17. Between Corpus domini and Eucharistic adoration

In the RC liturgical calendar, this time of the year is associated with the celebration of Corpus domini (body of the Lord). The second week after Pentecost, many RC parishes organize processions in the streets whereby the crowd walks behind the consecrated host that, according to RC doctrine, is the real body of Jesus Christ. The beginnings of this solemnity go back to the Middle Age and it revolves around two tenets: the need to take the body of Christ out into the city in order to show forth His presence, and the need to expose it to public adoration. The solemnity of Corpus domini is a microcosm of RC doctrine and practice. It is a spiritual and public event. It has aesthetic and liturgical overtones. It combines sacramental theology and folk religion. It mingles mystical and social aspects. It is traditional, yet still appealing in many parts of the world. It wants to be Christ-exalting, but in ways that many Christians find embarrassing, if not totally unbiblical. It is Roman Catholicism in a nutshell.

 

What is Eucharistic adoration?

Central to Corpus domini is the Eucharistic adoration. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it: “The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession” (n. 1378). After consecration, the host becomes the body of Christ and therefore His real presence is to be found in it and the faithful are to worship the transubstantiated host. Generally speaking, Eucharistic adoration takes place in church buildings whereby people bow down in prayer before the ostensory, but occasionally (as it is the case with Corpus domini) the same ostensory is taken out in procession and displayed publically. The whole logic is governed by a syllogism of the following type:

 

  • Premise 1. Jesus Christ is to be adored.
  • Premise 2. The consecrated host is the Body of Christ really present.
  • Conclusion: Eucharistic adoration is commended.

 

The syllogism works fine if premises 1 and 2 are true. The problem is that, biblically speaking, Premise 1 needs to be qualified by adding “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). We are called to worship Jesus as He desires to be worshipped, and as His word teaches us to do. Premise 2 is discussed even in Protestant circles. What it means for Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper is debated, but even a “realist” understanding of His presence should be qualified by the second commandment that tells us that God cannot be worshipped through images and objects (Exodus 20:4-6).

 

Adoration outside of Sola Scriptura

Eucharistic adoration, therefore, stems from the RC doctrine of the real presence of Jesus, which does not recognize Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as its governing principle. Eucharistic adoration is just one of the examples (one may think at Mariology, papal infallibility, etc.) that mirrors the way RC dogma has developed historically. A partially true statement is coupled with an additional biblical statement that is unclear. The syllogistic conclusion is far from being Scriptural. The intention (in this case, the adoration of Jesus Christ) is commendable, yet the outcome contradicts it if tested by the standards of Scripture.

 

A special gift for Benedict XVI

This year’s solemnity of the Corpus domini week is characterized by a special event: on June 29, 1951, Joseph Ratzinger became a priest and this year marks the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. In order to celebrate, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (the Vatican department overseeing priests and deacons) has encouraged the 3,100 RC dioceses around the world to dedicate 60 hours of Eucharistic adoration each as a gift to Benedict XVI. The total amount of hours of Eucharistic adoration offered to the Pope will be 186,000. It is anticipated that Benedict XVI will be moved by such a gift that reflects so well many different strands found in RC, and reinforces his “affirmative” agenda of traditional RC.

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

Rome, 1st July 2011

 

 

 

16. How big is the Roman Catholic Church? On numbers and statistics

“The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” – famously and sarcastically asked comrade Stalin. The pope may not have many divisions, though historically he has had a small army of Swiss guards. Nonetheless the Pope and the Vatican are still a global player, whereas Stalin and his political project have disappeared from the global landscape. Never underestimate the resources of the Pope!

The Pope may not have military divisions but he has got numbers: people, movements, schools, charities, properties, etc, all over the world. Numbers count and counting numbers is not a theologically neutral thing. As the Biblical narratives on different censuses tell us, numbers are not just mere numbers, but have spiritual, ideological and programmatic overtones as well. Whether right or wrong, in our world one’s own claims are “weighed” numerically. Your credibility depends on how big a share you have, how many followers you have, or how many voters or customers you have. This is why the RC Church seeks to measure itself according to numerical standards. Numbers reflect and prove your power. In majority RC countries, numbers can be used to claim the “right” to maintain certain privileges over the whole nation. Moreover, numbers are very important when one considers the relationship between religious institutions and taxation systems. But what numbers are we talking about?

