Death In The Church: Is New Life Ahead?

The recent disclosure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the extent of depravity reported in the news is symptomatic of a Church in crisis.  It is no longer acceptable for the Pope simply to issue a public apology nor is it sufficient for any group merely to reflect on what has happened by issuing position statements. The Church has a deep structural problem which is entirely bound to ancient metaphysical and philosophical principles, not to mention imperial politics, that at this point require either a radical decision towards a new ecclesial structure or accept the possibility of a major schism. The rock-solid Church has crushed human souls and twisted authority into deceit. The male-dominated Christ center no longer holds and there is simply no solution or comforting words that can placate the extensive damage to fragile human lives that has taken place over the past decades. The evidence of abuse brought to light in the Catholic Church is simply unfathomable.

There is something profoundly intransigent about the structure of the Church. It is not that Church structures have caused the abuse but they have masked predators hiding as priests in a closed caste system of clerical elitism. The resurgence of abuse points to something deeply amiss if not embedded in Church culture. “Culture” is a complex term that encompasses the set of operative meanings and values.  Church culture is based on operative principles of hierarchy, patriarchy, careerism, and the notorious notion of priestly consecration as becoming “ontologically changed.” The hierarchical pecking order from priest to Pope has entailed obeisance in the quest for a higher position on the ladder of ecclesiastical success. Clericalism is a type of corporate ladder-climbing and no different from the quest for power in the world of major corporations. Corporate power, like ecclesial power, is marked by the dominant male, akin to the evolutionary hunter who is “red in tooth and claw”; the priest-hunter can be cunningly deceptive at achieving his desired goal.

How did we get here?  If the Church is founded on the Good News of Jesus Christ, how did it become so radically disconnected from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth?

Structure concerns relationships and the types of relationships that comprise Church structure are based on outdated philosophical notions of nature, gender, and personhood. Structures do not themselves cause abuse but they can abet and, or, cloak mental illness, predators, and criminals disguised as priests.  The disguise is actually embedded in the dysfunction of the structure itself. Walled in a fortress of ontological superiority bestowed upon by priestly consecration, one could effectively live a dual life insofar as one’s brain can cognitively dissociate between abusive behavior and priestly function.  The dissociative brain is not quite schizophrenic or a split brain but is actually more deceptive because it can capture certain ideas and repeat them (such as abusive behavior is normal) while operating on another level of priestly ministry.

Dissociative behavior can be reinforced by certain philosophical principles and the Church has clung to a number of outdated philosophical principles. Two principles in particular that can create a porous structure of abuse are:

1) The Ontology of Being, that is, the notion that the priest is on a higher level of being and thus closer to God. This misguided notion stems from the way hierarchy developed in the Church. The hierarchical structure that presently defines the Church can be dated back to the fifth century when the mystical writer, Pseudo-Dionysius composed his treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.   Dionysius introduced the term “hierarchy” to connote sacred order among the many different classes of people that comprise the church. The Dionysian notion of hierarchy was meant to reflect the many ways God shines through creation but the term was corrupted in the Middle Ages by William of Saint Amour who used the Dionysian hierarchy to reject Franciscan Friars as teachers at the University of Paris, a role William claimed that duly belonged to clerical priests and not those of religious orders. Hence the notion of hierarchy as a ladder of ontological distinctions (for example, priests are of higher being than laity) was a medieval construct that became entrenched in the mind of the laity.

2) A second philosophical flaw is the platonic notion of the body as inferior to the life of the spirit giving rise to several different outrageously flawed ideas, including the notion that women are intellectually inferior to men and the source of sin; that sex and sexuality are inferior qualities of human personhood and need to be closely monitored, as these can easily lead to sin; that the corruptible body needs to be disciplined and subjugated to the spirit.  David Noble The Religion of Technology and A World Without Women) provides convincing historical evidence to support his thesis that the principal aim of Christianity, like science, is to restore the fallen male Adam to divine likeness.  His thesis is based on the myth that Adam was created before Eve and thus received the breadth of life directly from God; hence Adam is the true image of God and Eve is a weak imitation. Eve is the reason Adam lost his divine likeness along with his immortality, his share in divine knowledge, and his divinely ordained dominion over nature (the “fall”).  Because Eve was the problem, she cannot be part of the solution. John Scotus Erigena in the 9th century claimed that at the resurrection sex will be abolished and nature will be made one–only man–as if he had never sinned.

