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The Spirit works on both sides of dispute


Like most pew-warming Catholics, I rarely remember homilies past the offertory. It’s not that I don’t care -- I am a professor of theology, after all. It’s just that with small boys on my lap, bills to juggle and a house and car that always need repairs, I’m preoccupied. This past Triduum was different. Maybe it’s because my third child was baptized or that my wife was received into the church and confirmed a Roman Catholic. Perhaps the meeting with my bishop earlier that week had something to do with it. All I can tell you is that the Holy Thursday message I heard still rings in my ears almost two months later, particularly its revelance to recent developments in implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The homilist that evening is provincial of a religious order, a man I revere as wise and holy. He preached eloquently about the dilemma of Caiaphas, the spiritual leader of an oppressed people, who decided expedience required that one man should die rather than risk unrest. The homilist analyzed factors Caiaphas weighed and stated with disturbing gravity, “Had I been in Caiaphas’ shoes, I would have done the same.” The preacher himself sounded oppressed as he spoke of the obligations institutional spiritual leaders have and the judgement calls they must make. He concluded with a moving request: “This Good Friday say a prayer for the Caiaphases of our world.”

I have a fertile imagination, the curse of many in my trade, and all sorts of uninvited analogies with our church came to mind: “a people” bound together by no cultural or ethnic cohesion; centralized authority with power emanating from Rome; regions of unrest that smolder on the edge of rebellion; delegated leadership that implements policy despite personal conviction.

The Caiaphas of John’s Gospel is a villain. Yet viewed in the context of his times, he made logical and prudent choices. The man who stood before him looked like so many others from the recent past. Some had led political movements; others had inspired radical religious fervor. Caiaphas knew his job: He led a people whose survival depended on submission to a distant power. Jesus was just one more threat to that tenuous peace.

The Caiaphases of our church are sometimes painted as villains (even in the pages of this weekly). Yet their goals are at least as sincere. There are many strange voices in the wildernesses of our global communion that threaten the church “as it is.” Our Caiaphases know their job: The survival of their local churches depends on universal submission to a distant power. A feminist scholar here or a liberation theologian there are threats to that tenuous peace.

The Jesus of John’s Gospel is a hero. Yet viewed in the context of his times, he was a menace. He had entered Jerusalem just days before, surrounded by followers who mixed politics with religion. He had instigated a riot in the temple. Caiaphas knew that he came from Nazareth -- and nothing important happened there! Jesus was a small sacrifice weighed against the survival of the Jews and the temple where Caiaphas functioned as chief priest.

Lay theologians who challenge aspects of our church as it is are sometimes portrayed as heroes (especially in the pages of this weekly). Yet they are a danger to “the way things are.” They attract followers who mix contemporary concerns with religion. Our Caiaphases know they come from the backwaters of our global communion (unimportant places like Asia, South America -- even Africa, Australia, and North America). They are a small sacrifice weighed against our preservation as a people and the integrity of sacramental priesthood as it is.

With the luxury of hindsight, one can see flaws in Caiaphas’ logic. His choices only delayed a massive rebellion and crushing reprisals from Rome. The Jewish people were scattered, and the temple was destroyed. Rabbinic Judaism reconstructed a faith practice devoid of temple worship. It was radically different from the tradition Caiaphas had sought to protect.

We do not know whether the Caiaphases of our church reason with impeccable insight (though John Paul II’s public apologies for past transgressions suggest perfection eludes our leaders). Will their choices simply delay a massive rebellion and destructive conflict? Will our church re-form into a very different faith practice in the wake of such turmoil? Would our Caiaphases recognize the future as the present they had sought to protect?

I love and admire the man who identified with Caiaphas on Holy Thursday. He faces challenges that are not mine. He must make choices I need not make. He must cooperate with policies that violate his personal convictions. I don’t doubt that he does what he must, given his station in life. I do not question his motives, for he wants the church to survive into the next generation. If I extend this charity to a friend I know, surely I must do the same toward the many who share his station in life.

If not for Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the requirement to seek a mandatum, I would no doubt be content to warm my pew on Sunday, care for my babies and worry about bills and repairs. This is the ordinary rhythm of my chosen station in life.

Yet the guidelines implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae remind me that I also serve the church. These documents press upon me a harsh and painful truth: My work is not delegated to me by my bishop. I study, teach and publish theology by virtue of my baptism. Like all baptized believers, I am called to seek understanding of the faith I have received. It is not my calling to protect our church as it is. As a lay theologian, it is my vocation to speak the truth I find -- flawed and limited as it may be. My colleagues and I are like those dangerous voices on the margins of first-century Judaism. We are sometimes a menace to the way things are.

I puzzle about this as I look toward the future. Do I have the courage to follow Jesus’ example? Can I take up crosses laid on my back by the Caiaphases of my world? Or will I follow Peter’s example that first Holy Thursday and deny the man I love most of all? Will it someday be expedient to sacrifice me, in a vain attempt to avoid unrest in the church?

I have been praying for the Caiaphases of our world. I hope that they are praying for me. I believe that the Holy Spirit can lead us all away from the temptation to duplicity, and into her wisdom, compassion, and love. This is the faith I have received -- the faith I seek to understand.

Kenneth Parker is associate professor of historical theology at St. Louis University.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001