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" 5. There were crusades and inquisitions and more Christians were burned at the stake under the papacy than all the Christians martyred by all the Roman emperors before them. Jesus once observed that by its fruits we would know if a tree is good. Was the Roman system a good tree? Was it a tree of life ?"

From .............. National Catholic Reporter

December 8, 1995

pages 8-10

The following is the text of the keynote address at the Call to Action conference in Chicago, Nov. 3-5.

By ANTHONY PADOVANO [ president of CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood]

Jesus was a reformer. Of that there can be no doubt. The reform he called for was so radical that it seemed to exclude religion itself. Jesus speaks about the Last Judgment in terms of human sensitivity to the needs of others rather than in terms of liturgical or religious obligations. The reform emphasized love so strongly that it relativized all the codes of law and custom.

Jesus insisted that people were more important than the Sabbath, that forgiveness mattered more than worship, that compassion was the essence of discipleship. The reform was aimed pointedly against the power and pretensions of priests and Pharisees. It was opposed to all human hierarchy and it established the sovereignty of God in the equality of all believers. Those who dominated and coerced others were called pagans by Jesus. Their behavior excluded them from serving as ministers in the name of Christ. Ministry in the intentionality of Jesus was service and not dominion.

Jesus the reformer died in agony rather than allowing religion as he knew it to go on without protest. It is this crucified reformer who is the model for all genuine reform. Had he been more conventional and obedient, more orthodox and subservient, more compliant and submissive, he would not have been crucified. It is as simple and awful as that.

The fragile and terrified community that gathered in his name came to believe against all the odds and evidence that Jesus of Nazareth did not die into nothingness. Indeed, he was the Christ, son of David, son of God, savior. It was an astonishingly and thoroughly breathtaking conclusion to draw from the premise of the cross.

This conviction, now a faith, was celebrated in rituals of spare simplicity: water for baptism; wheat and wine for communion.

This was how it all began.

There can be no genuine reform in the church if we lose sight of this beginning. These four points of cross and Easter, of baptism and communion, are the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Reforms merely intend to keep them central. If these four experiences are not central, there is no Christianity.


I would like now to select one saint from each millennium, a saint who served as a reformer and who kept the church focused on Christ. Paul in the first millennium and Francis in the second stand surrogate for all the women and men, celibates and married, martyrs and prophets who gave their lives to preserve the message of Christ from being suffocated by the state and corrupted by the church.

Paul made Jesus messiah for the whole world. This most Jewish of all the Christian saints brought gentiles into an equal relationship with one another in Christ. He compelled the church to reject law as the defining element in religion. He kept the cross and Easter central, those experiences of Christ that were least Jewish and most free from cultural and gender categories.

Paul learned from the cross that Jesus was justified and sanctified without the law, liberated by his faith or trust in God and not by any sectarian system. Paul gave Christianity a messiah without law and a Christ without religion. He made the gospel catholic rather than cultural, universal rather than Jewish.

To the Philippians [3:8-9], he writes "I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and share in his life. I no longer try for perfection by my own efforts. I do not seek a perfection built on the law but a perfection that comes from faith."

To the Galatians [2:16, 21; 5:1], he writes: "No one is justified by laws; only faith in Jesus Christ does that. ...... If the law justified us, then the death of Christ was wasted ..... Stay always, therefore, in the freedom by which Christ has made us free and do not submit ever again to slavery."

In the postconciliar period after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul the reformer was harassed by right-wing traditionalists who visited the churches he founded to lead people back to the law. The traditionalists even had Peter on their side for a while. When Peter became a restorationist working with a preconciliar theology, Paul and the church continued and converted Peter. They made it clear to Peter that he was less than the church and had to obey it.

The future belonged to the reformer Paul as it once belonged to the reformer Jesus. Had the preconciliarists prevailed, Christianity would have withered, its house churches open to traditionalists alone, its communion services more and more rare, its women made subservient to men in the prevailing patriarchy, its slaves kept in a hierarchy that allowed them no equality.

Paul shifted the focus of the church from law to Christ. All future reformers would follow this example.

A thousand years after Paul, the Catholic church was wealthy and deeply involved in politics; it was a military power and a heavily centralized bureaucracy; it used law to define itself in a way that Paul would have seen as a betrayal of Christ.

No one symbolized the imperial grandeur of the church of Rome more tellingly than did Innocent III. And no previous council was a greater display of the pope's control of the church and of Europe's monarchies than the fourth Lateran council he summoned.

Innocent was only 37 years of age when he was elected to the papacy. Francis, at 16, was some 20 years younger at the time. In his youth, Francis too, was invested in violence as a soldier and in affluence as the son of a rich cloth merchant.

Francis was 24 when he heard Christ call him to rebuild the church. He, like Paul, was a mystic but he sought reform not through soaring theology but in poverty, humility and simplicity. These were the hallmarks of his life. He lived them so thoroughly that many believe there was no other more like Christ in all Christian history than Francis.

