Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jesús Espeja: "It's very urgent that the Church return to Jesus"

by Jesús Bastante (English translation by Rebel Girl),
Periodista Digital
May 19, 2012

Jesús Espeja is a Dominican, and he has just published A los 50 años del Concilio, Camino abierto para el siglo XXI ("The Council at 50: Open Road to the 21st Century") with San Pablo. This year is the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, and a few years before that, Jesús had begun teaching.

How did you experience those first moments? How would you tell them to generations that didn't experience them first hand?

I wrote this book precisely thinking about the younger generations. For me the Council marked a before and after, a change. I certainly came from serious knowledge of scholasticism, philosophy and theology. But, when the Council came along, there was such a decisive change in the Church that it impressed me very much. When I was still finishing my studies in Rome, one had to go to St. Peter's Basilica to wait for the Pope to come out among golden trumpets. The change in the pontifical liturgy was extremely interesting, very significant. The Pope was no longer lifted down from the seat and carried by the patricians of Rome. The Church wanted to walk among the people. Nobody, no human being, should be carried on anybody's shoulders.

Didn't the Mass, which was offered with back turned to the people, change too?

People can't imagine what this change implied for us, who had been speaking Latin all our lives, facing the altar and totally passive. Then the change in the Church was much more radical, especially in two areas, i.e. how the Church went from being an unequal, pyramidal society to a fraternal community where all men and women, animated by the Spirit, were responsible and co-responsible. And second, the way of looking at the world. For those of us who had studied at the time of the Counter Reformation, which was the four centuries after Trent, the world was a synonym for sin. The Devil, the world, and the flesh. When the Church, at Vatican II, became aware that incarnation continues in the world and that, in a certain sense, the Son of Man is incarnate in every human being, history acquired a theological dimension. And that implied a change that we haven't finished digesting.

But these great changes that you're raising never ended up taking place. Equality among all members of the Church, for example...

It's very difficult. On the one hand, we came from a situation in Christianity where the Church had total hegemony, not just in the religious sphere, but with regard to political power. That had been going on for centuries, since Constantine, the Gregorian reform...The Church continued to be a power. The change, specifically in Spain (where the monopoly of the Catholic Church was obvious from the Reccared period) was very hard. The difficulty is going from a public presence of power to a merely significant public presence.

What were your feelings about the Council?

Basically these three things: the change in the Church, which was suddenly the people of God animated by the Spirit; second, a change in the way of looking at the world, through which the Church made itself consubstantial with everything human in joy, hope, and happiness; and third, the fact that the Council didn't start from some abstract truths, but it began to read in the leading documents (Gaudium et Spes, for example) about religious freedom, ecumenism...and it acquired another view, one that started from the signs of the times.

Wasn't there an established reality around which they had to steer the arguments? Weren't there questions and doubts?

Exactly. And that completely changed the perspective. When they say that the Council was a pastoral council, which is what John XXIII wanted, it doesn't mean that it wasn't doctrinal. But the great concern of the Church wasn't its safety but rather serving the world. Therefore the first thing it did was to read about what was happening in the world to, from those characteristics, discern the presence of the Holy Spirit, that would be the point of departure for the conversion of the Church itself. To better understand the Gospel.

How are those goals viewed 50 years later? Are the post-Vatican II generations too demanding towards the Church?

You have to look at it calmly. Fifty years, for the change that the Council implied, is not a lot. You have to leave some time. The Council took place in a cultural context. Starting in '68, there was a cultural stage which we call post-modernity. That left everything up in the air -- the Church, society. And I don't think the voice of the victims was heard sufficiently at the Council. Simply because most of the bishops and theologians at the Council were European, and they were concerned about giving a new vision of faith, one that was credible for a society that was becoming more and more secular.

So the primacy of Christianity was already waning?

Of course. So, the dialogue with the world in which the Church would be sign and prophecy for the poor, takes the risk that the Church might contribute absolutely nothing. Moreover, I think the legal channels to channel and solidify the guidelines of the Council are lacking. One has the impression that the church structure didn't change much. And that's where we still are, because there are two periods in the Council -- one was up until 1980, when there were many experiences, and the other continues to now.

