move the human heart profoundly and take it beyond itself. It is only when we feel our humanity move to its depths, to its point of exhaustion and transcendence, that we begin to know who Christ was and what incarnation is. It is passion that breaks the human heart open so that God can enter. Doctrine and theology, sacral institutions and legal systems, as such, do not do this, especially when they alienate us from our identities and compel us to live in a world whose center and solar systems are artificial and contrived. The reason why so much church teaching is irrelevant is because it is written for a world that does not exist anymore and is addressed to lives that have not yet found their own center.

It is noteworthy that the disciples in the gospels do not find Jesus in the Temple. They discover Jesus as they work in the open fields and on turbulent seas. They encounter Jesus where they experience life. In the pastoral epistles, we are instructed to choose our church leaders only from those who have made a passionate commitment to one woman and who have entered deeply into family life. The early church was a domestic church and its ritual was the celebration of a family meal. It did not need the Temple to make it holy. Its sanctity came from the memories and hopes one brought to the meal, from the love and passion with which life was shared, and from the spirit of God that became present to all this. The early church needed little structure to sustain it. Wherever two or three gathered, the church became possible and Christ was present. We must not, of course, romanticize this early church so that we see it as having no problems. We cite it only because its priorities seem to have been better than ours.

In this early assembly of Christians, Peter was still a fisherman and Paul a tent maker; apostles had families, and the gathering of the community made the Eucharist happen. It was important to know the faces and names around the table because the Eucharist did not depend upon the priesthood, even less upon celibacy, but upon the memories, hopes, passions and lives of those who gathered.

When Einstein gave us a limitless model for the universe and when John XXIII opened a window, our hearts and souls were exposed to all the agony and ecstasy of our concrete lives. Confusion may follow as we enter this new world and restructure our lives so that they fit our times.

We may indeed experience a dark night of the soul. The dark night of the soul is the act by which we fall from a lesser truth to a greater truth. The greater truth is a unified world in which we can live and work and pray and believe. We can no longer return to a world that subjects truth to obedience or passion to an institution or conscience to law. We wish no more to do this now than the disciples of Jesus wished to become Temple priests. They preferred to break bread in the open fields and in the warmth of their own homes and families. We have learned well what the early disciples knew, namely, that the human heart and the real world must not be denied, since God abides preeminently in them.


Columbus’ flagship and Luther’s 95 theses, Galileo’s telescope and the American Bill of Rights, Darwin’s organic connections and Einstein’s open-ended equations: All these images were formed in passion and vibrated with life so abundant that it could not be contained in the old wineskins of lesser truths and visions.

Nothing less than God and Truth are at issue in all this. The universe and the new church bring with them the new Christ who bursts open the confinements of lesser worlds and restrictive church systems. The Risen Christ is less clearly defined than the historical Jesus, but we feel this Christ more passionately in our hearts. The first disciples did not find the Risen Christ in the Temple. He came to them as they worked on the seas again and when they gathered as a family in the Upper Room. The New Christian church seemed worldly to the traditional Jewish establishment. It appeared outrageous as it extended the priesthood to all believers.

But the spirit compelled the disciples ever forward, into the whole world, beyond Jerusalem, into a limitless universe. There they found their mission.

Anthony T. Padovano is a Catholic theologian. His most recent book is Hope is a Dialogue, published by Caritas Communications, Mequon, Wis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999