It is no secret that even the best theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, held that women do not have fully formed intellects, an idea that can be traced back to the philosophy of Aristotle.  It is unfortunate that Pope Leo XIII in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris wedded the Church to the theology of Thomas Aquinas thus making Thomas’s theology the official theology of the Catholic Church. By doing so, the Church adopted the Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical framework based on matter and form, substance and essence.  Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant 13th century theologian who contributed to the Church a vast corpus of theological insights; however, by making his doctrine official teaching, the Church turned a deaf ear to modern science and to other theological ideas, such as the Scotistic notion of primacy of Christ.

Although the Catholic Church has supported modern science reflected by the Vatican’s  Pontifical Academy of Sciences, it has not adopted the principle scientific shifts of modern biology, evolution, or quantum physics, despite the fact that these areas are pillars of modern science.  As a result, the official theology of the Church is based on the ancient cosmology of Ptolemy and the medieval Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical synthesis.  Even the most recent report of the International Theological Commission omits science entirely from the task of theology today. As a result, the foundations of theology remain out of sync with nature; the understanding of the human person is outmoded in many respects; and the core doctrines of creation, salvation, and redemption are based on outdated cosmological principles.

Despite the turn to the historical subject in Vatican II, the cosmological framework for official Catholic theology is the pre-Copernican, geocentric Ptolemaic universe. It is not surprising that the Ptolemaic cosmos blended nicely with Newton’s universe, allowing the Church to maintain a static inert framework of substance and form. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian priest, compares the institutional Church to Newton’s world, a vast machine made of parts and obeying fundamental laws, a world, she indicates, that can be easily controlled and manipulated. In her book The Luminous Web, she writes:

“Human beings were so charmed by the illusion of control Newton’s metaphor offered that we began to see ourselves as machines too. Believing that Newton told us the truth about how the world works, we modeled our institutions on atomistic principles. You are you and I am I. If each of us will do our parts, then the big machine should keep on humming. If a part breaks down, it can always be removed, cleaned, fixed, and replaced. There is no mystery to a machine, after all. According to Newton’s instruction manual, it is perfectly predictable. If something stops working, any reasonably competent mechanic should be able to locate the defective part and set things right again. . . . Our “God view” came to resemble our worldview. In this century, even much of our practical theology has also become mechanical and atomistic. Walk into many churches and you will hear God described as a being who behaves almost as predictably as Newton’s universe. Say you believe in God and you will be saved.  Sin against God and you will be condemned. Say you are sorry and you will be forgiven.  Obey the law and you will be blessed.”

Newton’s world was a closed system.  A closed system views organizations as relatively independent of environmental influences; problems are resolved internally with little consideration of the external environment.  Without any new input of energy, a closed system will eventually wear down and dissipate.  Open systems on the other hand can migrate into new patterns of behavior because the system interacts with the environment; closed systems are rigid and largely impenetrable while open systems are chaotic and far from equilibrium.  The Church is a closed system. Rules, fixed order, dogmatic formulas, unyielding laws, patriarchy, authority, and obedience under pain of judgment and death, all have rendered the Church impervious to evolution and to the radical interconnectivity that marks all levels of nature.  A closed institutional system in an evolutionary world is bound to die out unless new energy can be put into the system, or the system itself undergoes radical transformation to an open system.

The turning point for the Church’s retrenchment from science can be marked by the Galileo affair in 1633 when Cardinal Bellarmine rejected Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric system, stating that acceptance of heliocentrism was contrary to Scripture.  Although Pope John Paul II apologized on behalf of Galileo in 1984, by mid 20th century the Church had not accepted Big Bang cosmology or evolution as fundamental to doing theology.

While Vatican II is lauded for its progress, this Council is no exception to the Church’s outdated stance with regard to modern science.  Although John XXIII opened the Church doors to the modern world and human history, he did not acknowledge Big History insofar as all history begins with the Big Bang. Alfred North Whitehead wrote in 1925: “When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them” (Whitehead 1925). Ralph Burhoe, the visionary behind the journal Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion, said that the discoveries of twentieth-century science, born from the creative human spirit in search of understanding, have far out-paced the ancient myths of world religions causing “people everywhere to lose credence or faith in the models or myths as formulated in their traditional religions” (Burhoe and Tapp, Zygon 1966: 4-5). He wrote that if religions are to be regenerated, they would have to be credible in terms of this age of science, a point highly consonant with the vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Can We Rebuild?

While the reconciliation of science and religion may seem pedantic and marginal to the abuse crisis, it is perhaps the most fundamental work that lies before the Church and world today.  Without bringing science and religion into a new integrative relationship, there is no real basis on which to construct a new philosophical understanding of theological truths or of human personhood.  All the apologies in the world and all the position papers carefully written will not make an iota of a difference to the “substance abuse” that marks the Church.  Unless fundamental levels of consciousness change, we cannot attract a new reality.