Paul's call for reform was conceptual and structural in its consequences; Francis' call was spiritual and individual, leading to personal conversion and renewal. The two approaches would be the pattern for all reform of the church. Both are needed and both bring the church back to Christ.

Francis was given to poverty, achieving the inner freedom that comes when possessions are not greedily acquired. Had Innocent III and Lateran IV heard his call, the church would have reflected more clearly the life of Jesus and the preaching of Paul. Instead, it became the major financial institution in Europe.

Francis was given to humility, manifesting in his life the joy that comes when power is not addictively sought. Had Innocent and Lateran IV been sensitive to Francis, the church of the Middle Ages might have become a church of dialogue and hospitality.

Francis was given to simplicity, demonstrating in his life the nonviolence and peace that follow when all creation is poetically celebrated rather than savagely exploited. Had pope and council learned from Francis, the church would have put less trust in dogma and clericalism, in politics and canon law.

Three years after Francis heard the call to rebuild the church, he came to see Innocent III to have the rule of his new community approved. Innocent was the ruler of the Western world when Francis came to him in poverty, humility and simplicity. The meeting of these two men, both of whom claimed to be Christ's disciples, was an encounter between two utterly different conceptions of church.

Innocent believed the Roman system could save the world. Francis believed in Christ. Innocent went on to excommunicate the king of England, to declare the Magna Carta null and void and to encourage crusades. Francis went on to bear in his body the signs of the crucified Christ and to carry in his heart the love of God for all creation.

Today no one is moved by the power and privilege with which Innocent III lived out his calling as a Christian and the ministry of the papacy. Today hardly anyone remains uninspired by the poverty, humility and simplicity of Francis. The church, in its power structure, ignored Francis, but the heart of the church felt his life and continues to grow in grace because of him.


There is nothing in the history of the Catholic church that embodies the law Paul rejected more fully than the Roman system. It is this system that is most impervious to Francis' effort to rebuild the church of Christ.

I do not equate the Roman system with the role the papacy plays as a ministry of unity in the church. When the papal office is well-used, it focuses the church's structural life on unity, harmony and reconciliation. The Roman system is simply not the same as the ministry of unity.

The system as we know it began during the first millennium. The church of Rome claimed the relics of Peter and Paul; it identified with the emperor and it assumed his place and titles when the capital of the empire moved to Constantinople.

Nonetheless, the system was under control as long as two elements were in place:

These two elements are reciprocal. Eastern Christianity is culturally collegial. It stresses liturgy rather than law as a source of ecclesial unity. It relies on mysticism and the Spirit rather than on structure and jurisdiction, episcopal monarchy and infallibility to build the church. Eastern Orthodoxy has its own problems, but the assets we have cited are the treasures the Western church lost when the great schism occurred in the 11th century.

In the first millennium, the pope could not summon councils nor set their agendas; he had no veto power over them and attended none of them. Papal legates were invited, not because the pope alone could legitimate a council but because he was one of the five great patriarchs of the church expressing its structural unity: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople.

There were times in the first millennium when the Roman system claimed priority over other churches, but this was often dismissed as Roman rhetoric. The church saw itself as collegial; the pope was an integral part of that process but not its essence. For this reason, Pope Victor I was ignored when, in the second century, he tried to impose a single Roman date for Easter and excommunicated all of Asia Minor for not obeying his decree.

When Constantine called the first Council at Nicaea, whose task it was to define the divinity of Jesus, he did so on his own authority, without asking advice. He writes to the bishops: "It is my will that all of you assemble without delay." Papal legates were invited but the record does not note their making any contribution during the proceedings. Constantine dominated the council. He laid down the regulations and decided on the number and names of the bishops, the meeting place, agenda and steering committee. He published the decrees.

The first council was called by a layperson who was not even in the church officially because he was not yet baptized. All other councils of the first millennium were called by laypersons, although in these latter cases, they were baptized Christians.

There were two cases of erring popes whom the whole church rejected during the first millennium. They were brought to the attention of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century but the political pressure to define papal infallibility led to their being discounted.

Pope Vigilius in the sixth century was confused about whether Christ was fully human. The fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople clarified this doctrine and rejected the pope as a reliable teacher for the church.

Pope Honorius I was formally condemned as a heretic by the sixth ecumenical council in Constantinople and this condemnation was confirmed by subsequent popes and by the seventh ecumenical council.

The Roman system, therefore, was not fully in place for the first half of Christian history. The Roman system was brought into place only after the East split from the West. Three popes in particular helped to develop this system rapidly and forcefully.

[excerpt in box]- "Jesus the reformer died in agony rather than allowing religion as he knew it to go on without protest."

Pictures of St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Boniface VIII

Picture caption- Pope Boniface VIII blesses pilgrims during the first Holy Year, held in 1300.