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For an ecclesiology with two voices

· People of God ·

Jean Guitton “Mary Magdalene” (Collezione Paolo VI, Concesio)

We are witnessing an enormous earthquake which leads us to expect reactions of the kind that have happened in countries like Ireland. This time the Church’s credibility risks collapsing on a huge scale, at the same time rendering invisible the banner of the Gospel borne by innumerable Christians involved throughout the world in fundamental works of compassion, mediation and humanization. However what is under discussion here is not only a question of deviant sexuality among the Catholic clergy. It is the very institution of the Church herself which is revealing her shortcomings and her drifting off course.

In this sense the frankness of the Letter which Pope Francis recently addressed to the “People of God” does not dispense with the clarity of the Word of God. Rather, the Pope confirms the view recently presented in Gaudete et exsultate when he recalls a fundamental truth, albeit one that has been obstinately diminished in spite of Lumen gentium: the call to holiness consubstantial with Baptism, hence universal, hence transversal to all vocations, over and above the distinct hierarchical distinctions which have increased in the course of history. The expression “People of God”, often viewed with suspicion after its return in the conciliar texts, now reacquires its full importance and urgency.

And it is precisely this theological reality which Pope Francis believes must be urgently remembered today, because it is the exact antidote to the poison of clericalism which is behind the criminal abuses of power.

This diagnosis, which points to the sources of today’s tragedies, to the responsibility of a deviant authority in a predominantly male ecclesiastical institution, leads to seeing women, at the heart of the “People of God”, as those primarily concerned with the Pope’s call to react. Indeed it is they who are the first to know what the abuses of ecclesial power are. Whether they are religious or not, they know only too well the haughty, condescending and contemptuous gaze turned on them, the obedience imposed by men who jealously keep for themselves the prestige of knowledge and the authority of decision-making. It is something women experience every day. It is an experience that confirms the collective memory of a word which has claimed to control their consciences and their bodies and which has always preferred to speak in their place rather than to listen to them.

There are of course, on the margins, women prepared to adopt clerical attitudes. There are of course, in some communities, women with predatory personalities, capable of ruining lives just as perverted men do. Yet, in most cases, women have a different relationship with power. A certain feminine sense of freedom liberates them from that obsession with power which torments so many men. They have a good capacity for considering with amused detachment the male game of titles, honours, and the colours of headgear in the ecclesial institution. Women in general are more interested in life’s surprises, in its calls and unexpected events, rather than in projects for a career. And, without making a display of themselves, since the beginning of the Gospel they have followed Christ freely and with unconditional affection. All this confers upon them an irreplaceable condition in the current circumstances, in which for the Church it is a matter of rediscovering a truly evangelical understanding of power as service. All this, however, is possible only provided that the traditional clerical reluctance grants to women that attention and consideration which until now has been denied to them, and also provided that ecclesiology is no longer thought of, formulated and put into practice only by men who are almost always clerics. For even if we credit them with the upright desire to know the Church in accordance with Christ, it is impossible to avoid the filter of a masculine vision adopted by celibate men, brought up with the idea of the pre-eminence of the priestly ministry which legitimizes in them the redoubtable power of having special rights over others. Hence the pressing need today to integrate the understanding that women have of the Church, on the basis of their experience of the Gospel call and their faithfulness to Christ.

Giuseppe Scaiola, “The Failed Vow” (1977)

In other words, ecclesiology must now be formulated in two voices, combining the male and the female. Only in this way will it be really possible to make changes and will the ecclesial institution be able to free herself from the representation of a ministerial priesthood which still continues, to a greater or lesser extent, to claim hierarchically the priestly identity of the whole Church. It is in this way that the baptismal priesthood will be able to find its full existence and its full exercise at the heart of the Church. Accordingly, the ministerial priesthood will be restored to its true greatness, that of the service of the life and holiness of the people of the baptized, lived in a humble and devout fidelity, in the image of Christ who “came not to be served but to serve”.

The earthquake that is convulsing the Church today must undoubtedly give rise as soon as possible to radical disciplinary and legal measures. However, in the longer term, a basic revision must be made in the understanding which the Church has of herself, and thus in her government. Will the Catholic Church have the courage to bring about this spiritual revolution? Her credibility, namely her future face in the midst of the world, naturally depends on this, No concession, no infidelity can discourage Christ’s faithfulness to his Church. But the Church today must have the courage to break with the habits of power which are cutting the ground from beneath her feet.

Anne-Marie Pelletier 

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