 

A trend marked by growth

Every year the RC Church publishes the Pontifical Yearbook which is a large volume containing all kinds of information about the world-wide church. The most recent Yearbook was published in 2011, but refers to 2009 and translates the reality of Roman Catholicism in a series of numbers, thus offering statistical insight into how many Catholics are in the world, where they are, what they do, etc.

 

The Yearbook gives an altogether different perspective than that of the public opinion in the West. Contrary to common perceptions that the RC is losing numbers and progressively shrinking, statistics reveal that the total number of baptized Catholics is actually increasing everywhere. In 2009 there were 1,181 billion Catholics, whereas the previous year there were 1,166 billion (+1,3% than 2008, i.e. 15 million people more). There is growth in Africa (1,8%), Oceania (1,5%), but also in Europe (1,3%), America (1,2%) and Asia (0,8%). These gross numbers are impressive and show that the rhetoric of the Catholic Church being at risk of implosion is at least one-sided and superficial.

 

After baptism then what?

These numbers and percentages, however, warrant a closer look. First, the growth rate indicates the people who have been baptized, mainly as infants. These numbers refer to people that are registered in the books of the parishes at the beginning of their life. They do not tell us if and how they are practicing their faith, what they believe, or what degree of connection they have with the church. For the RC Church, “once registered, always registered” is the rule, unless one asks to be removed from the registry (though it is not an easy process). Numbers speak of the quantity of those baptized, not the quality of their RC faith. While the Church keeps on having more and more people willing to have their children baptized (even in the West), it has the problem of catechizing them and making them practicing Catholics. It seems that after baptism a great chasm happens between the institution and the people and a “hidden exodus” takes place. This is exactly the reason why the Church has began talking about the “new evangelization”. It wants to regain those who have been baptized but are far away from the Church.

 

What about other religious pilgrimages?

Second, these numbers hide another important phenomenon. They do not report those who leave the RC Church for other religious pilgrimages. In many countries of the world, for instance, the growth of Evangelical churches does not have a bearing on RC statistics. Evangelical churches may grow but RC statistics remain untouched. Why? Because lots of “new converts” do not bother having their names removed from RC registries. Statistically, they stay Roman Catholics. So, RC numbers always increase because of birth rates, but never decrease due to religious migrations.

 

Let me tell you a little piece of autobiography. After birth I was baptized as a Roman Catholic and so I was registered accordingly in the books. When I was a child, though, my parents became followers of Jesus Christ and eventually, by God’s grace, I became a Christian too. After a few years I became a member of an Evangelical church and eventually a minister of that church. Statistically, however, I remained a Roman Catholic for my entire life until 2008. Why? Because I did not asked to be removed until then, and also because the RC Church in Italy did not have to comply to such requests until recently. The irony was that I have been a professing Evangelical for 40 years, yet an official Roman Catholic since I was born. Only a few years ago was I able to sort the contradiction out. The question is, how many millions of people were raised Catholic and then moved on in other religious directions, but are still Catholic in the Pontifical Yearbook?

Numbers tell a lot, but they also hide a lot. The RC Church is certainly the biggest organized religious institution in the world, and yet statistics give us just one piece of the puzzle. Even that piece needs theological discernment in order to be fully grasped.

 

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

Rome, 16th June 2011

 

15. Sex and the Vatican. Only a moral issue?

Sexuality is not an easy topic for any religious institution. In these matters, who is without sin, let him cast the first stone. Moralizing on others’ failures and nurturing superiority attitudes are not the right approach in addressing the problem. In this field our evangelical grass is not greener than others’. This past year, however, has been an annus horribilis (i.e. horrible year) for the RC Church as far as sex is concerned.

The RC Church has a serious problem with sexuality.

  1. It places the highest standards on its own clergy, i.e. mandatory celibacy, yet it is estimated that one third of RC clergy have a sexually active life. If you expect your own representatives to adhere to certain standards of sexual behavior, you are more easily subject to public scrutiny if your inner circle fails to comply.
  2. The RC’s moral vision entails the sacredness of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage and the condemnation of other sexual orientations. If you are vocal in telling people what is permissible and “right” regarding sexual practices, and what is “wrong” concerning abuses, then your own inconsistencies appear to be more heinous.
  3. Records of abuses and scandals within the RC Church have recently been spotted worldwide after decades of denial and self-protection. We live in a world that no longer keeps secrets, and society at large is now entitled to ask serious questions about the whole matter.
  4. The problem is at all levels: recruiting young people, training seminarians, supervising the sexual life of religious people, facing failures, promoting a transparent culture, etc. The credibility of the entire system is at stake.

