This is a story about how we can maintain our freedom, even in a Church that is trying to overcontrol us. Its author is José María Vigil, a Claretian priest from Spain now living and working in Central America. Fr. Vigil calls the current state of affairs in the Church "ecclesiocentrism" – which is a big, scary word, but all it means is that we have to stop thinking that the pope is the Church. He isn't, says Vigil. But he's at its service – or ought to be.
Freedom in Bad Weather: On the Necessary Reform of the Catholic Church
José María Vigil, CMF
(Translated by Bea Scott)
To our sisters and brothers united again in the «International encounter for the renovation of the Catholic Church»
In the last years of this long and controversial pontificate that is already a quarter of a century long, the People of God are beginning to worry – at least those who question the course that John Paul II has set upon. Millions of the faithful say so publicly in diverse movements of opposition and resistance. There are many more—probably tens of millions—whose disagreement finds no articulate expression; they simply leave the Church. Many of these men and women have worked for the Church, but now they have decided to continue their lives as Christians without much concern for the institutional Church. Many more, most especially in Europe, have abandoned the Church in silence, lowering the number of those who profess Catholicism to the lowest levels in their history. The multitudes who turn out to see the pope on his international trips can only confuse outside observers.
The exodus is not only important quantitatively, but also qualitatively: many youth who are sociologically Catholic abandon the Church upon finishing high school; the modern and postmodern intelligentsia has aversion to ecclesiastic thought; women who are feminists feel the Curia is an enemy and, according to some observers, will stop handing on the faith to new generations; vocations to the priesthood and religious life are virtually collapsed in the first world, and the decline of men and women religious is significant. 
In the post-conciliar era, we had barely begun to acknowledge that we were recovering from the “desertion of the working class” and “the intellectuals” of the 19th century, when it seems that we have entered into these other, no less important “desertions.” It is the vegetative growth of the Catholic population and the cultural practice of baptism of children that are responsible for maintaining the statistics globally.
Deserving of separate mention is the defection of activists, that of those utopian spirits who, within ideal socialism—although within actual capitalism—spent their lives in the past decades working on behalf of liberating, socializing, democratizing popular utopias. These are dispersed and worried, immunized—maybe for several generations—against trusting in a Church that has been in admirable harmony with the powers of worldwide capitalism, in struggle against the best committed Christians who are aligned with the popular struggles, and in repression of liberation theologians.
We are not going to refer to the scandal—so current—that Christianity means today for the Islamic world, on being considered by the latter as the sponsor of worldwide capitalism in its current version of globalization; all the more so by the moral degradation and cultural aggression toward the world of the poor.
There’s no need to describe the situation inside the Church, the already more than two decades of suffocation of that Spring that the Second Vatican Council inspired, with a policy of authoritarianism, centralism, conservatism, in a demoralizing situation of a “waning pontificate” upon which hangs the sword of Damocles, that is, the risk of a papal election—non-representative, non-participative, institutional, clerical (only clerics), sexist (only men), co-opted by the same authority that is to be succeeded—that can bring as much a change from the present path as a confirmation of the same—for another quarter century. A Winter has hit the conciliar Spring, a Winter from which we have still not departed. Christians of conciliar spirit, the most lucid and generous spirits, some of them having given the best of their lives to the great causes, walk dispersed and despairing, looking toward the dawn, hoping maybe for some sign of the times that tells them, “get up and walk.”
This is a major fact, it cannot be denied. It cannot be disregarded by saying, “There are always malcontents.” The sun cannot be covered with one finger. Quantitatively and qualitatively, as has been said, it is an important fact, and one worthy of theological and spiritual reflection.
