Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What kind of pope? The tensions in the Church today

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

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

I'm not proposing to present an evaluation of Benedict XVI's pontificate -- something that others have already done competently -- here. It could be interesting to better know the tension that is always alive in the Church and that marks the profile of each pope. The central question is: what is the position and mission of the Church in the world?

We would say at the outset that a balanced view of the issue must rest on two basic pillars: the Kingdom and the world. The Kingdom is the central message of Jesus, his dream of an absolute revolution that reconciles creation with itself and with God. The world is where the Church performs its service to the Kingdom, where it itself is built. If we think of the Church in a way too linked to the Kingdom, we risk spiritualization and idealism. If we think of it in a way that's too linked to the world, we fall into the temptation of secularization and politicization. It is important to know how to articulate Kingdom-World-Church. The latter belongs to the Kingdom and also to the world. It has a historical dimension, with its contradictions, and another, transcendent one.

How does it live out this tension in the world and history? We present two different and sometimes conflicting models: witness and dialogue.

The witness model states with conviction: We have the deposit of faith, within which are all truths necessary for salvation. We have the sacraments, that communicate grace. We have well-defined morals. We are confident that the Catholic Church is Christ's Church, the only true one. We have the Pope, who enjoys infallibility in matters of faith and custom. We have a hierarchy that rules the faithful, and we have been promised the constant assistance of the Holy Spirit. We have to bear witness to this in a world that doesn't know where it's going and that will never attain salvation by itself. It will have to come through the mediation of the Church, without which there is no salvation.

Christians in this model, from the popes to the simple faithful, feel imbued with a unique salvific mission. In this, they are fundamentalists and little given to dialogue. Why dialogue? We already have it all. Dialogue would only be to facilitate the conversion of the other, as a courtesy.

The dialogue model starts from different presuppositions: The Kingdom is greater than the Church and is also accomplished secularly, wherever there is truth, love, and justice. The Risen Christ has cosmic dimensions and pushes evolution towards a good end. The Holy Spirit is always present in history and in people of good will. The Spirit comes ahead of the missionary, since it was in the people in the form of solidarity, love, and compassion. God never abandoned His own and offers all the opportunity of salvation, because He created them from His heart, so that someday they would come to live happily in the Kingdom of the freed ones. The mission of the Church is to be sign of the history of God in human history and also an instrument for its construction, together with the other spiritual paths. If reality, both religious and secular, is pervaded by God, we should all be in dialogue -- interchanging, learning from each other and making the human pilgrimage towards the promise joyful, easier, and safer.

The witness model is that of the Church of tradition that promoted the missions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, being -- in the name of witnessing -- an accomplice as well in the decimation and domination of many indigenous, African and Asian peoples. It was the model of Pope John Paul II who traveled the world, clutching the cross as testimony that through it came salvation. It was the model, in an even more radical way, of Benedict XVI, who denied the title "Church" to the Protestant churches, harshly offending them. He directly attacked modernity -- since he saw it negatively -- as relativist and secularist. Of course, he didn't deny all its values, but he saw them in any case as proceeding from the fount of Christian faith. He reduced the Church to an isolated island, or a fortress surrounded on all sides by enemies against whom it had to be defended.

The dialogue model is that of Vatican II, of Paul VI, and Medellin and Puebla in Latin America. They saw Christianity not as a deposit or as a closed system that ran the risk of remaining fossilized, but as a source of living crystalline waters that could be channeled through many cultural ducts, in a space of mutual learning because all are bearers of the Creator Spirit and the essence of Jesus' dream.

The witness model has scared off many Christians who felt infantilized and devalued in their professional knowledge. They no longer felt that the Church was a spiritual home and, disconsolate, they have separated from the institution, although not from Christianity as the value and utopia of Jesus.

The dialogue model has drawn many near, since they have felt at home, helping to build a learning Church, open to dialogue with all. The effect has been a feeling of freedom and creativity. So being Christian is worth it.

The dialogue model is urgent if the institution wants to get out of the crisis it has gotten itself into and manage to get a hand on its honor -- morality (the pedophiles) and spirituality (the theft of secret documents and the serious problems of transparency at the Vatican Bank).

We should intelligently discern what currently better serves the Christian message, amid an ecological and social crisis with very grave consequences. Because the main problem isn't the Church but the future of Mother Earth, life, and our civilization. How does the Church help in this transition? Only by dialoguing and joining forces with everyone else.

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