Friday, August 20, 2010

Why does the Church-as-power continue to exist?

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)

I will touch on an uncomfortable but unavoidable subject: How can the institutional Church, as I have described it in a previous article, with authoritarian, absolutist and exclusionary characteristics, perpetuate itself in history? The dominant ideology responds, "just because it is divine." In fact, this exercise of power is not divine at all. This is exactly what Jesus didn't want. He wanted hierodulia (sacred service), not hierarchia (sacred power). But the latter prevailed over time.

Authoritarian institutions tend to have the same logic of self-reproduction. The institutional Church is no different. First, it deems itself to be the only true "church" and removes the title from all others. Then it establishes a rigorous framework: one single system of thought, one single dogmatic, one single catechism, one single canon law, one single form of worship. It does not tolerate criticism or creativity, which are considered negative or as creating a parallel church or other magisterium.

Secondly, the symbolic violence of control, repression and punishment is used, often at the expense of human rights. The one who is questioned is easily marginalized; he is denied the right to preach, write and act in the community. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, punished more than one hundred theologians during his tenure. With this same logic, the sins and crimes of pedophile priests or other crimes, such as financial ones, are kept hidden to avoid jeopardizing the good name of the Church, without the slightest sense of justice towards the innocent victims.

Thirdly, ecclesiastical authorities are mythologized and almost idolized, especially the Pope, who is the "sweet Christ on Earth." I think to myself: what sort of "sweet Christ" was Pope Sergius (904), the murderer of his two predecessors, or Pope John XII (955), elected at age 20, an adulterer who was killed by the betrayed husband, or worse, Pope Benedict IX (1033), elected at age 15, one of the most criminal and unworthy men in the history of the papacy, who sold the papal dignity for 1000 silver lire?

Fourthly, figures are canonized whose virtues fit into the system, such as blind obedience, the ongoing exaltation of authority and "agreeing with the Church (the hierarchy)", much like the fascist style according to which "the boss (Duce or Führer) is always right."

Fifth, there are people and Christians of an authoritarian nature who value order, law and the principle of authority above everything else to the detriment of the complex logic of life that has surprises and requires tolerance and adaptations. They support this type of Church, as well as authoritarian and dictatorial political regimes. Moreover, there is a close affinity between dictatorial regimes and the Church-as-power, as has been seen with the dictators Franco, Salazar, Mussolini, Pinochet and others. The conservative priests become bishops easily, and the bishops who are very loyal to Rome are promoted, encouraging servility. This social-historical-religious block crystallized, ensuring the continuity of this type of church.

Sixth, the Church-as-power knows the value of rites and symbols, since they strengthen the conservative identity, but couldn't care less about their content, provided that they remain unchanged and are strictly observed.

Because of this dogmatic and canonical rigidity, the institutional Church is not experienced as a spiritual home. Many migrate. They say "yes" to Christianity and "no" to the Church-as-power with which they do not identify. They are aware of the distortions to the legacy of Jesus, who preached freedom and exalted unconditional love.

Despite these pathological conditions, we have figures like Pope John XXIII, Dom Helder Câmara, Don Pedro Casaldaliga, Don Luiz Flávio Cappio, and others who did not adopt the authoritarian style, or present themselves as church authorities, but as pastors in the midst of God's people. But despite these contradictions, there is a merit that is important to recognize: this authoritarian type of Church has never failed to convey the Gospels, even while denying them in practice, thus enabling access to the revolutionary message of the Nazarene. It preaches liberation, but usually it is others who liberate.

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