Instead of appealing to a spiritualized obedience, an ingenuous faith or a hope without realistic basis, from which we would only obtain prescriptions that would prolong the situation, the appropriate question might be, “What is happening?” In an attempt at interpretation, one could try to see if some wider parameters of reference could be useful to us. In three perspectives:
1) Historical Perspective
When one looks at things too closely, they can affect him or her too much, and the tree can also block the view of the forest. The first approximation we all made of the crisis that began with the pontificate of John Paul II was a diagnosis of involution. I remember when the magazine “Misión Abierta” (Open Mission) in Spain, already in 1980, launched a monographic issue titled “Regression in the Church?” It seemed blasphemous. No one had yet come to formulate his or her perception of the moment in such a way. Or no one had been able to express what he or she already sensed beforehand. Critiques and damaging remarks rained down upon the magazine, labeling it as tendentious and mistaken. Only a few years later, even the Church’s own official supporters could not deny that regression.
The first diagnosis that we made of the crisis was this: a regression with respect to Vatican II, favored by Pope John Paul II, precisely the one who had been the chief of the coetus minor, or opposing minority, defeated at the Council. In the Synod of 1985, the work of de-activation of the Council, and the imposition of an interpretation of the Council that tried to correct the course, consumed them. The rest of the quarter century has been one of deducing consequences and unfolding that nucleus, the re-interpretation of Vatican II, toward the entire universal Church. In such a long time period there is practically nothing left to turn back, and there are very few bishops left to be substituted by others from a contrary line. The Council had been progressive, utopian, charismatic, too little worried about juridically implementing reforms. With the regression of John Paul II nothing really new has come about, except “business as usual." The Council has been simply a parenthesis of exception.
A subsequent and more profound vision permitted us to frame the ecclesial crisis that we were living in the same conflict of the relations of the Church with modernity. What we were living was one more season of the ancient conflict of the Church with modern culture, in a contest that is already several centuries old. The Council had signified an opening to the modern world, a gale of fresh air, to quote John XXIII, that to conservative sectors seemed to be “Satan’s smoke.” The “conflict of interpretations” ended up profoundly affected by a concrete juncture of truly unfavorable historical forces: a Pope who, due to his being from Poland, was marked by a visceral antisocialism; a re-strengthening of the neoconservative right in England and the United States, and a convergence between one and the other; a wave of repression and of state-sponsored terrorism in Latin America by means of military dictatorships; a weakening, with its subsequent crumbling, of the Socialist block in the technological-economic race. In this macro-situation –true “mystery of iniquity”-our post-conciliar problems ended up being simple leaves swept away by the wind of a historic hurricane, to the margin of our will and out of our control.
In the last years the perspective has grown wider still. In reality, what is on course seems to be that it is not only the secular conflict with modernity. What is occurring is possibly an “epochal change” with which a cycle, possibly of millennia, is closing. A clearly perceptible “metamorphosis of the sacred” is occurring (Martín Velasco) that is not a problem of one Church, nor of one religion, but of religion in general. It is actually a mutation of humanity, which is at the point of acceding to a new way of religiosity (or maybe simply one of spirituality). The model of the great religions, that was created in the “axial period” when humanity acceded to a new level of religious consciousness, is in a profound crisis, multiplying everywhere the signs of the necessity of a new configuration of what it is to be religious, without us being able to foresee where the evolution that is on course is going.
What is being played out in the background of this crisis of religion is not a provincial debate or internal school of the Catholic Church, but a crossroads that—also now—is entirely beyond us. The crisis that struck the Catholic Church after Vatican II was not because of the Council, but in spite of it. The Council arrived late, too late, and the solution of wanting to neutralize it by reverting its development has not served to avoid the crumbling of that which—by other causes—is going to keep falling and dying, although certainly it seems that what will replace it has not been born yet.
And here we are, disconcerted, feeling we have nothing in common with the “superior forces” that, like the ancient Fates, plan over us and decide the world in their upper-echelon battles. The curvature of the macro dimensions of what is in play is too wide to be able to perceive it in the narrow spaces in which we circulate.
