Church As ‘A Sign Of Contradiction’ – OpEd


After the December 2023 issuance of the declaration Fiducia Supplicans by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” raucous debate rages, almost revving into overdrive. Accordingly, Pope Francis advised everyone to avoid “rigid ideological positions” in interpreting the pastoral declaration.

While others were thinking of preserving Catholic doctrines and morals, which is also the pope’s intention, the Vicar of Christ takes a more pastoral approach and insists on welcoming “everyone, everyone, everyone.”

The Holy Father emphasized that non-liturgical blessings “do not require moral perfection to be received” and that they are bestowed on the people requesting them, not their union. He explained that “those who vehemently protest [the document] belong to small ideological groups,” while the Catholic Church in Africa presented “a special case” because “for them, homosexuality is something ‘ugly’ from a cultural point of view.”

Why is there so much polarization? Why is the Church and her pastoral approach in the new millennium so misunderstood, some Catholics were asking?

One explanation is that the Church is “a sign of contradiction.”

Allow me to go back to 1976, when St. Paul VI and the Roman Curia invited Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II (pope and saint), to facilitate the annual Spiritual Exercises for them. Wojtyla gave them 20 meditations, dwelling on the Church as “a sign of contradiction,” all of which “sum up most felicitously the whole truth about Jesus Christ, his mission, and his Church.” According to the Polish prelate, the Church like Christ remains a sign that will be opposed, even by prelates within its ranks.

His emphasis was on the prophecy of Simeon to the Holy Family, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel… a sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34). This, I believe, is the one thing we need to remember: That the Church (the Body) as the Sacrament and the visible representation of Jesus (the Head) remain “a sign of contradiction” yesterday, today, and for ages to come.

Take, for instance, the Chair of Peter. This office is a divine institution (Matthew 16:18), but it is also “a sign of contradiction.” Since the time of the first pope, intellectual disputes, arguments, and counter-arguments, with matching blamestorming in ecclesiology, have been going on. The pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth remains a sign of contradiction because a mere human being is bestowed with supreme power and universal authority by God (cf. Matthew 16:19).

A few months before his holy death, retired Benedict XVI (1927-2022) was pensive when he recollected the past. When he addressed the international symposium on “The Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger” held in 2022 at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, he made this revelation: “When I began to study theology in January 1946, no one thought of an ecumenical council. When Pope John XXIII announced it, to everyone’s surprise, there were many doubts as to whether it would be meaningful, indeed whether it would be possible at all, to organize the insights and questions into the whole of a conciliar statement and thus to give the Church a direction for its further journey.” That was in 1946, when Ratzinger was still a seminarian.

At this point, it is suitable to reintroduce the term “wreckovation,” which was the derogatory word applied to Catholic architecture after Vatican II. Wreckovation implied a poor style of renovation that certain historic cathedrals and churches have undergone since the 1960s. Critics, mostly ultraconservatives, applied “wreckovation” to Vatican II in the pastoral and spiritual sense. They claimed that Vatican II wreaked havoc on the Church, and brought doubts and confusion instead of repairing it.

The gentle German pontiff, a.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger, was one of the most important periti (experts) of Vatican II. From 1962 to 1965, the brilliant Ratzinger attended all four sessions of the council and engaged himself with other council fathers in countless arguments and counter-arguments, intellectual disputes, and countless meetings. In 1946, Ratzinger was a seminarian. During Vatican II, he was a peritus, an expert, and in 2022, he was a retired pope. With 76 years in between, the German pope emeritus changed his thoughts about Vatican II and made this final statement:

Vatican II was “not only meaningful, but necessary.”

World leaders with a keen sense of history do grasp the underlying causal principle: When problems are ignored, they turn into crises; and when crises are not resolved properly, they turn into scandals. It must be admitted, and admitted humbly, that Church history is full of narratives of scandals precisely because some leaders failed to resolve the crises or just ignored the problems. John XXIII knew this well, so he decided to confront the problems and crises at their roots when everyone thought otherwise. In his time, Pope Francis did the same thing.

The Church is divinely instituted, but her mystery necessarily includes her transitory, bureaucratic, and human memberships, sins, frailties, and bad judgements, almost always with global consequences. In her glorious days, in the Middle Ages, she was empowered as a state religion. As such, the Church rallied her anti-heresy advocacies, witch-hunting campaigns, grand inquisitions, crusades, the Galileo case, the anathemas, and politically-motivated excommunications, all of which became notorious landmarks in world history. In time, the Church has recognized that she was never the societas perfecta she thought she was.

A new direction. In rereading and reviewing her 2,000-year story, the Church through Vatican II came to realize that she is home to heaps of toxic internal divisions within the hierarchy, intolerable defects, oodles of personal skirmishes, and other matters that were oftentimes put under the rag and concealed from the outside world for pragmatic purposes, mainly reputational in character.

In the past, she wanted to protect her reputation, and that mattered a lot to her. Therefore, the series of crises in the past was made more complicated by the seeming cover-up by some bishops, maybe out of self-preservation. Or “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal,” as Benedict XVI in his 2010 Letter to the Catholics of Ireland suggests.

In God’s time, in God’s Kairos, the Church has learned to realize that she is holy and, at the same time, “always in need of being purified,” sancta simul et semper purificanda (Lumen Gentium, 8). The Church has come of age, fully aware that the all-encompassing inclusion of sinners is the inevitable factor behind ecclesiastical crises and abuses and that her desire to embrace in her bosom both sinners and saints. That she intends to be a tent hospital in the new millennium, welcoming “everyone, everyone, everyone” (in the vision of Pope Francis), is a big part of her mystery.

Since Vatican II, the Church is heading in a new direction: The Ecclesia semper purificanda leads to constant reforms (semper reformanda) so that she becomes a Church that “always follows the way of penitence and renewal” (Lumen gentium, 8).

Face-to-face with the new challenges of the times, Pope Francis was obliged to champion big changes and was compelled to overhaul the central government of the Church, without calling for Vatican Council III. He pondered like a pilot caught midway through a storm.

Under his leadership, the Church, like the phoenix, rises from the ashes of crises and scandals. Her resolve to always purify and reform herself is indeed a work in progress until the Parousia.

With the “New Evangelization” pursued with dynamism and audacity, with a more transparent governance in place, with the pastoral office armed with its canonical authority being renovated, and her canon law being amended for pastoral effectiveness, she remains definitely the visible and historical presence of Christ on earth, the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, until the end of time.

Dr Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano

Dr. José Mario Bautista Maximiano is the lead convenor of the Love Our Pope Movement (LOPM) International. Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano, based in the Philippines capital Manila, is a Catholic scholar, public educator and columnist. He is author of the three-volume work on the Chronological and Thematic Essays: 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines.

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