Walbert Bühlmann, OFM (Cap.)


This text was first posted on the website of SEDOS, a documentation and studies service organization based in Rome. To view the current papers online at SEDOS, click on their logo
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 The conference was given at the SEDOS Seminar on Tuesday, 3 December 1996, in Rome.

 Some 30 Years ago I understood the Universal Church as a framework of a reciprocal dynamic inspiration and exchange of theological and pastoral experiences between the different local Churches. The Latin-America-Church f.i. developed the experience with the basic communities. It went from there to all the Continental Churches.

 This dynamic vision of a Church in her vitality and variety is, so it seems to me, deteriorating into lame monotony. Although Church documents and papal exhortations speak about inculturation, all concrete attempts at inculturation are blocked by Rome with the pretext that they are "not in accordance with the Universal Church". That means that one is acting according to the absurd principle: Whatever is not wanted everywhere, especially in Rome, should not happen anywhere.

 The new beginning made during the last Council in understanding the Church as the People of God, realised in local Churches, risks being swallowed up by a new type of hierarchy as opposed to the first element, and a new centralisation as opposed to the second element.

 In my reflection I lay the stress on this second element, the new centralisation, or on the relation between the Universal Church and the continental Churches. I do this in four steps.

1. The historical background

 The new theological vision of the Church which emerged from the Second Vatican Council was not really new. Rather it corresponded to the original model. Indeed, Jesus left to his disciples neither a political constitution nor a Canon law. He gave them "only" a message and the Holy Spirit. When there arose in the community of Jerusalem the first — as it is said in the Acts — really "fierce dissension and controversy" on account of Paul's practice of baptising the gentiles without imposing the Mosaic law on them, the Apostles called together the community to settle the question (cf. Acts 15). In this assembly — the First Jerusalem Council — happened what we call today a radical "change of paradigm", declaring (1) freedom from the Mosaic law, and (2) that the Apostles and the elders "together with the whole community" shared in the opinion making and decision taking process, and (3) the fact of different local Churches with a different discipline, the Church of the Jews, and the Church of the Gentiles. Among the Church of the Gentiles we have then got again a multiplicity of Churches, referring to Peter, to John, to Paul, all with respectively different patterns of behaviour. Moreover we know the seven Churches in the Book of Revelation, receiving each one a different message (Rv 2).

 This original variety of many local Churches grew, through a long and often tragic history (I cannot enter into details), into the one catholic Church, reaching her climax in the First Vatican Council proclaiming the infallibility of the Pope and his universal jurisdiction on all the Churches. Through our missionary activity we introduced that model of the one and uniform Roman-Catholic Church in all the other continents.

2. The New Theological Vision

 The Second Vatican Council of course did not withdraw that statement of Vatican I, but completed it with a strong emphasis on the Bishops as true successors of the Apostles, on the idea of collegiality and on the many local churches, "in which and from which the one and unique catholic Church comes into existence" (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 23). "The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful" (Lumen Gentium, n. 26). These local communities are allowed and invited to have a certain local colour in theology, liturgy and ecclesiastical discipline, what will lead to a legitimate pluralism (cf. Lumen Gentium, nn. 13, 23; Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 37-40; also Evangelii Nuntiandi). Therefore the locality of the many Churches is a constitutive element of the Church as well as the universality of the one Church.

 Such reflections were the fruit of a "new theology" developed before the Council by theologians such as Congar, Chenu, De Lubac, Rahner, all of whom had been under Roman verdict, but then been acknowledged by the Bishops in the Council. On the other hand, the "schema" on the Church prepared on the basis of the traditional Roman theology and presented and defended by Cardinal Ottaviani came under the verdict of the Council as "abundant in triumphalism, legalism, clericalism" (Bishop De Smedt of Bruges).

 Then a new Pentecostal storm happened in the Council and I do not hesitate to call that assembly not only the Council of the century, but the Council of the millennium, having brought to an end the Church of the Middle Ages and of the Counter-Reformation, and having prepared the Church for the coming third millennium.

 This radical change is largely due to Pope John XXIII who not only convoked the Council, but who also gave it a typical pastoral line. During the previous Conclave some Cardinals spoke already of a second Council, but they saw it as a prolongation of Vatican I condemning the many errors of modern times. However, in the opening address John XXIII explicitly said, not to condemn errors, but to use the medicine of mercy, to live credibly according to the Gospel, to accompany the people like an understanding mother, offering it his pastoral help.

