Friday, August 6, 2010

Church: a theological reading

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)

In previous articles, we have reflected on one particular issue -- that of power in the Church, centered in the clergy and the Pope, absolutist in aspect. It shocked some people, but the truth is just that. Now a general reflection is fitting, one of a theological character, that is, considering the divine realities underlying the Church as a community that is formed on the basis of faith in Jesus as the Son of God and universal Savior.

As is known, Jesus' original intention was not the Church, but the Kingdom of God -- that radical utopia of total liberation. So much so that the evangelists Luke, Mark and John did not even know the word "Church". It is only Matthew who speaks three times of "Church". When the Kingdom did not come about, due to the judicial execution of Jesus, the Church took its place. The New Testament transmits three different ways of organizing the Church: St. Matthew's synagogal one, St. Paul's charismatic one and the hierarchical one of the disciples of Paul, Timothy and Titus. That was the one that prevailed.

First, the Church is defined as a community of the faithful. As a community, it feels rooted in the Christian God, who is also a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that the community is prior to the centers of power whose place is within it, as a service of facilitation and cohesion. Love and communion -- the essence of the Trinity -- are also the theological essence of the Church.

This community is based on two pillars: Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus appears in two figures: the man from Nazareth, a poor, itinerant prophet who preached the Kingdom of God (in opposition to the Kingdom of Caesar) and ended up on the Cross, the other is the figure of the Resurrected One who achieved this cosmic dimension in matter, in evolution and in the community, as anticipation of the new man and the good ending for the universe.

The second pillar is the Holy Spirit. It was present at the act of creation of the cosmos, always accompanying humankind and every person, and it comes ahead of the missionary. It stirs up spirituality -- the experience of love, forgiveness, solidarity, compassion and openness to God. In the Church, it keeps alive the legacy of Jesus and is responsible for its continuous updating with charisms, creative thinking, innovative rituals and language.

St. Irenaeus (d.200) said it well: Christ and the Spirit are the two hands of the Father, through which He reaches us and saves us.

Christ, being the incarnation of the Son, represents the more permanent side of the Church, its institutional character. The Spirit, the more creative side, its dynamic nature. The living Church is simultaneously something structured but also something changing like the innovations that escape the control of the institution.

It is also said that the church itself, as a community and as a movement of Jesus, has two dimensions: the Petrine and the Pauline one. The Petrine one (St. Peter = Pope) is the principle of tradition and continuity. The Pauline dimension (St. Paul) represents the moment of rupture, creativity. Paul left the Jewish soil to create inculturation in the Hellenic world. Peter is organization, Paul, creation.

Peter and Paul are joined in the figure of the Pope, heir and guardian of the two aspects, symbolized by the tombs of the two Apostles in Rome. Both belong together. But in recent centuries the Petrine dimension has dominated, almost drowning out the Pauline one. This imbalance has led to a centralized church organization, with power in few hands, conservative and resistant to the new, whether it comes from the Church itself, or from society. The current Pope is almost exclusively Petrine, opposed to all modernity.

Today it is urgent to regain the lost ecclesiological balance. The Church must keep the heritage of Jesus (Peter) intact and at the same time renew the ways in which it is carried out in the world (Paul). Only thus will it be able to overcome its conservatism and show its creativity in communicating with contemporary people. It must not be a source of stagnant water, but of living water.

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