February 8, 2019
I begin with an observation from the American historian, Eric Alterman. Writing this week in the New Yorker about “The Decline of Historical Thinking” he says: “Last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college.”
I am not surprised about this development because, for many Americans, historical awareness and sensitivity have long been secondary issues. Many would resonate with Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) the founder of the Ford Motor Company, the father of the assembly line and of mass-production: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today” (Chicago Tribune, 1916).
The current White House occupant, so well-known for his lies, falsehoods, and ahistorical assertions is an example of the ahistorical person gone wild. Historical ignorance, whether willful or not, distorts reality and misleads people.
Historical ignorance and ahistorcal assertions impact religious beliefs as well. That is my focus today.
As the Third Millennial Reformation continues to unfold, historical knowledge is becoming the big change agent. History clarifies, questions, and challenges.
Today I offer historical reflections about some key ecclesiastical issues: bishops as successors of the apostles, women in ministry, seven sacraments, the first pope and church structure, and sexuality and sexual abuse.
Bishops as successors of the apostles: I remember a friendly chat with an American archbishop. He attended one of my lectures in which I stressed that all who are sent out to proclaim the Gospel are truly successors of the apostles. He reprimanded me (privately) and reminded me that at the Last Supper Jesus went around the group and ordained the apostles as the first bishops. I asked him, with a chuckle, if Jesus also gave each of them a pectoral cross, ornate episcopal ring, and a pointed-hat miter. He was not amused.
Early Christian history is quite clear. Jesus did not ordain anyone. There were male and female disciples of Jesus and male and female apostles. An apostle is one sent out to proclaim the Gospel.
Women in ministry: Pope Francis, and his papal predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been emphatic: “women cannot be ordained as priests.” With all due respect, popes too need remedial and ongoing education. History in fact says judgments against women’s ordination are wrong and based on a mistaken view of history. In the early church, heads of households presided at Eucharist. We know that women as well were heads of households. We know that several women were key leaders in the early church. Fortunately today we have women historians and women scripture scholars who help us see beyond male prejudices and narrow stereotypes. And, most importantly today we have a growing number of ordained women! To assert today that women cannot be ordained is like standing in a departure hall at O’Hare Airport and saying “women can never fly.” I recommend two books about women in ministry: Crispina and Her Sisters, Women and Authority in early Christianity by
Christine Schenk, and The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West by Gary Macy.
Seven sacraments: After the sixteenth century Reformation, the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) proclaimed that the historical Jesus instituted seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick). Historically there is no foundation for this dogmatic assertion. As Joseph Martos points out in his excellent book, Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual, the New Testament makes reference to rituals such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the laying on of hands, but it never calls them sacraments. The scriptures also talk about forgiveness, about healing, and about ministry, but they speak only indirectly about rituals that may have been connected with them. Sacramental rituals were created by the Christian community, not as something one received but rather as ritual moments in the Christian life and ministry. History tells us we can and we should be freely creative in our ritual celebrations of Christ’s presence in the community. It also tells Catholics to be a bit more understanding of “Protestant sacraments.”
The first pope and church structure: I have touched on this in some detail in previous posts. History is quite clear about Peter the Apostle. He was never a bishop of Rome. It is only with a highly symbolic theological imagination that he can be described as “the first pope.” Church structure? Imperial Rome has had a great and long-lasting impact on the Roman Catholic Church. One of my friends yells at at me (an email yell) that “the church is not a democracy!” when I criticize the power-hungry and self-serving behavior of institutional church leaders. Ok. I agree. Nevertheless, it should not be an imperial and monarchical authoritarian organization either but a fellowship of believers in which compassion, collaboration, and shared decision-making prevail. There are still too many holdovers from ancient Rome in contemporary Catholic structures and behavior.
Sexuality and sexual abuse: Here history haunts us. Sexual abuse of children, young people and adult men and women has a long history. Priests and bishops have been perpetrators. Priests and bishops have known this history for a very long time and have closed their eyes, covered their ears, and closed their mouths about it. This history now haunts us and will continue to push people away from the institution. A big part of the Third Millennial Reformation has to be an enhanced understanding of human sexuality and a healthy living-out of human sexuality. There is indeed a problem with mandatory celibacy and a still unhealthy approach to sexuality within the church. Church language and teaching about sexuality has to be examined and changed. Too many innocent people have suffered because of the failure of those in authority to face up to this haunting historical issue.
Well my friends this is enough for today.
When history says: this is what happened in the past, it also asks the key question: what should be happening today?