Friday, July 23, 2010

Where the real crisis in the Church lies

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The pedophilia crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is nothing compared to the real crisis, that is, the structural crisis regarding its social and historical institutionalism. I do not mean the Church as a community of believers. This is still alive despite the crisis, organizing itself communally, not pyramidal like the Traditional Church. The question is: what kind of institution represents this community of faith? How is it organized? Currently, it appears to be out of step with contemporary culture and in strong opposition to the dream of Jesus, which is understood by the communities that are accustomed to reading the Gospels in groups and thus making their analysis.

To put it briefly but without caricature: the institutional Church is based on two forms of power: a secular, organizational, legal and hierarchical one, inherited from the Roman Empire, and a spiritual one, based on St. Augustine's political theology about the City of God that he identifies with the institutional Church. In its specific montage, the gospel and the Christian faith don't count as much as those powers that they claim for themselves -- the only "sacred power" (sacra potestas), even in its absolute form of fullness (plenitudo potestatis), in the Roman Empire style of absolute monarchy. Caesar wielded all the power: political, military, legal and religious. The Pope, similarly, holds the same power: "ordinary, supreme, full, immediate and universal"(Canon 331) -- attributes that only fit God. The Pope is institutionally a baptized Caesar.

That power that is embodied in the institutional Church has been building up since the year 325 with Emperor Constantine and was officially established in 392 when Theodosius the Great (d.395) imposed Christianity as the only state religion. The institutional Church took that power with all the palace titles, honors and garb that still continue today in the lifestyle of the bishops, cardinals and popes.

This power became, over time, increasingly totalitarian and even tyrannical, especially beginning with Pope Gregory VII who in 1075 proclaimed himself absolute lord of the Church and the world. Making his position more extreme, Innocent III (d.1216) presented himself not only as Peter's successor but as a representative of Christ. His successor, Innocent IV (d.1254), took the ultimate step and proclaimed himself the representative of God and therefore universal lord of the Earth, and could distribute portions of it to anyone he wanted, as the kings of Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century did later. All that remained was to proclaim the Pope infallible, which happened under Pius IX in 1870. It came full circle.

However, this type of institution is now in a profound process of erosion. After more than 40 years of continued study and meditation on the Church (my field of expertise), I suspect that the crucial moment for it has come: either it changes bravely, and thus finds its place in the modern world and metabolizes the accelerated process of globalization, and thus will have much to say, or it is doomed to be a Western sect, increasingly irrelevant and emptied of the faithful.

Benedict XVI's current project of "recapturing" the visibility of the Church against the secular world is doomed if it does not lead to institutional change. People today no longer accept an authoritarian and sad Church, as if they were coming to their own funeral. But they are open to the saga of Jesus, to His dream and Gospel values.

The crescendo in the will to power, thinking wishfully that it comes directly from Christ, prevents any reform of the institutional Church because everything in it would be divine and untouchable. The logic of power, described by Hobbes in Leviathan, is fulfilled: "power always want more power, because power can be secured only by seeking more and more power." An institutional Church thus seeking absolute power, closes the door to love and distances itself from the powerless, from the poor. The institution loses its human face and becomes insensitive to existential problems, such as those of the family and sexuality.

The Second Vatican Council (1965) tried to cure this deviation through the concepts of the People of God, communion and collegial governance. But the attempt was foiled by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who reemphasized Roman centralism, aggravating the crisis.

What was once constructed can be deconstructed another day. The Christian faith possesses the intrinsic strength at this planetary stage to find an institutional form better suited to the dream of its founder and more in tune with our times.


  1. What's amazing is that Boff wrote this before the latest news: Pope Benedict XVI has his face on euro coins that are being given as change in Vatican City. His predecessor, Pope JP II, also had his face on the euro. Let me see...who had their face on a coin? Jesus or Caesar?...hmmmm...See:

  2. Los cristianos no judíos tenemos doble moral porque seguimos dos doctrinas distintas y contrarias. Congruencia es seguir a Cristo por ser cristianos, e incongruencia es seguir el Antiguo Testamento sin ser judíos; lo cual es una apostasía que fue condenada por Cristo, señalando como reos de pena eterna a los seguidores de la doctrina (supremaciíta) y ejemplo (rapaz, criminal y genocida serial) de Israel en la diatriba contra el puritanismo hipócrita de los sacerdotes y escribas de la Sinagoga.