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Thursday, 1 July 2010

The problem with Rome...

A lot of the discussion in Germany recently has been about the Roman Catholic Church and the abuse that has emerged has fuelled a rather angry debate in some quarters. Part of the problem for the Roman church is the fact that it has, for centuries, tried to be both a spiritual and a secular authority and power. To a very large extent the problem is the 'vision' of the church itself, which is that the 'church' is the ordained ministry and the laity are simply there to support it.

The laity are not expected to understand theology, not expected to contribute to the governance in any meaningful way or to have any say in important discussions within the church. One part of the problem here is the insistence on a "celibate" priesthood. Now, I have no doubt that many priests are celibate, but almost every one I have ever met has, at some stage, 'fallen from grace' and not been able to observe this completely. Rome actually quietly condones some priests long term 'affairs' rather than try to forbid such relationships and this, in itself, is a form of abuse. Unmarried clergy advising couples on "marriage" are often drawing on theory rather than experience to the extent that it becomes totally irrelevant to real life. There is another aspect to thisin that the Roman clergy tend to mix socially only with other clergy or with those of the "yes, father, no, father," persuasion and they - again I am drawing on the experience of a friend and former Roman priest - and lose touch with real life and real issues for their congregation.

The decision making process in the Roman church is done in the rarified atmosphere of the Vatican, generally in language and in academic terms beyond the grasp of the average person and this, in turn, allows the media hacks to seize upon and twist every utterance, every decision and every doctrinal statement. Opening the window and letting the laity take a larger part in the process would encourage more of the lay members of the church across Europe to be more activ in their 'ministry of the people', a very large element of the Gospel charge to every believer which seems to have got lost in almost all the traditional churches in these last years, but which is particularly noticeable in Rome.

How will this change? Of that I am not certain. The Pope is on record as saying he does not fear being a "remnant" of the "true faith" - presumably that 'faith' being the very narrow vision of the Vatican's ultra conservative wing - so we should not expect him to change anything in his lifetime.

I do know that the Roman church needs urgently to at least open consideration of the following: -

- Married clergy,
- Birth control and sexual practices,
- the role of women in the church,
- the claim of Papal Infallibility,
- recognition of and co-operation with other Christian Churches.

The first of these dates to the Middle Ages when the monastic orders managed to gain control of the Vatican and imposed the "monastic ideal" upon the clergy. Even as late as Cardinal Wolseley in the UK priests in some areas were married and the Cardinal himself had a "partner" though she was never described as his "wife". Birth control has to be recognised - before the human population grows beyond what is sustainable, a point that may already have been reached. It is all very well to argue that human sex is "purely for procreation" and must therefore be only used in that context is overly simplistic and a refusal to recognise that sex is a natural activity between humans and has been since the dawn of time. Of course it should be 'special', but to say it should occur only when it is desired to achieve conception is simply unrealistic.

Rome refuses to address the role of women in the church, other than in non-ordained supporting roles. Again they refuse to recognise that the early church made extensive use of women in ordained roles seen as equal to the male counterparts as deacons (NOT deaconesses!) and there are suggestions that many were even "presbyters" (Priests) and several examples exist of women who may well have been Bishops. Post the Synod of Nicea women's roles were downgraded and relegated progressively to a subordinate one, but as late as the 8th Century, the Coptic Church recognised Mary Magdalene as their "Apostle". Part of this was due to the spread of "Arianism" with even the Bishop of Rome adhereing to the Arian Heresy as late as 310 when Martin of Tours began the fight back and the restoration of the doctrines of St Paul and St John.

The doctrine of Papal Infallibility is a major issue for many Christians, and it is of fairly recent date. Even the claim of being the "One True Faith" doesn't bear close scrutiny since there are a wide range of documents in existence that show that for the first thousand years or so of the church's history the faith that was shared by Orthodox and Catholic was essentially the same - except for the claim of the Pope's to being "Successor of Peter" and therefore the Supreme Authority. There is in fact no evidence that the other Apostles ever acknowledged Peter in that role except as their "pater familias" and certainly don't seem to have deferred to him in matters of teaching or practice!

Probably the single issue which causes more pain between the churches than any other is Rome's refusal to recognise any other communion. That is probably the first and most important issue Rome must address in the coming years. As a famous Roman once remarked - "United we stand. Divided we fall." If Christians cannot get around the same table at least some of the time, our faith will be relegated to the dustbins of history and our civilisation, founded upon Christian teaching, will vanish with it.

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