Listening to the Spirit: Francis' distinctive vision of the Church
The Tablet31 May 2017 | by Bradford E. Hinze A leading American theologian argues that Pope Francis’ distinctive vision of the Church as ‘the pilgrim people of God’ underpins his reforms / By Bradford E. Hinze
The number of Catholics who remember that Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council by praying for a new outpouring of the Spirit in the Church is dwindling. That was in 1962. For over twenty years afterwards many believed that this new Pentecost was coming. This was due in no small part to the council’s recovery of a biblical vision of the Church as a pilgrim people of God, with each of its members anointed by the Spirit at baptism to become an active participant in Jesus Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles. A closely related insight was the reclamation of the collegial role of bishops, who accompany and lead this people on their journey.
In the heady decades after the council, these newly-rediscovered teachings about the nature of the Church inspired myriad reforms. The concept of collegiality inspired the recovery of the ancient idea of the synod of bishops, where representatives of local churches would gather to deliberate and make decisions about the issues facing the universal church. Collegiality also accelerated the development of national and regional episcopal conferences. The vision of the Church as the people of God also provided the catalyst for much greater engagement in ecclesial life and mission by lay men and women: their expanded participation in parish councils, in diocesan councils and synods, in lay pastoral, liturgical, and formation ministries, their embrace of the study of theology, and their assumption of leadership roles in works of mercy and in campaigning for justice. It was an exciting period of renewal and experimentation, of partnership and of growth. It was exhilarating; often untidy, and sometimes a little frightening. There were mistakes of taste and of judgement. But, for many Catholics, this was the Holy Spirit at work.
Not everyone, however, shared this enthusiasm. The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978 and his choice of Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 coincided with increasing concerns being raised about people of God ecclesiology. Its critics laid a series of failings at its door: a declining sense of mystery in the Church, increasing secularisation, diminishing religious literacy, and more. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger became determined advocates of a different model. A particular version of Communio ecclesiology – emphasising that the Church is a mystery and a sacrament – took shape in Roman circles. Of course, there is no one “model” of the Church: it is the people of God, it is a communion, it is the mystical body of Christ – and much more. No one model exhausts the meaning of the Church; the interplay between them gives life to the Church. But the purposeful suffocation of people of God ecclesiology was to lead to the restoration of centralised curial authority and the return of a more paternalistic clergy. Over the next thirty years, official Church documents and policies increasingly circumscribed the exercise of collegial authority by the bishops. Synods became exercises in the rubber stamping of documents prepared in advance by the Roman curia, and gradually stifled the emergence of a theologically mature laity, active in church ministry and mission.
Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has undertaken a remarkable reversal of this three-decade trend. We are witnessing an astonishing new springtime for people of God ecclesiology. Francis’s first major interview as Pope, with the Jesuit Antonio Spodaro, and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, released two months later, signalled the change clearly. “The image of the church I like,” Francis told Spadaro, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use.” Alluding to the Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and its image of the people of God on their pilgrim journey, exercising their prophetic office by communicating their sense of the faith, Francis says: “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.” Francis often returns to the image of the people of God; only rarely does he speak about the Church as communion. People of God ecclesiology provides the primary framework for Francis’s vision of the Church. We can see this vision playing out in four key motifs, each of which contrasts sharply with the positions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. First, the Church as the people of God orients Francis’s inclusive, missionary model of discipleship, which is marked by Spirit-compelled relationships of encounter, mercy, tenderness and healing with a weary, wounded world. As we read in Evangelii Gaudium: “In all the baptised, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization.
” Second, Pope Francis champions a synodal church, in which the people of God “journey together”, meeting face to face, and discerning the way forward in community. At the fiftieth anniversary of the synod of bishops, he emphasized: “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17).” For Francis the Church must learn how to become synodal not only in the synod of bishops, but at all levels, in local churches and communities and in episcopal conferences. His advocacy of synodality throughout the Church is a hallmark of Francis’ own self-understanding of his papal mission: “I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralisation’.”
This synodal vision reflects Francis’ conviction that the Spirit is at work in the life of the local Church, each rooted in a particular people and culture, each bringing a particular charism to enrich the universal church. He is receptive to granting bishops’ conferences greater freedom to exercise their authority on pastoral issues in light of local circumstances and needs; in turn, he validates their authority by citing their teachings in his own.
Third, in marked contrast to the restrictions on freedom of enquiry often imposed by his predecessors, Francis encourages honest dialogue and debate. In synodal deliberations he has welcomed discussion of topics long regarded taboo, including the place of gay people in the Church, the inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics in the sacramental life of the Church, and the admission of women and married men to ordained ministries. While acknowledging that openness will lead unavoidably to conflict and resistance, Francis insists that this is necessary for the Church to deepen its insight into the truth and to maintain its vitality.
Fourth, the people of God ecclesiology under Pope Francis has rekindled a desire to create a Church for the poor and a Church of the poor. This has been seen most dramatically in Francis’ convening and participating in numerous World Meetings of Popular Movements, in which Catholic activists collaborate with people of different faiths and world views in local community campaigns focused on labour and economic issues, health care and the environment. In the spirit of John XXIII, Francis is instigating a season of Pentecost. We are seeing a new wave of implementation of Vatican II’s teachings on the prophetic office of all the faithful and the collegiality of bishops. His advocacy of missionary discipleship, pervasive practices of synodality, and grassroots democratic civic engagement, marked by a preferential option for the poor and the environment, are making his vision of the Church as the people of God real. Francis’ ecclesial vision invites a response of what I call “prophetic obedience”.
This prophetic obedience is grounded in the sensus fidei of all the faithful. It requires not only a response to the Word of God heard and received through active witness, but also heeding, receiving and responding to the Spirit encountered in the aspirations and laments of those suffering in the Church and world, and in the wailing of our damaged natural environment.
Prophetic obedience has, as its cornerstone, all that Francis has articulated in word and gesture about the need for personal and communal discernment. Prophetic obedience does not entail blind capitulation to authority, nor is it the mindless following of the populist mob. It requires heeding the signs of the times, honestly facing reality, and wrestling with it. Rather than uncritically succumbing to received opinions or accepted traditions, prophetic obedience tests and in certain cases interrogates these in the light of the living faith of the Church, recognised and received in the sensus fidei. Francis is showing us what this model of discipleship looks like. It calls for the hard work of prophetic dialogue with members of the Church, with those on the fringes of it, with angry or alienated Catholics, with other Christians, and with people of other faiths and other world views. We have something to learn from all of them. And we have something precious to give back in return.
Bradford E. Hinze is the Karl Rahner Professor of Theology at Fordham University and the president of the Catholic Theological Association of America. His latest book, Prophetic Obedience: Ecclesiology for a Dialogical Church, is published by Orbis.