            Last week the Vatican Congregation for Sacred Doctrine issued certain guidelines to the RC bishops in order to address the issue. For the Vatican, sexuality is not primarily a pastoral matter, but a doctrinal one and the institution charged to address it is the same that presides over doctrinal purity. The thrust of the guidelines asks local bishops to be more vigilant and collaborative, therefore implying that little vigilance and little collaboration have too often been the practice in the past.

Is mandatory celibacy biblical?

The problem is huge and complex. Yet, for Bible-believing people, the first and decisive question is simple: does the Bible teach or require celibacy to ministers of the church? The answer is as simple as the question: No. While considering celibacy a calling as worthy as marriage (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7), the Bible normally expects that elders, bishops and deacons be married (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:2-5; Titus 1:6). The RC tradition of mandatory celibacy stems from a dualistic and hierarchical distinction between a “higher” religious calling and a “lower” secular one. It is also a means to “control” the clergy and to safeguard the patrimonial heritage of the church from being dispersed.

There is no argument in favor of mandatory celibacy that is biblically conclusive. Therefore it should be open for change. The Bible seems to expect that most ministers be married and that few be single. Will the Bible be allowed to have the final word, which is also a better word than the RC traditional settlement? Will the “Biblical renewal,” that according to some observers is taking place within the RC Church, be allowed to modify this long-standing tradition? No sign in this direction can be seen for now. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have actually reinforced mandatory celibacy, making it even more difficult to change.

Is full transparency desirable?

Public opinion has also been struck by the self-complacent attitude that some RC bishops around the world have shown in dealing with abuses. Instead of denouncing and stopping them, there has been a general tendency to cover them up. The interests of the Church seemed to be greater than the suffering of the victims. The protection of the church was often preferred to the protection of the abused children. In a complex organization like the RC Church, failures are to be expected, but the impression is that the problem lied in the “chain of command” rather than in sporadic cases. There is a widespread code of conduct that puts the church first, above truth and above reality, as if the primary concern is to seek what the church can gain no matter the cost.

 Historically, the RC Church has been attacked by ideological and political forces and has developed a self-protective attitude, like most historical institutions have done. At the same time, it has built a high dogmatic view of itself, claiming to be the societas perfecta (i.e. the perfect society), or the indefectible Church, i.e. the Church that cannot err. It can judge others but cannot be judged by others. It can denounce the sin of the world, but the world is not allowed to denounce its sins. The sexual scandals and abuses show that it is time to become more humble and accountable, less reticent and self-complacent. If self-protection becomes absolute, then it becomes an idol. We are all, however, in danger of elevating our institutions to a place of idolatrous worship, i.e. ecclesiolatry, the worship of the church as an institution.

“Sex and the Vatican” is much more than mere gossip, and it’s more than a justice and moral issue. It is an opportunity for repentance, Biblical reformation, and public transparency. We all need that.

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

Rome, 30th May 2011

14. Reform-in-continuity? Vatican II and the Roman Catholic Church

Vatican II is once again back in the global RC agenda. The most important event in the history of the XX century RC Church (1962-1965) is still a matter of dispute in RC circles. Was it progressive or traditionalist? Did it intend to reform the Church or to reinforce it? Was it doctrinally focused or more pastorally oriented? What is more important, its documents or its “spirit”? Was it primarily an “event” or did it initiate a “movement”? These are only a few of the questions that are still being debated, and the way one answers them is not just a matter of academic taste, but has heavy consequences on the whole RC project in the global world.

 

Vatican II according to “left” and “right”

Generally speaking, there are two main schools of thought. For convenience we’ll call them “left” and “right.” On the one hand there is the interpretative school that sees Vatican II as breaking with the old traditional RC outlook and inserting a progressive trend within the Church. This has been the direction of theologians like Hans Küng and historians like Giuseppe Alberigo. According to this progressive interpretation, while Vatican II introduced significant “change”, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been silencing its potential in areas like ecclesiology, liturgy, and morality and imposing a rigid reading that squares with the traditional self-understanding of the RC Church. Curiously, this view was shared by traditionalists like Msgr. Lefebvre who charged Vatican II of betraying RC identity, having marred it with mortal doses of Protestant and secular poison. Therefore opposite reactions stemmed from the same interpretation of Vatican II being in discontinuity with the past.