 This Pope and his Council immediately changed the climate in the Church and in the world. We remember with a certain sadness these years of a general breaking-up of a new hope. What is the reality now after 30 years?

3. The Sad Reality in the Present

 At the end of the Council the Bishops left Rome with the anxious question: What will happen now to the Vatican Curia? During the Council they had emitted several criticisms and suggestions, but omitted to interfere concretely in the problem. Paul VI took up the topic in a final homily, repeating the expressions of Bishops he had heard, the Curia-people being "too old, incompetent, egoistic, corrupt", and he gave his word of honour to remedy the situation. In 1967 he published his Decree on Renovation Regimini Ecclesiae universalis. But, as a matter of fact, it did not bring a great change of the reality. John Paul I was, to my opinion, not killed by the Curia-people, as insinuated by D. Yallop's book: "In the Name of God", but he died from the Curia-people and their resistance to his spontaneity and his reform-ideas. John Paul II, aware that the Curia was not yet reformed according to the will of the Council, a year after his election, convoked all the Cardinals of the world for a three-day-seminar on two topics: the finances of the Vatican, and the reform of the Curia. At the end he asked his "counsellors" to send him their proposals for the reform of the Curia within three months. When in 1988, after nine years of waiting and hoping, the document "Pastor bonus" appeared, we had to say: "a blow into the water", or as Italians say: "un fico secco". After all: the commission which worked for nine years on the document was mostly of composed Roman Cardinals — instead of Bishops from the local Churches with some experts on management — and so it was clear in advance that nothing important would happen, for nobody can behead himself!

 So we stand, 30 years after the Council, still in front of a powerful administration centre which, in spite of the Council, astutely succeeded in building up a stronger centralisation than ever in Church history, be it for the nomination of Bishops and professors of theology, or for any concrete attempt of inculturation. Not only lay-people, priests, religious suffer from this situation, but also many Bishops and Episcopal Conferences — and even the Pope. I know this from a Bishop who is a personal friend of the Pope. This man to whom we attribute a certain merit for the collapse of the Marxist system (cf. the new book by C. Bernstein and M. Politi, "His Holiness"), did not succeed in radically reforming his Curia. So he leaves much freedom to the administration, using his time for audiences, Pastoral Visits, Encyclical Letters and Prayer.

 We ask: Is, therefore, this situation hopeless? I find nothing is hopeless, as long as we are not hopeless. There are even some signs of conversion in the Vatican. The Latin-America-Bishops-Assembly in Santo Domingo 1992 was still, in a humiliating degree for the Bishops, dominated by the strong Vatican Delegation, whereas at the African Synod in 1994 there prevailed a more open, friendly, dialogical climate. Again in German-speaking Europe for 10 years we have had a chain of bad nominations of Bishops, so that clergy and laity were unhappy to be Church with such a man. Since three years however we have got — at least in this region, because here Church-people are sensibilised! — a chain of good nominations. The Pope must have got the insight, that with the former type, who stressed Canon law, authority, and obedience, he was damaging unity, which can no longer be imposed on mature people, but only be won by dialogue.

4. The Hoped-for Reality in the Future

 The tension between the Curia on the one hand, Council and Church on the other hand, is not only old, it is "normal", because innate to the system. The historiographer of the Council of Trent, H. Jedin, says that the Curia in that time was trying to hinder the preparation as well as the implementation of the Council, which, is spite of this, began working 30 years later in the local Churches.

 So it will be also in our case. At the basis of the Church, the Council worked more than at the top. When we compare what we thought 50 years ago and today in terms of ecumenism, of the theology of the religions, of freedom of conscience, then I may say that we live in an extraordinarily good church-time and that we speak too much of the crisis of the Church and too little of the challenge and chance of the Church.

