Ecclesiology was so important during my seminary formation that it was one of only two courses that ran for two semesters. The name of our lecturer was ‘‘Anton-Henn”. Only once it began did we discover that Anton-Henn was supposed to be a double-act. Fr Anton was a Jesuit who theoretically taught part one, but the second semester began and still there was no sign of Fr Henn. Speculation about his status proliferated. Was Anton-Henn perhaps like Jekyll and Hyde, really the same person? One day during a lecture a friend handed me a portrait he had been doodling. The head and likeness of Fr Anton were perched above the body of a large chicken dressed in a clerical collar and labelled ‘‘Anton the Henn’’.
Another ecclesiological chimera appears to have emerged from the Amazonian synod: a Church with an Amazonian rather than a Catholic face. At about the same time in the 1990s that I was studying ecclesiology, the then Cardinal Ratzinger published a book, Called to Communion, which presents a prescient critique of the ‘‘newness’’ being lauded by the synod’s enthusiasts.
The post-war era saw a world divided largely between an affluent First World living according to a liberal economic model, and the poorer nations in Asia, South America and Africa which were struggling to emerge from colonialism. For them, the communist bloc appointed itself as economic and developmental saviour, liberating the poor.
This cultural milieu gave rise to a theology in which Jesus is the spokesman for a new, prophetic kind of religious observance which sweeps away cult, institution and law in favour of a radical, charismatic newness. The Jesus who proclaimed the death of institutions such as the Temple is no longer referring to the End Times, but calls us to action to destroy unjust institutions.
Such a narrative easily adapts to Marxist thought, and the opposition between priest and prophet, law and mercy, becomes the Marxist dialectic. Now the popular, grassroots Church is pitted against the institutional or ‘‘official” Church. The former is borne out of the people and in this way carries forward Jesus’s cause: his struggle against institutions and their oppressive power for the sake of a new and free society that will be “the Kingdom”. It all sounds familiar because it’s the hermeneutic which conflates previous evangelisation in the Amazon with colonialisation, and insists that a Church in the Amazon is not constrained by the same considerations as elsewhere but must hear the cry of the poor, as though the ‘‘old’’ Church never did. Indeed your only reason for opposing the new model is because you yourself are part of an oppressive elite.
The Pope Emeritus goes on to explain that openness to the world and responding to particular human experience is necessary; but we get to the truth, he says, only by extracting from individual theories their element of contemporary ideology by comparing them to the greater memory of the Church. In that sense there can be no paradigm shifts. The Church is also the ‘‘distinctive subject of history … whose memory preserves the seemingly past word and action of Jesus as a present reality’’.
No synod may voice the preferential options of anyone except Jesus Christ. Bishops must be in agreement with the ‘‘we’’ of the Church of all times. A majority that formed against the faith of the Church of all times would be no majority; it is the voice of the Church through the ages which is the true ‘‘plenary majority’’. Let’s hope that it is this voice that emerges loud and clear from what seemed like a deeply confused and divisive synod.