Catholic of Course

A talk by Prof. Dr. Angela Berlis (university of Bern)
given at an GOP Congress in Utrecht, 16 October 2010

I was asked to react to Hermann Häring's speech and also to present my own ideas about carrying on the Torch of Renewal.

( For the original talk by Hermann Häring click here)

First of all I want to record that Hermann Haring's depressing analysis of the situation in the roman-catholic church does not only concern this church, but also has its implications for other churches. "For most people church is church - no matter the denomination." Shortly ago this was written by Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher. (1). And he added: "If the largest christian church is in disorder, the whole of Christianity is".

This 'church is church'- idea is already evoked by the fact that in the eyes of our time the papal church is seen as the principal and consequently only real church. The modern media and their focussing on the pope's person enhance a tendency that already set in during the nineteenth century: the popes' central position - the so-called christification of the pope - and in its perspective the idea of church as a centrally governed organisation. For the protestant churches, and even more for the old-catholic churches such a media-supported centralisation is completely unacceptable, which has to do with their decentralised structures. At most a few charismatic leaders are given a similar kind of attention by the media: for Germany we can think of Wolfgang Huber and Margot Kassmann, for the English-speaking world of Rowan Williams, and for other religions perhaps of the Dalai Lama.

This medial overweight of the bishop of Rome influences the way the church is experienced in our society. This is a society in which an ever increasing number of people do not feel to belong to a church any more, do not experience from the inside how it is structured, theologically oriented and working for renewal. They only know the papacy in its global impacts and pretensions, and on the local level it is only through the scandals that the church gets entrance to the public scene. Apart from a few positive identification figures the image of the church is one of regression, narrowmindedness and isolation from (post)modern life. The automatic authority which the 'typically catholic' enjoyed until shortly ago, has recently evaporated with the revelation of its entanglement in sexual abuse. For that matter Lutheran women bishops come to the fore as fundamentally more positive examples, as they take responsibility for their personal or their churches' failures and in doing so keep up the credibility of the church.

The problem of the image of the church is, I think, added to by something else. Because the roman-catholic church and most of its members uncritically claim being 'catholic', the concept of catholicity is more and more marked by this typically roman-catholic presentation. To give an example: when old-catholics tell about the synodal structure of their church and about the canonically anchored co-responsibility of lay people in all governing bodies, they are frequently asked whether this is 'protestant'.

For many people catholicity has come to mean conservatism, lack of willingness to reform and hierarchical church practice. As an old-catholic I stand for a church that identifies catholicity with the readiness to reform and with openness. When, as a church historian, I observe what is happening here, I am reminded of the nineteenth century. Then, too, modernity was kept at a distance while - paradoxically - the then available 'modern' means for presentation and organisation were made use of. This defensive mentality caused big tensions, which rose to a climax in Vaticanum I and subsequently - and at a very high price - were given one-sided solutions.

Today I am wondering how the great internal tensions within the roman-catholic churches are met with, and what policy is used in the twenty-first century in dealing with the groups that oppose this isolationism.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and already earlier, deviant ideas on what catholicity meant were pushed to the edges and thrown out. In the eighteenth century the Episcopal Clergy ( the present old-catholic church in The Netherlands) looked for and found many allies to ward off isolation.

I share Hermann Haring's concern about the image of catholicity. He formulates this concern from an internal roman-catholic angle. He is also a spokesman for the generation of the 'children of the Council' whose expectations and hopes for church renewal were, in the winter that set in soon, frozen to death. Hermann Haring is not the only theologian and roman-catholic that takes a critical stand towards the developments that have got concrete faces during the past decades. Hard judgments of the same kind are also heard elsewhere, for example in the latest issue of the periodical Diakonia. There Swiss theologian and journalist Fritz P.Schaller talks of an "autistic syndrome in the roman-catholic church". Schaller and Haring show concern that the present roman-catholic church has essentially contributed to secularisation and to the indifference of modern people as regards the church

This observation was, by the way, also made by old-catholics, for example in the Utrecht Declaration of 1889 which says: "By keeping faithfully to the teachings of Jesus, and by rejecting all errors, abuses and hierarchical leanings introduced by human failure, we hope to be able to most effectively oppose unbelief and religious indifferentism, the worst ailments of our time"(2).