The mainstream interpretative school, on the other hand, has insisted that Vatican II stands in substantial continuity with Vatican I (1870-1871), actually completing what was left unfinished, and doing so with the great tradition of the Church (e.g. Trent, the Marian dogmas, etc.). No “real” change has occurred but only a dynamic re-statement of the well established RC heritage. At Vatican II the RC Church approached the modern world in more “pastoral” terms, without modifying its basic framework. According to this linear reading, Vatican II at most brought an “aggiornamento” (i.e. updating) to the language and the concerns of the Church, while still maintaining and reinforcing her fundamental stance.

 

Ratzinger’s “hermeneutics of reform-in-continuity”

In recent years and months, the debate on Vatican II has been revived by different evaluations of what the present Pope thinks of Vatican II and how he is implementing it. Ratzinger was present at the Council and gave voice to the need for “renewal.” Yet in later years he has became a critic of reforming trends in areas such as liturgy, ecumenism and political involvement. As prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine, he fought against all tendencies that in his opinion were watering down the traditional beliefs and practices of the RC Church. Now that he is Pope Vatican II is at the center of his agenda.

Benedict XVI has been reflecting publicly on Vatican II since the beginning of his pontificate. In a 2005 speech he clearly set his course by saying that the Council needs to be read according to a “hermeneutics of reform-in-continuity”. He has been using and expounding the same expression ever since. According to the Pope, Vatican II breached the traditional RC understanding of the state and the temporal power of the RC church, thus acknowledging the value of religious freedom and a degree of separation between church and state, thus overcoming the subjugation of the state before the church. In this restricted sense it was a “reforming” Council. Benedict XVI, however, thinks that Vatican II simply reiterated the RC dogmatic system without altering it in any way. In this sense, the Council is in real continuity with Trent and Vatican I. Therefore Ratzinger is neither a “left” nor “right” wing interpreter. In reality these categories are totally inadequate in coming to terms not only with Ratzinger, but also with Vatican II. The RC understanding of historical development entails “reform-in-continuity”, “aggiornamento” without renouncing, addition without subtraction, expansion without purification. Unless one grasps this “both-and” approach he will fall prey to fragmented and insufficient accounts of RC. “Reform-in-continuity” is the genius of RC.

 

Overcoming the Evangelical puzzlement

Vatican II has been the crux of Evangelical theology as well. Understanding and appraising what happened at the Council is still a task worthy of attention. The best Evangelical treatment of Vatican II (Revolution in Rome, 1972, by David Wells) is a series of question marks that show just how puzzled Evangelical theology was in dealing with modern RC. Its chapters’ titles reveal the conundrum: “Authority: inward or outward?” “God: in the earthly or the heavenly city?” “Christianity: a broad or narrow definition?” “The Church: the people or the Pope?”. In approaching Vatican II some Evangelicals have taken the “right” wing interpretation saying that nothing has changed. The RC is semper eadem (always the same), they say. Others have followed the progressive view claiming that at Vatican II the Spirit of renewal blew in Rome, turning it upside down in gospel terms. Neither interpretation is correct. RC is more complex than the usual labels in that it is neither static nor reforming per se. It is always the same, yet in an expansive trajectory. It is a growing body, yet holding the same DNA. Unless we understand this point, we fail to grasp the basics of RC. It is time that Evangelicals learn to read Vatican II through appropriate lens. There is still homework to be done. With his hermeneutics of “reform-in-continuity”, Benedict XVI can certainly help in the task.

 

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

Rome, 24th May 2011

 

 

 

13. John Paul II beatus. Chronicles of a distant observer

John Paul II is now “blessed”, according to the canon law of the RC Church. The ceremonies that took place in Rome between April 30th and May 1st were followed by a couple million people who were present in one or more of the events and celebrations, and by millions of people around the world who were watching on TV, or observed by means of other media outlets. It is true that the events in Rome were a bit overshadowed by the royal wedding in London, on the one hand, and the shooting of Bin Laden in Pakistan, on the other. The impression is that these two world events somewhat obscured the beatification of John Paul II, at least from a media point of view. The latter, however, was impressive and thought-provoking.

