The Church needs profound reform

Church needs profound reform

Thomas Halik, the Czech Catholic priest and former Soviet dissident, has told Europe’s bishops and lay leaders not to fear that “some forms of the Church are dying”, encouraging them to courageously undertake a synodal journey marked by “openness to the future, and receptivity to God’s challenges in the signs of the times”.

The 74-year-old priest and intellectual made the remarks in his native Prague at the beginning of Europe’s continental stage of the Synod.

Halík, an internationally known author who teaches sociology at the Charles University in the Czech capital, gave a “spiritual introduction” to the weeklong European synodal assembly on the future of the Church.

La Croix: How can the Church be more relevant in our secularised societies in Europe? Should it adapt to societal changes or be counter-cultural?

Father Tomas Halik: The main mission of the Church is evangelization, which consists of inculturation, an effort to infuse the spirit of the Gospel into the way people think and live today.

Without this, evangelisation is only superficial indoctrination.

The Church cannot and should not be part of, or in resistance to, the counter-culture, except in the face of repressive regimes such as Nazism, fascism and communism.

Attempts to make Catholicism – especially from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries – a counter-culture against modern society, culture, science and philosophy led to an intellectual self-castration, causing the estrangement of a large part of the working class, intellectuals and youth.

Fear and aversion to modern culture has led to ex-culturation, contributing significantly to the secularisation of Western society. The efforts of Vatican II to dialogue with modernity and secular humanism came too late, at a time when modernity was already coming to an end.

Postmodern society presents churches with very different challenges and opportunities from those of modernity.

To become a credible and intelligible voice in an age of radical plurality, the Church must undergo a profound reformation – and I hope that the synodal path will be such a reformation.

Don’t such transformations risk diluting the Christian message, as the pope seems to fear when facing the most extreme positions of the Synodal Path in Germany?

The Synodal Path in Germany seems to place great importance on changing institutional structures.

It boldly raises questions that cannot be taboo, and speaks of problems for which solutions cannot be postponed indefinitely. I

insist, however, that institutional reforms – like questions concerning the conditions of priestly ministry – must precede and complement a deepening of theology and spirituality.

I recently published a book, The Afternoon of Christianity, in which I reflect on the theology and spirituality of synodal renewal.

I apply a method I call “kairology” – a theological hermeneutic of cultural and societal change, inspired by the Ignatian method of “spiritual discernment.”

A distinction must be made between the “spirit of the time” (Zeitgeist), which is the “language of the world”, and the “signs of the times”, which are the language of God through world events.

Some theologians – such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – questioned whether or not Christianity is a religion.

I believe that the Christianity of tomorrow will be a religion in a very different sense than it was in the past.

The word religion (religio) is derived from the verb religare, to bring together; religion was the integrating force (“common language”) of an entire society.

But the word religion (religio) can also be derived from the verb relegere, “to read again”.

Christianity should offer a new hermeneutic, a new reading, and a deeper understanding of its own sources – Scripture and Tradition – as well as of the “signs of the times”.

The process of secularisation has accelerated in Europe because of the abuse crisis. How can this be seen as a “sign of the times” for the Church?

For me, sexual abuse plays a similar role to the scandals of selling indulgences just before the Reformation.

At first, both phenomena seemed marginal. But both revealed much deeper systemic problems.

In the case of selling indulgences, it was the relationship between the Church and money, the Church and power, the clergy and the laity.

In the case of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse, it is about the systemic disease that Pope Francis has called “clericalism”.

Above all, it is an abuse of power and authority.

The pope calls for the transformation of the rigid system of clerical power in the Church into a dynamic network of mutual cooperation, a shared journey (syn-hodos).

This journey inevitably leads to a transcendence of the Church’s current institutional and mental boundaries, to a deeper and broader ecumenism – to a universal invitation to all on the path to the eschatological goal of “universal fraternity”.

The great vision of Pope Francis, contained in the encyclical Fratelli tutti, could play a role in the 21st century that is similar to that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century.

The future course of the synodal process will show whether the Church offers only beautiful visions to today’s humanity (just words, words, words) or whether it will show the courage of “self-transcendence”.

Christian identity is not something static and unchanging.

The identity and authenticity of Christianity lies in participation in the drama of Easter – the mystery of death and resurrection.

Many things in the Church must die for resurrection to take place – and resurrection is not a “resuscitation”, a turning back, but a radical transformation.

How can a culture of synodality be developed and sustained in Europe, when “national” Churches are part of such different ecclesial realities?

The obsession with the “national principle”, whether in the State or in the Church, brings with it the danger of nationalism, of national egoism, one of the diseases of modernity from the 19th century, which is reappearing today as a dangerous temptation containing populism and fundamentalism during the crisis of globalisation.

Nationalism was the cause of two world wars.

And the current third world war, which Russia started with the genocide in Ukraine – a global threat that the West reprehensibly underestimates – is also caused by nationalism, by dangerous Russian imperialism and by national messianism.

Pope Francis makes it clear: a Christian must not be a nationalist.

In my opinion, thinking only within national borders must be overcome by “glocality” (the concept of thinking globally and acting locally).

The synodal transformation of the Church should contribute to the transformation of globalization into “glocalization”, thus tipping the balance towards more solidarity, mutual respect and sharing.

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,