Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Catholic Church: A Short History - Hans Küng

Personal politics is of decisive importance for longer-term changes for the Vatican as for any political system.

Quite succinctly, The Catholic Church: A Short History is exactly that: a brief summary of the Catholic Church's History. From the beginning Küng is quite transparent regarding his background and his intentions: he is a catholic trying, at the same time, to demistify Catholicisim and to describe the good things that, despite all its failure, the Catholic Church has given to the West and to the World. Throughout the book, Kung also mentions specific doctrinary and practical aspects in which Catholicism has either misinterpreted Christ's word or has departed from his teaching or from Christianity as practiced by the first communities. For the general public, a selected list of examples provided by Küng is available at the end of this post.

One thing that Küng says loud and clear from the beginning, and that the reader (particularly Catholic readers) should come to terms with is that the Vatican and Catholicism are human creations, hence with errors in design and institutional patches, and hence perfectible. Küng is a reformer of Catholicism, not a rupturist or even a revolutionary. This is actually a good thing: instead of a rosy or manichean picture of History, Küng provides well-balanced opinions and uses concepts such as Realpolitik quite masterfully. He is not naive or condescendent with the Curia's atrocities. As Matthew says that Jesus Christ said , Küng is as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. 

The book is really well crafted: it is not easy to summarize 2,000 years of History and a prospective (wishful) panorama in less than 300 pages. The book, however, could do a better job trying to explain the theological debates that have ravaged Christianity throughout History. The non-specialist will have to look on Google why not allowing laymen to drink from the chalice during the mass is such a big thing.

And this brings me to my overarching comment of the book. Towards the end, Küng shows his worry about Catholicism survival prospects in the medium term. Quoting declining attendancy rates and trust on religious institutions, he suggests that two reforms can save Catholicism: reform the law of celibacy, a measure that in theory would reduce pedophilia, and reform the episcopal ministry, a rather dry topic for outsiders. Küng is wrong. Catholicism will not disappear: despite all its failure, the longest-living institution of Earth is still the only hope of many dispossesed around the Earth with the exception of Europe, where Welfare State has taken up the social activities formerly performed by the Catholic Church. For some people, especially in the Third World, and thanks partly to the vocation of some priests, the Church is still the patrimony of the poor, a term used extensively by priests during the social revolutions of the mid-19th century.

I always hate when somebody quotes Marx's famous dictum "religion is the opium of the people:" quoters usually just stay with the Jacobin part of Marx's line of thought. But, in what is probably the most scandalous case of decontextualization in History, people forget the first part of the dictum, which explains why the Catholic Church will never disappear, or will morph quite successively into something equally hierarchical with some cosmetic touches: people need religioin. Marx's full quote is:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The biggest problem of this book is that Küng doesn't take into account the specific weight of Catholicism in the developing World -something Küng himself acknowledges and is a. Of course, if one focuses on Europe and even with the United States, Catholicism and religions in general are likely to perish. But if one leaves the old ruminating West, Catholicism is still quite vibrant. It should come as no surprise that Francis, the pope at the time this post was written, comes from Latin America, a place where the Church has traditionally been close to its people, sometimes despite policies coming from the Vatican.

In a recent interview, 12 years after the publication of The Catholic Church, Küng has acknowledged that Francis "embodies my hopes for the Church" (this link reporting the same news is quite hilarious).

Catholicism will be there for a long time. As long as people need a religion, the institutional supply will be there. This doesn't dismiss the value of this book. It is actually a quite good volume and I recommend it for everybody, including the general public.

Specific examples where the Catholic church deviated from the original doctrine or misconceptions about Catholicism as mentioned by Küng
"(...) according to all the evidence Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime."
"The original meaning of ekklesia, 'church', was not a hyperorganization of spiritual functionaries, detached from the concrete assembly. It denoted a community gathering at a particular place at a particular time for a particular action."
"Be it as it may, it is no anachronism to claim that Jesus was anything but the representative of a patriarchal hierarchy."
"[T]oday even Catholic exegetes accept that the famous saying about Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16.18-19; the statement is in the future tense)-of which the other gospels know nothing-is not a saying of the earthly Jesus but was composed after Easter by the Palestinian community, or later by Matthew's community."
"In the earliest church Peter doubtless had a special authority; however, he did not possess it alone, but always collegially with others. He was far removed from being a spiritual monarch, even a sole ruler. There is no trace of any exclusive, quasimonarchical authority as leader (jurisdiction)."
"There is no reliable evidence that Peter was ever in charge of the church of Rome as supreme head or bishop."
"The earliest Christian community did not want in any way to part company with the Jewish community or nation, but to remain integrated into Judaism."
"[I]t must also be said quite inmistakably that the anti-Judaism which can already be found among the Jewish Christians, and which in a lamentable way is already recorded in the gospels of Matthew and John, had its decisive roots in the peersecution of Christians and their exclusion from the syangogue."
"The word 'catholic' (Greek katholikos, 'related to the whole', 'general') is not used anywhere in the New Testament. Nowhere is the 'church' called 'catholic'. The expression 'catholic church' was used for the first time by Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, in his letter to the community in Smyrna."
"Paul was not the real founder of Christianity-though this is constatly asserted by those who will not be taught."
"The presbyteral-episcopal constitution of the church is said to have been instituted by Jesus Christ, even to be a divine institution and therefore unchangeable divine law (iuris divini). However, it is not as simple as that. A careful investigation of the New Testament sources in the last hundred years has shown that this church constitution, centered on the bishop, is by no means directly willed by God or even by Christ, but is the result of a long and problematical historical development. It is human work and therefore in principle can be changed."

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