Schaller and Haring agree that the roman-catholic ministerial church has taken refuge in a cocoon that keeps out any reform, hoping to 'hibernate' the crisis. Shaller's conclusions are similar to those drawn by Haring. More than Haring, who mainly shows how roman-catholics can live in their shelters in order to make local revival possible, Shaller also points to historical reasons for this development. He finds a clear source for the present developments in the 1870 dogmas of papal infallibility and jurisdictional primacy.

In my opinion Schaller shows the core of the problem. These dogmas (3) are clearly "the direct causes, and that is why ecclesiastical autism must be qualified as systemic, and as possibly incurable" (4).

On a point of history, however, I must criticise Schaller. He writes: "Today it seems unbelievable that the 1880 Council Fathers let this fatal and absolutist dogma pass"(5). Such a statement ignores the general development history of these dogmas, the pressure exercised by the pope to subdue 'disturbing' bishops and theologians, and also the throwing out of those who protested against the new doctrine and after 1871 either chose for an 'inner emigration' or stuck to their old catholicism and called themselves old-catholics. The suffering that, from the very beginning, accompanied this theologically fully unnecessary and unseemly point of doctrine must not be forgotten.

But the diagnosis as such, that this dogma and its consequences for ecclesiology and canon law

support a closed system and have led to a centralisation that was not known before, is correct in my opinion. So we can ask if Vatican II was strong enough perhaps not to abolish but at least to keep within bounds this system, built with the planks of neo-scholasticism and ultramontanism and hinged with papal primacy. For a time this seemed successful. In the internal roman-catholic domain itwas shown in the reforms of liturgy and parish leadership, in the voice lay people of both sexes were given, and many more. Externally the fresh breath of Vatican II gave new life to relationships with other churches, who all of a sudden found themselves not just weighed and written off, but real partners that were taken seriously. It was a time for pulling together on a common theological string, irrespective of the denomination one belonged to. There was a growth towards openness and understanding others in their differences. For non- roman Christians it was a joyful experience that the times had apparently passed of pronouncing judgements about others and the pretentious depreciation of positions that differed from the roman-catholic ones. The roman-catholic church showed its willingness and readiness to change, to reform in head and members.

But the backlashes that followed show that Vatican II could also be 'received' in a different way. It did not revoke the papal dogmas but only reformulated them and situated them within episcopal collegiality. Why shouldn't I welcome the many positive developments in the wake of Vatican II, which bore much internal and ecumenical fruit? But was church renewal really fundamental? Did the theology of the People of God really contribute to bridging the gap between clergy and laity, between sacred and secular? (6). In Hermann Haring's analysis this split is as deep as before and was even accentuated by the introduction of new ministries: lay pastors and theologians, male of female, count as laymen. To continue the comparison: some of the neoscholastic and ultramontanic planks were replaced or repainted, and the hinges got some oil, but: doesn't the universal jurisdiction of the popes function better than ever before, and does not papal infallibility, although in fact seldom directly referred to, hang as a sword of Damocles over any new papal letter? And do people still know that the ink on the jurisdiction document has hardly dried, and that even in the nineteenth century jurisdiction worked out differently - for example as regards the diocesan chapters' right to choose a new bishop?

Haring's thesis that many roman-catholics still yearn for harmony and have remained fixated by authority, is substantiated by my own historical research into the nineteenth century. In the following years resistance against the 1870 papal dogmas got bogged down and collapsed, because a large majority of the opponents wanted to remain good friends with the pope and were willing to perform the 'sacrificium intellectus'. In the end papal authority and the procrustean bed of church unity weighed heavier than their own consciences. This, in any case, was how the old- catholics saw it (admittedly: expressed in very polemical terms).

I very much welcome Haring's plea for a 'theology-founded exchange'. Our actions must be preceded and accompanied by deep-going reflection. It must not only be biblical and systematic- theological, but also historical. This protects us against too much subjectivism, for otherwise we may do what just suits us best. I hear this also in Haring's warning that not everything is good just because it is new. And the opposite is also true: not everything that is handed on by tradition is automatically bad or 'conservative'.

So what are the conclusions?

