" 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 11-12

It is now possible to define the Roman system. I suggest the system is built on seven key points. Changing any one of them destabilizes the others. This is why promoters of the Roman system resist change so fiercely. Just as Pius could not imagine a papacy without the Papal States, defenders of the status quo cannot imagine a church without the Roman system.

This betrays a lack of imagination and deficiency of faith. Furthermore, not having control of the church terrifies those who lose their identities whenever they deal with something or someone they cannot dominate. Just such a mindset once found Jesus of Nazareth a threat and a menace.

Resistance to each of the elements we shall enumerate constitutes the modern reform movement in the church. This movement goes forward either by a direct critique of the power structure or by a renewal of one's own heart and spirit.

1. The Roman system is centralized. Collegiality on every level of church life is resisted by the Roman system. As we shall see, the two most dangerous councils in church history are the councils that called for collegial structures, Constance and Vatican II.

2. The Roman system is legalistic. In the oppressive 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux, the great mystic, rebuked Pope Eugene III: "Here you have not followed Peter but Constantine." This is the essence of legalism, a reliance on church law to accomplish salvation, preserve the church and impart holiness. The law thus becomes more important than the life of the church [for example, mandatory celibacy over Eucharist], the sensus fidelium, the participation and freedom of God's people.

3. The Roman system is clericalized. The system requires a mysticism of obedience, one that necessitates that the cleric be totally defined by the system and allowed no life outside it. Submission of will and behavior, even the assent of one's intellect, is essential. Loyalty and docility are paramount virtues.

4. The Roman system is celibate. The rise of the papacy as a monarchy begins at exactly that point when mandatory celibacy is insisted on and put in place. It is not only celibacy but all sexual life that must he controlled for the system to work.

5. The Roman system is male. The heavy investment of women over the centuries in the priority of relationships makes women an object of intense fear. Relationality makes control and subservience more difficult. This is why all appeals to Christ over church are seen as subversive, naive or destructive of good order. Women threaten all authoritarian systems. The military, the corporation, the church.

This is not to romanticize the role of women who, after all, are also limited and flawed. It is, however, to observe that women working as equals with men keep the system from being single-minded. It is not the decision of priests to resign that disturbs Rome as much as their decision to marry women.

6. The Roman system is belligerent and dogmatic. The crusades and the inquisitions are no longer possible. In their place, the system uses psychological torture. Some examples come to mind; theologians harassed and put on trial; the deposition of bishops; the painful experience of annulments and dispensations from celibacy; interrogatories before bishops are appointed inquiring about their total agreement with Rome on all issues; the denial of communion, for life for the divorced and remarried; the removal from employment in church institutions of people married to or associated with people in categories Rome does not favor; the engendering of a climate of intimidation in the church; the breakdown of trust between pope and bishops, between bishops and priests, between pastors and people; the encouragement by Rome of secret reports on all church leaders in an effort to control all divergent thinking.

7. The Roman system is infallible. It admits no errors; it asks no forgiveness; it engages in oaths and distortions to maintain a facade that it has never made a mistake. The infallibility once attributed to God's Spirit is now transferred to the pope; the collegial confidence in faith once attributed to all God's people is now encapsulated in a single papal monarch. The pope then emerges as more than the church, able to judge everyone and to be judged by no one, capable of making all laws and subject to none of them, competent to speak infallibly on his own initiative. This climate is not healthy for the pope or for the church.


The result of this system has been the loss of Peter as the minister of unity for the whole church. The papacy has split the church twice, first between East and West in the 11th century and then between Rome and the reformers in the 16th century. These are the deepest wounds the church has suffered in its entire life. Both were self-inflicted and both happened because the papacy, which once strengthened the church and brought it peace sought to dominate the church and make it in its own image.

The departure of the East and of the reformers, their insights and theology, their life and spirituality have been an incalculable loss for the Catholic community.