But I don’t want to say that the big picture should paralyze us by the unembraceable magnitude of its horizons. No. They simply must make us more realistic in our alliances, less affected by the immediate debate, longer in our view, deeper in our approaches. And we must also want to make our own original, protagonistic contribution to this historical circumstance. What is in play in the current juncture goes much farther that what we can reach, and to know this helps us to not waste energy in that which is destined to die, to allow ourselves to be pushed by the dominant, overarching Spirit, to value more rightly the meaning of what goes on in our “micro” sphere and
to know to wait
knowing at the same time to force
the hours of that Urgency
that does not permit waiting. (Pedro Casaldáliga)
b) Historical-personal perspective
The regular experience of the Christian faithful was one of total submission and obedience to the Holy Mother Church, overwhelmed by its authority and even by the threats that stemmed from a possible rebelliousness. In front of that institution as deposit of Truth and Word of God, the faithful Christian felt insignificant, and the attitude of blind obedience and resignation, together with the passive hope that circumstances would change, were traditionally the only thinkable attitudes on the part of the faithful toward the authority of the Church.
But the sensibility of the modern person has changed. Something has been demythologized in the imposing figure of the Church, and the faithful Christian perceives him or herself now with certain autonomy, questioning submission and passive resignation. The “modern” and critical believer is conscious of his or her life and of its transience, and is decided to live it without allowing circumstances to compromise it.
On the other hand, “in the background there is a new awareness that the absolutist character of the Church fell apart due to the fact that in the Council she remade many of her teachings, customs and practices once held as unreformable. If the teachings of the past were reformed, those of today could be reformed tomorrow. In that situation, the faithful retreat to the mystery of their own conscience and freedom, and do not wait for external norms and laws as an answer to their questions.”
More concretely, the faithful, aware Christian can no longer renounce her spirituality and theology because the new bishop named to her diocese or the new pastor named to her parish is “of another line.” If one cannot live his Christianity as his formed conscience dictates, in a determined place or sphere, he will try to do it outside of that place or sphere. But what is happening less and less is to hand over the carrying out of one’s own life (and of one’s own personal Christian life) to the dictates of the changing, external authority. One only lives once, and only once does one have the opportunity to be herself, and to make her own contribution to history and to the Kingdom, and even to the Church. A person can’t stop being who he is for the simple fact that the bishop changed, the diocese’s party line changed, or they elected this other Pope. Not even if one finds refuge deep down inside, or exiles herself in the Church. There are more and more believers who prefer the exercise of their own personal responsibility to a dehumanizing obedience that demands that they renounce being themselves. There are more and more who break through the fear and risk living their “freedom in bad weather.” This change of attitude and of historical-personal conscience is what is taking place in these last years in the movement of disagreement and resistance within the Catholic Church.
c) Theological Perspective
The entire theological universe can be brought up to illuminate these problems with which we are dealing. But, without a doubt, the central point, to which we will limit ourselves here, is precisely the conflict between ecclesiocentrism and kingdomcentrism.
Practically speaking, the entirety of adult believers today was educated in the ecclesiocentrism of yesterday. Many of us have saved ourselves, thanks to post-conciliar theological renewal, but it is known that in the underlying structure of a person’s thinking, and in subconscious or even affective levels, we can keep carrying structures, principles and values (and even fears and taboos) that belong to the old ecclesiocentric conception. This subconscious ecclesiocentrism is a determining factor that explains the contention of the opposition and resistance in the Church.
But the growing clarity that time adds to the analysis of what happens in the Church causes there to be in many believers a greater consistency in the tension between ecclesiocentrism and kingdomcentrism.
Every day many take a step forward with regard to putting in the center what is really absolute and to giving the status of relative to what is really relative. Continuing the reflection about the relations between Church/Reign of God/World, not so much in theory (where they are clear for some time now) but in the practice of Church life, could be possibly the task that, at a theological level, is pending: that is, for us to illuminate and confirm the Christian practice of this growing number of brothers and sisters that feel in all honesty that they disagree with the current orientation of the Church.