Did much of that have to do with the coming into the papacy of John Paul II, a Polish pope who had experienced the struggle against Communism?

Doubt in the Church had already come in before John Paul II. Paul VI was a tremendously humanistic man, with a spiritual finesse that was off the charts. The Council got going thanks to him. But, of course, it was 1967, when the so-called Dutch catechism came out, that was a completely new focus. Many clerics began to leave, and that Pope, who was very sensitive, began to find himself notably preoccupied by moral permissiveness. In 1978, shortly before dying, he said: "We were hoping for a sunny day after the Council, but we see that there are thick clouds and storms." That's to say, when John Paul II came, fragmentation was already there in the Church. Thanks to the presence of Cardinal Ratzinger, who published a very important book in 2005, The Ratzinger Report, the review of the Council was determined somewhat. Curbing it was seen as necessary to maintain the identity of the Church, because otherwise the world was going to swallow it up. This has already led to a rather negative opinion in 1985 by the Synod of Bishops, in which the perspective was that the journey that we had been on in those first 20 years had been negative for the Church. From then on, it started to look for assurances.

And that's where the regression began?

There's no doubt that there was a slowdown.

But is it a slowdown or a regression? Aren't they going back to earlier practices, reinterpreting and going back on some views?

Yes. At the 1985 Synod, they asked that the Catechism of the Catholic Church give certainties in all fields. The problem is continuity. Benedict XVI, shortly after rising to be the successor of Peter, had a meeting with the cardinals at Christmas 2005 and put forward two hermeneutics: first, discontinuity, i.e. the interpretation that the Council had broken with everything prior to it, second, reform, which is the same thing that Cardinal Rouco Varela repeated a while ago at the last gathering of the [Spanish] Bishops' Conference. But what must be distinguished is the following: that the position that breaks the continuity is the one that says that the Council abdicated from something essential to Christianity (the tendency of Lefebvre and the Fraternity of Saint Pius X).

That's a very graphic example, but are there more?

Yes. There are many people behind it who think like that. The other extreme is thinking that Vatican II is no longer useful, that it did something at that moment but more ought to be done. So, in 1970, an issue of the magazine Concilio came out about a conference they had had in Brussels, saying that it was necessary to have another Council. Lately, books about the possibility of a new Council are coming out too. But the subject of continuity is clear: Vatican II was approved by the same authority as Trent and Vatican I. Consequently, Vatican II doesn't annul the earlier ones, nor vice versa. There is continuity in the tradition, but one must accept that there hasn't been continuism. At the Council [of Florence], in 1442, it was said that "no Jew, no pagan, no schismatic can be saved." And Vatican II said, on the constitution of the Church, that men and women of sincere heart who seek God and want to follow the voice of conscience, find God.

However, in Dominus Iesus, it's suggested that there's really no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.

The ecumenism movement is very open, and it says that there are also elements of truth in other churches. Logically, the problem is, and what about the Catholic Church? That's the big discussion, and what Dominus Iesus did was stress that the true church is the Catholic one. In that sense, once again, it was undoubtedly a slowdown.

The view of the world also changed completely after Vatican II. Religious freedom, in my day, here in Spain, was unthinkable. The Catholic Church was the true one, and error had no right to exist. We were far from seeing that every human being, because of their own dignity, had the right to believe in any, or many, or no religion. All this is an example of how, while there was continuity of tradition, there was also a dismantling of forms and attitudes that is necessary to go on incarnating, little by little, in the Church.

What way do you propose?

First, listening to the world, because the Holy Spirit is acting in the evolution of the times. As such, before speaking, one must listen. Allowing ourselves to be challenged by everything that is happening in the world. And, second, that the Church return to Jesus.

It's easy to say it, but it seems to be hard to do it.

But it's very, very urgent. Nowadays, the Church's action in Spanish society is seen by many, many Spaniards as something contrary to the Gospel. When they talk about the Church, they talk about the hierarchy, and the hierarchy is identified with power, with obscurantism, with the past...even with the right, and, if you're not careful, with capitalism.

Things that have nothing to do with the Beatitudes...

Of course not, nor with the Sermon on the Mount, nor with Jesus of Nazareth. It doesn't belong. It doesn't pertain to the identity of the Church. That's the big problem we have now in Spain.