Was the East so wrong when it insisted on a collegial structure for the church? Was the East misguided when it saw liturgy as more capable than the law of unifying the church? Was the East mistaken when it affirmed the compatibility of marriage and ordination? Did the East lose the message of Christ when it offered full church communion to the divorced and remarried?

Was Luther not trustworthy when he warned in the 16th century that the Papal States were a danger to the spiritual mission of the papacy?

Did Luther deserve excommunication because he called for a liturgy in the language of the people and insisted that the laity be given both bread and wine at the Eucharist? Was Luther an evil influence when he asked that scripture be the norm for all papal decisions and conciliar definitions? Did he dishonor the sacraments when he claimed that they had no meaning unless they were received in faith? Was Luther a bad priest because he begged the pope to stop selling indulgences and to liberate all souls from purgatory, if he had such power, out of love without waiting for the right price?

Was Luther not reliable when he asked that papal power be limited for the relief of God's people and for the sanctification of the pope himself?

Did Luther lead us astray when he asked that Christian communities choose their pastors and bishops? Did Luther fail to touch our hearts when he asked for joyous singing at liturgy and heartfelt preaching and congregational participation and a central place for the scripture as God's word?

From the election of Gregory VII in 1073 to the 95 theses at Wittenburg in 1517, 444 years had passed. During these four centuries:

1. The split between East and West became permanent and bitter.

2. The popes gave up all pastoral care of their diocese of Rome and lived in Avignon, France, for more than 70 years.

3. There were three papacies, one at Rome, another in France, a third in Pisa, Italy, each with its own curia, college of cardinals and papal taxation system.

4. The Renaissance papacy, the most corrupt in church history, followed from 1471-1521. It lasted about a half century and involved the papacy in murder, torture, theft and sexual perversion.

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 ?

Had you and I been alive and known all this in the 16th century, would we have endorsed the Roman system or Luther ? In spite of Luther's shortcomings, could those failures of Luther ever outweigh the evils brought in by the Roman system ? If we are reformers now, it is not because we love the church less or because we prefer to be in dissent.

Something deep in us cries out that in the name of God all this must end. Fear and force are not the signs of Christ's presence or of love or of God's Spirit. Has love become so incredible and impossible for supporters of the Roman system that those who suggest it are dismissed as naive and stupid? Is love considered then so emasculating and decontrolling that it is the last thing they resort to and the first solution they dismiss?

If we had heard Luther cry out on April 18, 1521,

Had we heard this, would we have supported Luther or the Roman system ?

Today that choice is not necessary because we can see clearly the difference between the Roman system and the church of Christ and because almost all of Luther's teaching became doctrine in Vatican II.


Constance and Vatican II were major councils of healing in church history. Both affirmed the papacy but sought to surround it with a real role for the life of the church.

Our two great reforming saints are Paul and Francis. Our two great reforming councils are Constance and Vatican II. These experiences, on the highest level of church life, saints and councils balance the papacy so that the life of the church is not crushed.

Constance was a four-year council [1414-1418], lasting about the same amount of time as Vatican II. It was the only council held in German. Constance was summoned because of the emergency caused by so many claimants to the papacy. For 38 years, from 1378-1414 there had been two and, toward the end of that period, three popes.

Limits on the absolute rule of the popes were talked about as early as the 12th century. Gratian, the codifier of church law, spoke of popes losing their faith and of the need for the church to protect itself against this. Jean Gerson, a leading influence in organizing the Council of Constance, observed that Christ asked Peter "to feed my sheep," not to run them off a cliff. In a strong speech before the council on March 23, 1415, he said: "The final norm, set by the Holy Spirit and transmitted by Christ is the church or general council. ..... Everyone, the pope included, must listen to the council and obey. .... The pope is not above all law."

Two weeks later, the Ecumenical Council of Constance passed the decree Haec Sancta on April 6, 1415. This is a truly revolutionary document, never rejected by any subsequent council or pope. It remains official church teaching of the highest order of solemnity and importance. It reads: