Outside observations: The Church at the boiling point

Author of a story of the underground Church of the Eastern Bloc being incorporated into a novel. It's a fictional story. However, a story that is based on actual history.

My invitation to this conference is the late effect of letting the issue of the underground Church of the Eastern Bloc be incorporated into a novel.

So, attention: it’s about a fictional story. However, a story that is based on history. And the core of a story is often not about whether it happened historically, but what this story says.

And I invite you to look at it from a general perspective. To see life as it seems to be. To take the Church as it appears. As a community it sometimes appears as a kind of family, sometimes as an organization or institution. It is important to see that it is always subject to the laws of these forms of appearance.

It is one of the clerical diseases that one likes to spiritualize institutional problems, in order not to draw the obvious conclusions and solve the problems based on the state of knowledge about the functioning of organizations and companies. With the reference to the supernatural character one thinks to be able to evade the natural conditions. Physically speaking, however, gravity is valid in the Catholic Church as well, not to mention the laws for commercial enterprises. Or to give an organizational example: if a parish finds a serious deficiency in the toilet facilities, it would do well to call the plumber and not to set up a prayer circle.

As all our sociological structures, the family is constantly changing. When we say a “family”, it describes something different today than 2000 years ago, two hundred years ago or 20 years ago.

What does constitute a family today? It is no longer defined solely through the blood-relationship. It joins up with the Church, which is where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name.

Family today as a living space is about a life on an equal footing, esteem and trust (that may not have always been the case in history). If these components are missing, it breaks up. Or it is a life-unfriendly place with a potential for violence. And this brings us straight into the middle of the topic of women and the Church. Where is the equal footing, where is the esteem, where is the trust?

Journalistic observation: One medium reports on the exploitative, less respectful treatment of nuns in the Church. The sisters described are called by different names – just as it is done by an investigative medium that has to protect its informants against the powerful. This medium is – listen and wonder – Osservatore Romano. A sign of hope that this topic has arrived at the center of the Vatican – without being immediately played down or relativized. Is there a late rehabilitation? And can it still arrive on time?

The crisis signal that must be mentioned at the same time: Who must these women be protected against?

In my novel “Clandestinely Ordained”, which embraced the clandestine women’s ordination in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, I record the only arid Roman document about the underground Church. It represents in a whining tone that 10 years after the upheaval the topic of the clandestinely ordained priests still has not been solved yet. Anyway, it becomes known through this document that there were clandestinely ordained married priests and married bishops. The fact of women’s ordination has been hushed up.

One did not prove faithful and reliable towards those women who risked their lives for the community. What has become of the family, where 2 or 3 have gathered together in the name of Jesus?

I will try to illustrate by means of a short extract from my book, in this fictional story, what dynamics of alienation must arise when trust is broken:

Prague (Spring 1991). The short visit to Prague was accompanied by unpleasant feelings for Katja. Although it was immediately apparent in the streets and shops that the system had changed, when she was so on the way, the old fears of the state security spies immediately welled up. And she felt somehow chased. It was even worse in Helena’s apartment: The dreariness of the furniture was still the old one. However, the eyes of the woman whose address Petr had laboriously investigated, laughed joyfully. Suitable for the new everyday life. Especially for a young mother.

“I’m not able to figure out Petr, but he is a friend of my father and his friends are also mine,” Helena started, who with the baby on the arm had prepared drinking bottles first and then a small coffee snack.

“It’s about our ordinations,” Katja came straight to the point.

“For God’s sake, I did not know that Petr knew about it.”

“He had to research for a very long time.”

“And you are too …”

Katja nodded. Helena stood up and lit a cigarette: “Don’t get me wrong, but nobody from my friends knows it. Even not Jiří, my partner, the father of my child. I do not want to have to deal with it anymore. I do not want to fear any more. At first I feared the secret police. Afterwards, the men from the Vatican appeared. Very polite, yes. But in a way they have aroused as many fears as the old regime. They babbled something about unauthorized border crossing. Something about my salvation and something else. I do not need a psycho terror. If the Church does not need me, I won’t intrude. I live my life. I have a child. I want it to become a decent person. Dear God can’t request more from me.