 I know that there is much abuse of the freedom of conscience. Too many people say lightly: "I do what I want". But abuse does not abolish use, which has been approved by the Council in Dignitatis humanae. In fact, many people, lay and cleric, no longer practice "filial" or blind obedience to church laws, but do, with full responsibility and good conscience, whatever has to be done, so that a person or a group of persons is really helped in their materially, psychologically, morally bad situation, even as Jesus healed sick people also on the Sabbath. This is called not legalistic, but pastoral behaviour. The same Jesus did not only give to Peter in the singular, but also to his disciples in the plural the power to forbid and to allow (cf. Mt 16:18 and 18:18). You cannot reduce these "disciples" to the twelve Apostles. There were meant the group of men and women in Jesus' fellowship, today the Christian groups, the parishes the parish-counsels. We know the great statements of the Council on the People of God, that all of them have the Holy Spirit, the feeling for faith, co-responsibility, participation in Christ's priestly, prophetic and king-like charism. Many people at the base of the Church act accordingly and risk tensions with the Church authority. Here, I see the Holy Spirit at work so as to ensure that those beautiful statements do not stay in the documents, but are transposed into real life. And later on the Church authority, which in the meantime is isolating itself more and more, will then realise this reality, acknowledge it and reach the Church-people again.

 So we wait for a Pope John XXIV, who will bring to a good end what John XXIII has begun. But, will the Council now, 30 years later, not be forgotten by the young generation? I think rather, it is now entering into its last and decisive phase: After the charismatic inspiration of John XXIII, the traditional preparation by the Roman Curia, the new Pentecostal storm through the best Bishops and their theologians, the breaking-up of the People of God, the restauration-effort through the Curia, we are reaching the sixth and final phase now, the definitive implementation of the conciliar impetus, that means we shall even go beyond the conciliar texts, but always in the direction indicated by the Council. In doing so we remain faithful to the Council but I do not wish to enter further into this process, as I only wanted to indicate this great hope.

 Now I shall try to present some ideas about the hoped-for reality for the future of the local Churches, and that in their greatest scale, I mean the Continental Churches. It would be unrealistic to expect in the near future a change of course from above, i.e. from the centralisation policy of the Vatican. But from below, in the Continental Churches, there is the possibility and the need to begin and to do something to achieve a relative autonomy and variety, and this on three levels:

a) Continental Theologies

 Thirty years ago the five-volume handbook "Mysterium Salutis" was published. At that time it was assumed that this book, although written exclusively by European authors, would be considered the post-conciliar theology for all the world. In Latin-America the two-volume standard-work "Mysterium Liberationis" has been published and translated into several languages. It is the first attempt to develop a theology of a non-European Continental Church. It is not at all directed against European theology, but is considered as a fortunate supplement, being less intellectually abstract, as it takes its starting point from the reality of the poor in order to liberate them. There is now the expectation that Africa will be preparing a theological compendium, possibly with the title "Mysterium Incarnationsi", which puts the mystery of Jesus' incarnation at its centre and draws radical conclusions from it for the inculturation of the Church in Africa. Asia would then follow with a compendium "Mysterium Revelationis" which depicts the identity of the Christian Churches within the cosmic dimension of revelation.

 Then Europe would be called upon to set out once more — also in the role of a pioneer with regard to the other continents — to think about a compendium "Mysterium Saecularisationis", to describe God's salvific action even in the secularised world, outside of the ecclesiastical structure, to give the full value to the immanent, historical salvation in the issues of justice, peace and integrity of creation, before we speak of the transcendent salvation as hope against all hope and giving motivation for our hard job within this our world.

b) Continental Saints

 The more than 600 new Blesseds and the 270 new Saints created during this Pontificate were all appraised according to the same scheme of the three theological and the four cardinal virtues. All right. But increasingly the Continental Churches should be bringing forth their own saints with quite distinctive features.

 Latin America already has a significant number of "Saints of justice" who even suffered death not for the sake of a tenet of the faith, but for the principle that all people, created in the image of God, should be living a life in human and divine dignity. Africa could enrich us with "Saints of the joy of living". It is really astonishing and a cause for joy, how the African people, inspite of all the economic and political hardship, manage to be joyful, and able to celebrate life as such in nocturne dances, also in the liturgy — in contrast to Western people who for all their comfort cannot, in the same measure, enjoy life. From Asia we would expect to bring forth "Saints of mysticism", who give constant witness in the Church and world to the "one thing necessary" (Lk 10:42).

 Europe and North America would then finally have to develop and create quite a new model of sanctity, namely, "Saints of the economy", that is men and women who are at the centres of control of the economy and who, with competence and energy, will no longer put profit first, but ensure that the individual and the whole of humankind be considered the norm and yardstick of activity in the national and international economy. After its long hegemony in the world, Europe is challenged to the deaconry. After what M. Gorbatchow and Nelson Mandela achieved in the political field, we have to wait and pray for people who can create a new reality in the economic world.

