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The authority-power-care nexus for a teaching theologian in Münster

Pathways in Germany

02 March 2024

Authority, power, care. To put these three words together on the same stave would produce a musical score capable of scanning the course of history. This composition would be comprised of institutions and that of people, both inside and outside the Church. Above all, one would understand something more about the relationships between the male and female universes, the tensions that run through them and the desire to find a new balance that restores dignity to each and every one and, above all, to women.

Guardando più da vicino la vita della chiesa, si capisce sempre meglio che le cadenze e i toni di questa singolare combinazione di concetti si sono espressi di volta in volta con differenti modalità e hanno dato origine a modelli tanto diversi tra di loro. Essi hanno fatto sorgere domande che riportano a questioni fondamentali della comprensione di chiesa con la quale si ha a che fare o ai sogni di chiesa che si desidera coltivare e mettere in atto.

Upon looking more closely at the life of the Church, it becomes clearer and clearer that the cadences and tones of this unique combination of concepts have been expressed from time to time in different ways and have given rise to models that are so different from one another. These models have raised questions that lead back to fundamental issues of the understanding of the Church we are dealing with or the dreams for the church one wishes to cultivate and implement.

It is no coincidence that the nexus of these three vital ganglia served as the hub of the different vectors in the articulation of reflections, discussions and decisions of the recent “Synodal Way” (Synodaler Weg) of the Catholic Church in Germany. In the years that have seen it at work (from its convocation in 2019, until the fifth and final general assembly in March. 2023), the Synodal Way has sought to position itself as a powerful effort of renewal in and of the church. In doing so, it reknits, even without denying tensions and diversity, the various sectors of the ecclesial community to reflect on their own identity and destiny.

This effort is articulated around four gravitational points (defined as Forums) that the synod path took on diagnostic in-depth analyses and perspectives. From these, what emerged was an awareness of the limits that have been set throughout history, and the healthy urgency of reform, in order to give a new face to the ecclesial framework.

The intertwining of issues of power, the definition of the clerical state, the condition of women and successful forms of life in affective relationships has generated a potential for systematic thought on the identity of the Church. In addition, her ability to gather and convey the message of salvation to the women and men of today. In other words, to make the Church a habitable and hospitable home for all.

Without tackling the building site of the concept of authority, without seriously rethinking the awareness of its genesis and critically examining the modalities of its exercise, one can never embark on a path of renewal. This is true in the church perhaps even more so than in civil society. The founding reference to the life of Jesus questions the church and confronts it with overcoming that temptation to reproduce images and models of authority according to the logic of domination, typical of the powerful of the world and the rulers of peoples. In tracing these logics and then cloaking them in a sacralizing varnish has probably been the worst of churchmen sins. Power, and how it is frequently administered by authoritarians, has ended up being the cage in which the energy of authority expressed by the life, works and words of Jesus has been confined. His was a different kind of authority, it was one that started from the truth of words and was fulfilled in the caress of the works of closeness to others. The terms that come to us from the Gospel texts represent a Jesus clothed with authority, exousia, precisely: a capacity and energy lavished in truthful speech to teach love, to break the logic of the law that wants to impose and to lead to freedom of the soul, to feel closer to the world. In this agapic exousia, that is, in the authoritativeness of proximity to the other and to his or her needs, lies the link between authority in saying and authority in doing. The miracles of healing express this continuity of standing beside the fragility of the wounded human and extending the hand that saves and does not rule.

It was precisely with this authority that the founder wished to clothe his Church, passing his energy of authority into those who, male and female, believe in his name and act according to his design. Only distortion through contamination with the logic of domination has caused the original freshness of the founding moment to be lost, which has ended up being emptied of even its normative sense for measuring the authenticity of church images. In the gulf that has played out throughout history, another effect has taken hold in a vigorous and embarrassing manner: the masculinization of authority portraits in the Church, with an emphasis that was not and is not merely superficial in nature, but one that has been clothed with inescapability, almost definitive. Jesus, in his naked masculinity and not in his portrayal of the divine person of the God-Trinity, was made the basis for the legitimization of authority to be exercised by males alone in and over the ecclesial body. Authority slipped to power and this was recognised as the prerogative of males, feeding on the similarities to power exercised in secular and civil institutions.

If there is a way forward - and the Synodaler Weg of the German Catholic Church has postulated this incisively, also for the benefit and as a warning to the whole Church - this is through two reversals. First, forms of authority in the church must be redistributed on the broad spectrum of non-exclusive, but inclusive gender representation. It is not enough to admit women to particular, peripheral forms of tasks assigned by males through hierarchical means, but it is necessary to reinvent the mapping of responsibilities to be assumed by all and sundry for the benefit of the ecclesial body as a whole.

There is a need to free spaces that are over-occupied by males deemed more suitable and better legitimized, solely because the intertwining of the sacralization of roles and leadership functions has improperly acted as an add-on. Therefore, it is first a matter of redefining the subject of authority in the Church.

Second, the importance of a shift in style of the exercise of shared authority based on inclusiveness must be recognised. This is where the category of care comes to our aid, as a heuristic resource for understanding the why (in view of what) and the how, in the exercise of authority, which concerns everyone, male and female. Their gender cannot be taken as a pretext to differentiate their forms according to a mode of contrast. The shift from the category of power/domination to the category of care/dedication must change the grammar of authority, inspire the architecture of leadership functions, and rethink the balance between spaces of freedom of each individual and forms of necessity in view of the common good.

Males or females exercising authority, even in the church, must learn the art and wisdom of attention to the processes of growth in responsibility, freedom, humanity of those towards whom they perform leadership functions. The task - not the right - of exercising authority is authenticated according to the criterion of authoritativeness, i.e. the ability to take care of the good of the other, within the horizon of the common good. Only this saves authority from degrading towards authoritarianism, of which so many histories, including that of the church, are not alien.

There is no shortage of examples of those who knew how to do this in their own way. Joseph of Nazareth is undoubtedly one of them. His paternal authority, free from any toxic exalted masculinity, knew how to accompany and favour the path of Jesus, who, as a model of the human, “grew in wisdom, age and grace” (Lk 2:52).

Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Münster (Germany)