In this respect, academic theology is as much to blame for the abuse crisis as the hierarchy itself, insofar as the academy of Catholic theology perpetuates a substance ontology and remains essentially entrenched in ancient philosophies and cosmologies.  In theology departments, one can teach a course on Science and Religion as a particular area of interest but “yoking” Science and Religion is not necessary to doing theology in the 21st century, nor has the academic field of Science and Religion impacted the pedagogies of either science or religion. Teilhard de Chardin was adamant that the philosophical shifts brought about by modern physics and biology demand conceptual and pedagogical shifts in science and religion. “Evolution is a general condition,” he wrote, “to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must submit and satisfy from now on in order to be conceivable and true” The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard de Chardin 1999, 152, emphasis added).

Science has greatly shifted our understanding of nature including human nature, biological nature, and physical nature so that every aspect of theological doctrine must be reevaluated in light of evolution and modern physics. Every seminary curriculum should include Big Bang cosmology, evolution, quantum physics, neuroscience, depth psychology, and systems thinking.  Incorporating science into seminary education will not preclude abusers but over time the formation of new structural systems that are more consonant with nature as cooperative interdependent systems might allow for greater transparency, interdependency, and accountability.

To accept modern science as part of theological education and development of church doctrine is to recognize the full inclusion of women in the community of biological life.  The inability to accept women as fully capable intellectual beings has been a real stumbling block for the Church and, in our postmodern age, the exclusion of women from all forms of leadership and service is no longer acceptable.  Systemic reorganization as well as scientifically-literate theological education must include women at all levels of formation.  There is no adequate theological argument for excluding women from Holy Orders except the well-worn “image of God” argument which, in light of modern science, is incredible.  Ordaining women priests might help save the Church from implosion.

Towards a New Future?

The Church needs a new direction, one pointing not upwards but forward, not towards “heaven above” but a new future of healthy relationships.  Beatrice Bruteau describes a shift in consciousness from a domination paradigm to what she calls a “Holy Thursday” paradigm, marked by mutuality, service, and Christian love.  To be “in Christ,” she writes, “is to enter into Holy Thursday by experiencing some death and resurrection, letting an old modality of consciousness die, and seeing a new one rise to life.  It is to abandon thinking of oneself only terms of categories and abstractions and seeing oneself as a transcendent center of energy that lives in God and in one’s neighbors–because this is where Christ lives, in God and in us.” We need to come to terms with the fact that Christianity is less an historical religion than a religion of the future.  In Jesus God’s self-communication to creation explodes into history.  God evolves the universe and brings it to its completion through the instrumentality of human beings.  Jesus is the climax of that long development whereby the world becomes aware of itself and comes into the direct presence of God.  What we see in Jesus is that the future of the material universe is linked to the future of the human community insofar as human agency affects biocentric life in its relation to ultimate fulfillment in God.

We fragile, vulnerable humans are “cooperative co-creators” and it does make a difference how we live our lives. Our participation in the mystery of Divine Love, incarnate and hidden in the brokenness of our world, lies at the basis of a healing world.   The shocking news of the abuse crisis crushes our hearts, but know too that God’s heart is broken; that the body of Christ is crucified over and over again, for when one member is abused the whole Body is abused.  But our faith must remain unshaken.  Christ is risen from the dead; the final word is not death but Life.  We will rise from these ashes but we cannot stand still nor can we turn back.  Our hands are now put to the plow and we must forge a new path ahead. The Church will be born anew, for God is doing new things.

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  1. DR L P PRIOR, OFM on November 21, 2020 at 4:01 am

    Alan, can it be mere coincidence that I’ve come across your name twice in two weeks. I’m delighted you are still in touch with Teilhard. I read all I can of Ilia as she writes with great hope. (An Englishman living in South Africa.)