When a few years ago Church and Ministry was published I was very enthusiastic about it, but I must admit that for me, as an old-catholic, it went too far in many points. I say this humbly because I realise that, as an old-catholic, I can easily say this since I am living in a well-ordered situation. At least since the ordination of women in the old-catholic church the equal rights of women and men on all ecclesiastical levels are canonically anchored. A thing that joins us, roman-catholics and old-catholics, is the question how these equal rights of all church members work out in practice. This is more than a matter of rights and intellect: we must take it to our hearts, it must penetrate into our hearts - only then the relationships between the sexes are changed and renewed, and is there recognition for those - and there are many of them - who do not conform to 'the' standard.

I know that in stability tests constructions may break down that in an evolutionary setting could bear the stress. So I am glad that Haring advocates a radical reform that is clever and determined, and coordinated with other countries. Acting in this way does not lead to a break-down. But whoever wants to bring about a reform that is really radical - which means: touches the roots - should not ignore the historical dimension. If the catholic church is again and again to be reformed in head and members - which was already asked for in the Middle Ages - it should be done while realising that it applies to a church of all places and all times. Only in this way, I am sure, reform will be a success provided 'all times' is taken account of. If this is forgotten while the reform is being carried out, we lack an important corrective and run the risk of falling victims to an unfortunately very contemporary historical forgetfulness which thinks we are only living in the here and now. People who can only live in the here and now surrender to a post-modern and possibly also late-capitalist set of standards, and lose themselves and their reforms in a subjective now.

'We will not suffer ourselves to be pushed outside the catholic church' accordingly also means: we will not suffer being bereft of the complete ecclesiastical tradition, exchanging it for a form of supposedly clear monolithic stream in tradition. This history we will not allow to be taken from our hands, because it is not our private heritage, but also of many other christians who in our time belong to other churches and denominations. This means: the agenda is not just to shed off the 'cocoon of the Middle Ages' as Haring puts it, but to recognise the silk threads the cocoon of the church was spun from as broad and faintly glittering threads that connect us with the church of all ages. A reform can only be a reform if it does not cut these silk threads or replace them with motley polyester strings.

When as a church historian I look at the many reform attempts and movements church history has seen, it strikes me that in all cases not only their content or the support they got played a big role, but also the element of time. History shows that Rome's hibernation reflex has already more often survived such reform movements. So my question for all of you is: how long will you sustain? Are enough people going to carry further the torch of renewal? Will young people who are ready to take over the torch be given enough room for their own reform ideas? Will it prove possible that in them the love for the church lives on without the frost of the older generation descending on the younger one like a cloud of ashes on a field of flowers ( or, quite recent, as a poisonous red tapestry of mud on fertile green fields)?

Carrying on the torch of renewal, the torch of remembering and following Christ. The way in which this is going to happen must be chosen by the young themselves. But I think it is also important to obviate forgetfulness with regard to earlier reformers and reforms. If we fail to do

this, we in fact take over the ideology of those that pour their potion of oblivion over us, and suggest that everything we want is new and that we are trying to re-invent the wheel. The beatification of John Henry Newman, whom I consider an eminent theologian, speaks volumes. Only after the bishop of Rome has started beatifying people such as church historian Ignaz von Dollinger, who was excommunicated after Vatican I and who found Newman on his side as regards papal infalibility, a real change will have taken place: the issue would no longer be the winning back of people who considered their own consciences more important than ecclesiastical authority, but a discussion about the matter for which these people stood and gave up their positions and careers - but not their honour.

Summary and theses

We can only pass on the torch of renewal when we realise that we did not light it ourselves but took it over from people before us.

The holy spirit injected into the church is a guarantee that the hypertrophy of the papacy will be reduced to the authentic petrine ministry. In this process we are the listeners, the receivers, not the people who really decide on the modelling.

Our understanding of catholicity is broadened when we include the memories of the church of all places and all times. Only then the qualification of catholicity can be claimed.


1.       Paul Oestreicher, Falls der Papst zuriicktritt........... , in Aufbruch, nr. 176 (2010), 30. Also in Publik-Forum, nr.18 (2010), 42

2.       Utrecht Declaration of 24 September 1889: internet: www.utrechter-union . Org/pagina/33/anhang.

3.       Schaller only speaks of the universal primacy.

4.       Fritz P. Schaller, Beschamt und bejubelt. Zum autistischen Krankheidsbild der romisch- katholischen Kirche, in: Diakonia 41 (2010), 366-372, here 370.

5.       ibidem.

6.       Schaller's concept of 'Communio-Theology' differs from mine. Here is not the place to discuss this, and I shall not use the term.