Do we have a Church without identity?

The Church's problem isn't just itself, but the perception others have of it. We are within a history, and the Church has to face the problem of moving from a public presence of power, as I said before, to a prophetic public presence. Cardinal Tarancón and the Bishops' Conference in those years understood that very well. And that implies a conversion of the Church and Christians to the figure of Jesus and to following Him. It's strange that the latest popes are stressing, both in the Synods that talk about Latin America as well as Europe, the importance of going back to Jesus. I'm convinced that Jesus is the one who judges the Church, not the reverse.

But, if one supposes that the whole Church belongs to Jesus, and our hierarchy is setting forth the Gospel, or the orthodoxy of the faith, which Jesus are we going back to? Aren't the views quite different?

When we speak of Jesus of Nazareth, we are talking about a specific figure. They say He's God, yes. But nobody has seen God. What we know about Jesus of Nazareth is the historic behavior of this man, whom Christians consider the Son of God. And in that, there are three decisive decisions for the Church too: first, that God is not a power that is imposed on us, but someone who is within us, impelling us; second, that the objective of history and our world is that human being relate as brothers and sisters, and consequently no one believes they are better than anyone else; and third, that it's necessary to help those who are excluded to be reintegrated into the community. This is what we all know about Jesus -- Protestants, Catholics, exegetes, theologians...And it's precisely there where we Christians say that God is revealed, because humanity and divinity are inseparable. It's the only thing we know about God unequivocally. This is the key, regardless of fundamentalist discourses. The figure of Jesus is absolutely fundamental in the Spanish Church today. What's difficult is how to put Jesus forward in a society that calls itself post-Christian, where most of those who call themselves agnostic think that Christianity has nothing to contribute, even though they don't know it.

On the other hand, the figure of Jesus is legitimate for most citizens.

Yes. But what evangelization has to do now is talk about Jesus of Nazareth, and the Church must configure itself to His conduct. The logic of power must be renounced. Truth cannot be imposed except by the strength of the truth itself, which penetrates little by little. What we sow today, will be received by the human race to which we belong.

When John Paul II was already at the end of his pontificate, he said this phrase: "the name for that deep amazement at the dignity of the human being is the Gospel." And in another letter, he raises three questions facing the third millenium. First, what diagnosis are we making of this world? Are we still wearing sunglasses, seeing nothing more than the storms, or are we really reconciled with this world? Second, what are we doing to eradicate the evils of this world? So much misery, so much poverty. And third, what God are we Christians talking about through our religious and social conduct? This is the key and it's not a question of divisions of some or others. But it implies a very difficult process for he Church, which isn't going to grow if someone claims to have the absolute truth, but rather only if we all convert to the figure of Jesus.

Do you want to say anything to close?

Yes. The last part of the book is very important to me, because I lay out the signs on which we have to focus. The first is the autonomy of the secular, and, as such, a different public presence of the Church. Second, the freedom of the human being, that has not been able to be repressed and, as such, a change in morality. Moving from a preceptive morality (that is imposed), to a morality that makes it possible for what is human to develop. Third, what we are doing with the poor in this crisis we are suffering; and finally, what God are we talking about. A God who only intervenes from time to time if we pray to Him and make sacrifices? Or someone in whom we are, we move and act? Here, I connect with the great concern of Benedict XVI, with whose bottom line I agree: that reality has a foundation (which for us believers is God), without which reality dies. And that we talk about God not as a hypothetical or imagined God, but as a God who manifested Himself in us and in Jesus of Nazareth, who is love to the point of giving up oneself completely on the cross.

I was a professor of dogma for many years, which is to say that I had a lot of certainties. But what I would say to the young people is that they should move from certainties to trust. That they should never stop seeking, because that is what the maturation process is -- having trust in God incarnate and in the human race that God inhabits, knowing that we are part of it, and that its process is worth the trouble precisely because a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived in it, who is for us the sign, the way, and the fulfillment of true humanity. Therefore I know that this book is nothing definitive, but it's what I want to leave to you who didn't know the Council.

Video: Jesús Espeja talks about his new book on Vatican II:

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