The relationship between Church and Reign of God cannot be considered rightly except with relation to the world, the place where one and the other exist and must realize themselves. If our preoccupation were only the Reign of God and the Church, we would not cease to be ecclesiocentric. We must worry about opening the doors of the Church so that the remedy does not consist in installing a revolving door and continuing to go around and around permanently in those doors. If we are Church, we are for the world, in which we must build the Church, and in that building in the world is where we are Church, not only in the “ecclesiastic” spaces and spheres. We most drop the anchor of our ecclesial identity in the Reign of God and in the world in which we build that Reign, without deceiving ourselves into thinking unconsciously that the ecclesial identity comes to us from simply that which is ecclesiastic.
We must continue to make the grave problems of the world our own true ecclesiastic problems, always remembering that the ecclesiastic is of second order in the life of the Church. The principal reform that the Church needs continues to be its conversion to the Reign of God, its effective post in the service of the cause of Jesus in a world that, structured precisely by the “Western ‘Christian’” has been configured clearly in contradiction with the cause of Jesus. Our first obsession cannot stop being the building of the utopia of the Kingdom, which we could call a new world order marked by correct relations of justice, love, peace and liberation.
In second place, but also in an important place, the “ecclesiastic” must adjust itself to the same imperative of the Kingdom, and make itself transparent to the Gospel.
I ground all of this with a few notes in the manner of “Notes for a Kingdom-Centered Church Spirituality.”
1. The conscious and explicit negation of ecclesiocentrism and of any element that it shapes in the Church forms part of a mature Christian conscience in today’s world.
2. The Church must be put explicitly beneath the cause of Jesus and at its service. The contrary is heresy, at least implicit, or collusion.
3. The Church must be “relativized”: it must be kept in its own category of relative and relational. In some aspects it also must be “de-absolutized.” The absolutization that was made of it must be positively deconstructed. “Relativism” should be avoided; but even more so must we avoid contemporizing with the many ecclesiocentric absolutizations that still deny the absolute nature of the Kingdom. It is a Christian and ecclesial duty to return the Church to its being relative and relational to the Reign of God.
4. We have the right to live this hour of humanity and our own lives in accordance with our faith convictions, without allowing ourselves to mortgage our freedom and our historical responsibility. We are Church, and we demand that we be allowed to be so. “That they let us be this Church that we want to be,” within the pluralism accounted for since its beginnings in the New Testament. The Church is not only our Mother, but also our Daughter; we make her, we shape her, we are who she is. The Church is also what we are, and we do not want to commit an historical sin of omission. This Daughter Church of ours exists, and will survive for the historical and eschatological future. We must be open to dialogue and discernment, but closed to abuse and capitulation.
5. If we have not already done so, we must transfer the anchor of our identity to deeper waters, from the Church to the Reign of God. To feel much more like builders of the Reign and fighters for the cause of Jesus, than members of the ecclesiastic institution. In theory there is no conflict between both dimensions, but there is too often in practice. Belonging to the Reign of God and to the Church, although they are perfectly compatible, is not necessarily comparable; one is more on the profound level of our relationship with the absolute, and the other is more on the level of how the absolute is mediated.
6. The greatest service that can be done for the Pope is to not mythologize him, and to ask urgently a deep reform of the papacy. The greatest favor that can be done for the Church is to not support ecclesiocentrism, and to fight tirelessly against all its deficiencies (GS 43), today resoundingly pointed out by so many Christian sectors. The worst service we can do for the Christian community is to abdicate our right to be Christians in another way, to remain quiet or left out, without creating “public opinion in the Church” and to allow the Church to remain gripped by a conservative theology that makes itself the only depository of the truth. A mature belonging to the Church today includes the commitment to reform movements of the Church.
7. Given the great ecclesiocentric component that the majority of us Christians drag with us, an overdose of effort is necessary to depose the generalized fear that has been instilled in good part of the Church, in order to raise our self-esteem, to heighten confidence in the critical-prophetic dimension of the Christian vocation, to increase the security and strength that, although those who continue to be in debt to ecclesiocentrism suffer from lack of understanding, the struggle for the cause of the Reign of God continues to be the supreme value for which it is worth it to live and die, as followers of Jesus. Even though we have to live that freedom in bad weather.