 Such saints really would be a delight in heaven and on earth! The feast of All Saints would thus get a new image!

c) Continental Patriarchates

 After such initiatives of the Continental Churches on the spiritual and theological level, Rome is challenged to take a concret step on the structural level.

 In the Book of Revelation we read seven times: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches" (Rv 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). It is hoped that the Spirit also has a message for the community of Rome, namely that the centralist power structure by which the Vatican, inspite of the distance of thousands and tens of thousands of kilometres, decides everything for the Universal Church, is not in accordance with the Spirit of Jesus. Jesus indeed warned his disciples against any power-mentality: In the world the rulers make their subjects feel the weight of authority. "That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all" (cf. Mk 10:43ff). What would have happened if Jesus had been a member of the renovation-commission of the Roman Curia?

 Due to the fact that all missionary activity in the colonial world started from Europe, also Rome developed the universal leadership imposing the Roman model on those countries. Now in a free world should not the legitimate aspiration for national and continental autonomy also be more respected in the Church? This could be done in a new edition of the Pentarchia, the five Patriarchates of the first millennium, so that each continent, probably divided again according to linguistic units, could receive patriarchal status with a far-ranging autonomy? No less a person that J. Ratzinger, then not yet a Cardinal, expressed this idea already in 1968 in his book "Das neue Volk Gottes". He said that the "urbs" (the city of Rome) has become the "orbis" (the whole world), that the local Church of Rome identifies herself with the Universal Church, so bringing an impoverishment to the multiplicity and variety of the Churches.

 Such a patriarchal status would enable Latin America to decide for itself how to deal with liberation theology. Africa would be in a position to find a way to become an African Church, and not only a Church in Africa according to the Roman model. Asia would have the freedom to determine the procedure of entering into dialogue with the other religions. And finally Europe/North America, faced by the challenge of secularisation would have to respond to the specific Church situation.

 Till now, such specific continental needs are unfortunately blocked by Rome with reference to the Universal Church. The problem of women in the Church e.g., is not taken seriously by Rome, because "it regards only Europe and North America". What would happen in a family with four children between 12 and 20 years, were the father or mother to say to the elder ones: "You cannot go out in the evening, neither can the younger ones". Considering this and other needs, e.g., "viri probati", even Bishops are resigned enough to say: "Useless to insist, because there is no realistic expectation that they could be realised on the scale of the Universal Church". They ought to say: "On the scale of the Roman Church". — Of course, such a structure would also bring the possibility of new Continental Councils, whereas the continental Episcopal Synods we have had till now, are only consultative, and all the decisions are reserved to Rome.

 In such a new Church reality it would be necess-ary to re-think the function of the Bishop of Rome. Besides the horizontal communion (koinônia), consisting in the service and exchange between the Churches of theology, of successful pastoral experiences, of personnel and financial resources, there will be the need to establish a vertical communion of all the Churches in a final bond of unity and peace (cf. Eph 4:3). Pope John Paul II is aware of the fact that the other Churches expect from him "a new way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation", and he invites the theologians to help him in this research (Encyclical Letter "Ut unum sint", 1995, n. 95). — On the one hand it is to be hoped, that historical developments are not prematurely declared to be essential elements which cannot be given up. On the other hand it can be said, that this research has already been done in the papers of the Anglican-Roman, the Lutheran-Roman, the Orthodox-Roman commissions, and in the books of Rahner-Fries, Lehmann-Pannenberg, Cullmann, etc. Anyway, in these very days from the 2nd to the 5th December a Symposium is being held in Rome on the nature of the Primacy with reference to "Ut unum sint", n. 95.

 So there is some hope for our hoped-for reality of the Church in the future. If the structural changes within the Catholic Church, which we have described above, were to be realised, many complaints within the Catholic Church would disappear, and at the same time the way would be open to reach, after centuries of painful divisions, the aim of ecumenism: To come to "unity of reconciled plurality", as experts say. So I repeat: We live in an extraordinarily great Church-time and we probably speak too much of the crisis of the Church and to little of the challenge and chance of the Church.


Recommended reading:

With Eyes to See, 1990, Mary Knoll (in several languages).

Die Überraschungen meines Lebens, Graz 1994.