You can see what happens when an institution from above interferes in a family run network. What injuries happen there, what alienations. That cannot be cured with a theological formula.

I describe it at another point like this:

Vienna (Autumn1990). Already after a short time Katja knew that this with the Czech community was not a good idea. She had very naively thought here she would find a social environment in the fastest way. Mother tongue and Church community in not at all unappealing  3rd district of Vienna – what more could one want. However, then this uncertainty arrived. Why so many want to know so much? Was it really just curiosity or sympathy? There were so many suspicious names! Were relatives of the former nomenklatura here? Whom could she trust? Or they were suspicious of her because of her Russian first name. Her parents had worshiped Saint Catherine and had seen it as permissible camouflage to signal the regime proximity to the big brother in Moscow with the Russian form. Holy camouflage, so to say.

She sometimes tried to talk to the priest about the underground church. Did he say nothing because he thought she was a spy, or did he really know nothing? And on which side did he stand if he was not an insider? She felt placed back in the uncertainty of the past days – and broke off contact with him.

Institutions work differently from the families. Organizations must work. Families that only work are already at the end.

Institutions tick in a different way. They have to be managed.

Every manager who has to prepare a balance sheet of an organization has to answer an important question: is there a positive survival prediction? Managers have to behave completely differently when it comes to managing the survival of a company or the bankruptcy.

I have been a believing optimist so far – I have started from this prediction of survival in my non-fiction book “The Last Popes – A Theological Restart for the Church.”

However, I have to admit that I’m no longer sure about the positive survival prediction. There are simply too many indications that the institutional life cycle is arriving at the end. Does it have to be damage? I’ll take another example of another significant epoch, the Greek pantheon. Today we visit the archaeological ruins of this religion. That sounds so derogatory – but: isn’t the essential part of our Western culture still shaped by the Greek philosophy and the Aristotelian ethics? Doesn’t Greek mythology have a narrative power right up to modern psychotherapy?

As bankruptcy trustees, we ought to ask ourselves: what would be the Christian elements that could be offered to the society in a quasi filleted way:

There is a paradox of winning by letting it go – this could also be proved by letting the institution go.

Pope Francis has set many examples with which he questions the institution grown so far. The most significant for me, the importance of which was hardly publicly commented is the following: He has not decided the conflict of German bishops, but appealed to their unanimity. This means a fundamental renunciation of power and in particular of the claim to truth. This example shows that the Church, in terms of institution, has arrived at the boiling point. The boilng point can be identified by noise. So, many words are spoken, however ,the waters are barely in motion.

Sad thesis on the encouraging signs of reform: If today the problems from the day before yesterday are solved, one still does not keep pace with the times, which is proven by the current media disinterest.

Because a much bigger problem has piled up behind the questions of power and discipline by now:

The Church has lost the social interpretational sovereignty and the great story about life. The great narrative of the sin – salvation mode is no longer viable. Our theistic world view of the intervening God contradicts our experience of life. No official has dared to think about it yet and hardly any reform movement.

The new evangelization of Europe should begin with this confession.

I will conclude with a thought experiment. Also here I take a passage from “Clandestinely Ordained “. A reform group begins a movement by unilaterally changing something about the liturgical action:

Daniel had agreed with a group of like-minded people to visit the High Mass on the Feast of Assumption of Mary. Right at the beginning, the group had scattered well in the front part of the cathedral. While the believers knelt down noisily at the beginning of consecration, Daniel stood up. He formed a bowl with his hands, as at the Eucharist, which he however stretched towards the altar. On the one hand, in so doing, he wanted to differentiate himself from the concelebrating priest, but on the other hand to demonstrate participation as well. Then he began to speak aloud. Time-delayed, colleagues rose one after the other and joined the prayers with the same gesture. Daniel noticed that, over time, people who did not belong to his group rose as well. The bishop paused – wit the eyes wide open – his body described a slightly staggering movement. After a long embarrassing pause, he took the paten with the Host in one hand, the chalice in the other hand, went to the high altar and celebrated the mass to the end with his back to the people. “You could not express more clearly that you never really accepted the last Council,” Daniel thought – and made sure that some journalists got the idea to comment on it in the same way.

Wouldn’t it be the same procedure? And shouldn’t we just start with this?