It so happens that I was not in Rome when the ceremonies took place. I was actually in the USA visiting churches and promoting Gospel work in Rome. For this reason I had the opportunity to observe the beatification from a distance, as most people would normally do. Instead of being an eye-witness and fully immersed in the events, I had the chance of being a distant observer with little internet access, some exposure to TV coverage, and only and quick perusal of one or two secular newspapers. In a sense, this is the way that most people would normally have access to Vatican events, and more generally to issues related to Roman Catholicism (grabbing some bullet points, listening to some catchwords, or watching some selected pictures, and that’s all). Little theological awareness, little help in grasping the big picture, and little analysis of what happened. Is this the way in which most Evangelicals form their evaluation of Roman Catholicism?

I was impressed by what I could not gather from a distance. Here are two main pieces of information that stood out to me as a “normal” busy person looking superficially at what took place in Rome.

A memorial service?

The first bit of information I picked up was that what took place in Rome had actually been a “memorial service” celebrating the political achievements, the charming personality, and the ecclesiastical success of John Paul II. The framework was the celebrity status applied to a global-scale religious figure. In a world in which few people deserve praise, John Paul II was commended as a “hero” of his time. A memorial service is something that is palatable to most people, Evangelicals included. There is nothing wrong in nurturing the memory of a person and treasuring the lessons of their life. This, however, is not the main thrust of the beatification. Beatification is a recognition by the RC Church that the person beatified can be presented to the faithful as an intercessor for their needs, worries, sickness, etc. The faithful are encouraged to pray the beatus in order to receive healing and protection. The faithful are encouraged to bow down before the beatus, to have sacred pictures of the beatus, and to develop a fully-orbed devotion for the beatus. In other words, beatification is a decision by the RC Church to add another mediator to the thousands that are already there. Beatification touches on the mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Christ alone is not sufficient in himself, but shares his mediator role with other figures that the RC Church recognizes as “blessed” (and then eventually “saints”). Notwithstanding RC uneasiness to acknowledge this, beatification is a subtraction from the sufficiency of Christ’s work and the full humanity of his person. The “blessed” is added to Christ. Therefore holding a “memorial service” is one thing, perhaps even compatible with basic Biblical teaching, though always in danger of paying too much tribute to the celebrity culture. Proclaiming beatus upon a person is very different in that it diverts the faithful away from Christ and towards the beatus himself. Unfortunately, the latter meaning was absent from what I could gather as a distant observer.

 

A Christ-centered message?

The other impression that was apparent from what I was exposed to was that the general tone of the celebrations was Christ-centered. Few quotations from Benedict XVI’s homily were mentioned and they seemed to refer to John Paul II’s relationship with Christ. The pope was praised as a “servant of Christ” and a “follower of Christ”. (By the way, these expressions are the same that Billy Graham uses in his forward of a picture book on John Paul II that was on display in the US airports’ bookshops). What the media failed to do, however, was to present the Marian framework which was the framework of the whole celebration. On Saturday night more than 300,000 people gathered for a Marian vigil of prayer, all singing totus tuus (“wholly yours”, the Pope’s motto expressing his devotion to Mary), and prayed to Mary all night. Moreover, the homily of Benedict XVI contained many references to the Marian spirituality of John Paul II, commending it to the faithful as the way to uphold Christian witness in today’s world. On Sunday the coffin of John Paul II and the relics of his blood were displayed in St. Peter’s square for veneration by the people. Had I not had a basic knowledge of RC and a bit of spiritual curiosity to go beyond the headlines, I would have had the impression that the beatification was indeed Christ-centered, which in actual fact was not.

The beatification of John Paul II was a reminder of several challenges that we all face. First, relying on the general media as a first point of reference to the reality and accuracy of events is often misleading. Second, relying on a superficial awareness of RC helps in developing a distorted picture of it, and as a result an inaccurate understanding emerges. Third, if most Evangelicals rely on the general media and on a superficial awareness of RC, it is not surprising that we are naive (to say the least) in our evaluation of it.

 

Leonardo De Chirico

leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

Rome, 14th May 2011