José María Vigil studied theology at the Pontifical University in Salamanca and at the Angelicum in Rome, and did studies in clinical psychology in Salamanca, Madrid and Managua. He is executive secretary of CICLA, the Conferencia Internacional Claretiana Latinoamericana, and the author of a number of books and articles, many of which appear (in Spanish) on the Internet. He says he is working for the coming of the Reign of Christ, for world justice, a correct globalization, the cause of women, the option for the poor, the recovery of self-esteem and hope by the poor and by their organizations, for ecology, for ecumenism and the end of invierno eclesial – the end of winter in the Church.
 The case of “We are Church” in Austria and Germany, its place of origin, with a collection of several million adherents in a very short time period, can be the most symbolic recent case.
 Referring to Europe, E. Poulat speaks of the “post-Christian” era. The numbers confirm such a situation. In the Netherlands, the number of those that declare themselves outside of any Church has moved from 44% in 1970 to 66%, and it is estimated that in 2010 it will rise to 75%. German Catholicism loses close to 200,000 faithful every year. The Catholic Church in Brazil, in other geography and for other reasons, loses half million faithful every year, who emigrate to Assemblies of God and other new religious movements. Cfr Luneau-Michel, Nem todos os caminhos levam a Roma, Vozes, Petrópolis 1999, 17ss.
 Religious life has lost 19% of its members (230,000 people) in the 22 years of the pontificate of John Paul II, remaining today at about 1 million people.
 Elsewhere I have sustained the hypothesis of a “collective psychosocial depression” in Aunque es de noche: Hipótesis psico-teológicas sobre la hora espiritual de América Latina en los 90,, Envío, Managua 1996; Verbo Divino, Bogotá 1996; Acción Cultural Cristiana, Madrid 2000. Embora seja noite, Paulinas, Sao Paulo 1997.
 In the words of Rahner, “The Church Council has not yet been accepted in fact in the Church, neither in letter or in spirit. In great lines we are living in a wintering, as I tend to say.” Imhof, P., La fe en tiempo de invierno, Desclée, Bilbao, 1989, p.45.
 Comblin just demonstrated this glaringly in his latest work, O Povo de Deus, Paulus, Sao Paulo 2002, cap. IV: “El giro del Sínodo de 1985,” p. 115ss.
 In reality the authoritarian, vertical, Roman model represents an “historical structure” that is one thousand years old, since Gregory VII in the 11th century, when what Congar called the “ecclesiological shift” occurred. “Coyuntural” or “current” is only this version of that model by John Paul II.
 J. Martin Velasco, Metamorfosis de lo sagrado y futuro del cristianismo, Sal Terrae, Santander, 1999. Also in Koinonía: http://servicioskoinonia.org/ relat/256.htm
 Jaspers, Karl, The Origin and Goal of History, Yale University Press, 1953; cfr Palacio, Carlos, Novos paradigmas ou fim de uma era telologica? em Soter, Teologia aberta ao futuro, Soter-Loyola, Sao Paulo 1997, pp 81ss; also in http://servicioskoinonia.org/relat/227htm
 Comblin, l.c., p.9. O’Murchu, Rehacer la vida religiosa, Publicaciones Claretianas,m Madrid 2001, p. 71
 J.B. Libanio, Igreja contemporanea. Encontro com a modernidade, Loyola, Sao Paulo 2000, p. 91. “According to recent opinion polls, 83% of the population follow only their own conscience in moral questions, and only 1% hold itself subject to Church doctrine” Hans Küng, Morir con dignidad, Trota, Madrid 1997, pág. 52.
 On this point we are more with Vatican Council II (which in GS 43 tells us that “we must be conscious of the deficiencies of the Church and fight against them with the maximum energy”) than with Cardinal Sodano, who affirmed that “he who loves does not criticize, but strives toward unity with the Pope and his bishop” (SEB, nº 21, 13.octubre94).