  2. PAULA S on January 11, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Ritiro Omega Discussion Group Death in the Church: Is New Life Ahead? And Posted Comments By Sr. Paula Scraba, OSF and the Allegany Franciscan Sisters from the Ritiro
    The Ritiro Omega Discussion Group met in December, 2018 to reflect on the blog by Sr. Ilia Delio from August 28, 2018 Death in the Church: Is New Life Ahead, and Posted Comments. The sisters’ in the discussion group found the added comments very enriching to add to the initial blog reflection.
    The focus of the group was on the collective conversation and one of the questions- Where can we turn for signs of new life and transformation, and how can we participate in that movement? Comments are as follow from some of the reflections:
    Thinking of Church of structure transforming vs total New Church. God is going to make something new out of a reforming what is in the darkness now. New light transforming from the present state. Question- Will I be around to see this new transformation? Maybe I don’t need to be here when it happens but witness the openness to transform. There is a spark lit already expressed by how many women are coming forward that have been excluded and oppressed in the past.
    Where is God in all this? As we know many times new light comes out of the chaos. God is steeped in the healing process. Speaking out presently the Church is a closed system and we are experiencing low membership and people leaving. WE ARE CHURCH- and we need to be an open system. WE MUST BE CHURCH – science has opened the door for us to look deeper into the spirit of God and building relationships and women being part of that spirit. It was commented for years how seminarians were in formation totally separate from programs allowing women present in the same classroom. Now formation is in programs where Church allows for the women’s voice to be part of the relationships and the transformation of new life in the Peoples Church. Many times we don’t see our own poverty. How structure has formed our relationships. Being open to see each other in equality as believers and non-believers, clergy and lay, women and men equally contributing…etc
    Question highlighting a blog comment- an evolution toward what? The continued awareness of science and religion and the encyclical Laudato Si calling us to contemplate this new relationships. People have to be willing to move on. Christ Consciousness and the comment in the blog “we need new wine skins for NEW WINE.” Christ purifying the Church and a level of consciousness to change. Maybe it is a question of poverty by choice born into the movement not physical but spiritual poverty? God is calling us for the future into the movement. God needs us to build a renewed Church. We as women need to respond and take responsibility to be responsive. We need to walk in truth and trust in God. It may take generations but we have to allow a Free Will for people to stand by and help save the People’s Church and keep the vision alive.

  3. Mary Pat J on October 22, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    So invigorating and encouraging. Decreases sense of loneliness.

  4. Katherine Bicicchi, Psy.D. on October 1, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    In the light of recent events (Dr. Christine Blasey Ford & Judge Kavanaugh and all that that entails) I am stunned to read this article. I tend to see events holistically, and therefore make some loose associations. So I apologize ahead of time as I try to explain what current events brought to mind, and more importantly to gut and soul; and how deeply I believe we have all been traumatized by the process of trying to grow the fullness of our individual humanities in the post WWII era (I am an early boomer). I come from deeply Catholic, conservative, traditional parents who had no intentions of producing a professional woman. My upbringing in totally Catholic education did little to foster that inclination that dwelled within me, which was to be a professional psychologist. The world I grew up in included some abuse and also strong missives to stay in my place as a good Catholic woman. My bro, as a victim of priest abuse, told my parents, who did not believe him. I had two priests do things to me, which were minor by comparison to others and yet they damaged and traumatized me. So, what does this have to do with this article? Because of my experiences, I am acutely aware of the truth of Ilia Delio’s statements. I grew up in a church and a world which most definitely attempted to disengage young women from their sexuality and their bodies. I was taught that the hierarchy (including the sisters, actually) were holier than married people, who by the way, were required to perform sexually to produce little Catholics. Leaping forward, as a woman who, in spite of such obstacles, has always been enthralled by modern science, I was fascinated with modern physics. And Dr. Delio is correct. I didn’t ever hear about it in church or catholic school. The scientific world of my girlhood did stop with Newton, mechanics, predicability, and immutable laws. Newton’s world and the church were indeed closed systems. And yet, there were wonderful scientists and theorists to convey to sequestered Catholics that creation is much more vast and mysterious than once imagined, and that absolutes couldn’t possibly contain reality. However, because the net reality of the Church’s resistance to embracing the good news of science has been, as Dr. Delio described, a deterrent to true knowledge of the immensity of a God that gave us the wonders of ongoing creation. As the author implies, resistance has led the Church and her people into the dark side of power and dogmatism rather than fulfilling it’s mission to rejoice and be fulfilled in the process of creation. This leads me to express my fear that such deeply entrenched systems are not easily moved into different spaces. The study of persuasion, or opinion change, indicate that this is not easily accomplished. Considering that Aquinas’s closed system built on absolutes and the Newtonian system’s mental habits of absolutism that has so influenced our world, it is highly possible that the church, as well as our body politic and corporate systems will need quite a jolt to reach the level of consciousness that Dr. Delio suggests is necessary for change. I trust that “Evolution is a general condition”, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, is the fundamental fact of life. This is where faith, trust and love must sustain. Saw some physicists (on Nova, I believe) propose that big bangs might possibly continue for all eternity, which is hopeful to me. After all, if our universe implodes into nothingness, what is left? Where is God? Wow, within this possibility we are all creating together forever. Awesome! However, living through this phase of evolution, it seems that this process is not for the feint of heart. Hopefully, our consciousness will emerge with less of a struggle than we seem to be having now. But honestly, this seems to be a fearful process. In the meanwhile, Dr. Delio, President Barach Obama asked (at Senator McCain’s funeral) what can I (we) do today?


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