The wilderness of the world


A new Copernican revolution is called for that puts at the centre of God’s mission not the splendid life of the church but the equally splendid life in the wilderness of of the world.

Anglican primate George Carey

Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous. The Church has remained 200 years behind the times. Why has it not been shaken up? Are we scared? Fear instead of courage?

Carlo Cardinal Martini just before his death in 2012

I wish to link what most people would consider disparate events. Many would think this is a mistaken case of “apples” and “oranges.” I am arguing otherwise. And I will need at least two posts to briefly sketch this out.

The first event is the remarks made at possibly the final liturgical act of Benedict XVl, Ash Wednesday liturgy. Let me say at the outset I have never regarded the pope as a great theologian at all. His theological corpus is simply never incarnational, drenched in history. He appears to float above the human condition, albeit in mellifluous language. The man was a master stylist. Let’s leave it at that.

The Jesuit Bernard Lonergan has described the change which occurred at Vatican ll as as a move from a Classicist world view to Historical Mindedness.This new theological paradigm which pays attention to incarnational, personalist and existential responses to newness and evolving ideas within history. After decades of self-censorship and suppression, Vatican ll unleashed a theological revolution which had been quietly simmering for 50 years. These “new” ideas in scripture, ecclesiology etc. found a home in the emergent theologians after the Council. One of the most important voices was that of  the Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin, a champion of the spiritual meaning of evolution and God’s activity in “the wilderness of the world.”


A new way of being church was evolving in our pilgrim church. This  ecclesiology from below found its articulation at Vatican ll as “the people of God”, an egalitarian discipleship of equals” all united in baptism. This was a accompanied in biblical studies  by a Christology from below, seeing Jesus in his humanness, the one open to  the eruption of divine love which flowed through him to make people whole. Evolution (Teilhard) comes to its highest expression in a human life, a Jew of the first century. He points a new way to wholeness, to an integrated life.This will be our way forward. Yet we also know the forces of darkness, greed, power, patriarchy etc. will challenge this new direction. This is the Jesus we meet in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), a radical Palestinian Jew who seems in  touch with the deepest currents of life. This Jesus never found a home in Ratzinger’s writings. He was much more comfortable with the “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel, the “Classical” view. It was this Jesus which he championed in his writings. If one analyzes the trajectory of his life, one spent largely in the academy one can see him as a virtual stranger to historical engagement. He tried but failed to denigrate the great churchmen of Latin America who saw  the gospel as liberation from all kinds of oppression which stood in the way of making “whole lives.” In 1986, Pope John Paul ll in a letter to the Brazilian bishops corrected Ratzinger’s condemnation of a liberation gospel by saying that liberation theology “was not only useful but necessary.


One looks in vain for “historical mindedness” in his  writings   which can compare to Kung, Schilebeeckx, Segundo, Sobrino, Metz, Boff and a host of others engaged theologians. One may wonder if there was not a correlation between his vicious attacks on these men and his own ethereal theology.

I do not want to belabor this point but I simply do not think Benedict is a creative theologian which brings me to his Ash Wednesday remarks.

The pope did make a salient point about Dorothy Day, He says:

In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!”. 

Day then acknowledges her deep understanding that she had need of God, that she could not convert the world by her sheer activism.

 “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer 

The Pope writes… “. God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.”

This I believe is accurate. It describes quite well the ego’s surrender to the divine initiative, the necessity for humility and self-abasement

What I find disquieting  is the pope’s use of the expression “conscious adherence to the church.”

It is as if going to jail, being with protesters is second-rate activity. It’s as if the living Christ was not among the protesters. ”Prayer” as the great Rabbi Heschel reminded us,” is no panacea, no substitue for action.” The great Jewish scholar  also lamented that, ”We have imprisoned God in our temples and slogans and now the word of God is dying on our lips.”


Pope Ratzinger has spent his life within the church where like many  of us he has found ultimate meaning but what is problematic is the assumed idea that the church  is where the action is, where the divine spirit resides.This is  where I believe him to be radically wrong.

We are told in the 4th Gospel (John 3:8) that “The Spirit blows where it wills,” and today that Spirit has largely left institutions.The Holy Mystery largely lies elsewhere.The spiritual energy percoalting for 14 billion years, certainly flaring deeply in the life of Jesus is way beyond organized religion and the inward concerns of the Catholic Church. I conclude these thoughts tomorrow,

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