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Crisis and Reform in the Church: Lessons from the Past

by Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

SpacerScandals and internal conflict make these difficult times for the church. Where did they come from? History tells us that church crisis and scandal are nothing new. They have always been there, though we tend to forget them. The church always has its human side.
Spacer For example, look at the Roman church in the 3rd century, when St. Callistus, born a slave, convicted as a thief, became a pope and a martyr. He was put in charge of a bank by his Christian master, but lost money deposited in it. He fled from Rome, was caught and sentenced to hard labor, then released. While trying to collect debts from members of Rome's Jewish community, he was arrested for brawling in a synagogue.
Spacer Sent to the mines in Sardinia, Callistus was freed through the intervention of Marcia, the Christian concubine of Emperor Commodus. (Remember Commodus from the movie The Gladiator?) Then Pope Zephyrinus made him a deacon and manager of an important Roman Christian burial place, now called the Catacombs of Callistus.
Spacer Eighteen years later Callistus was elected pope for a short controversial reign. Some church leaders despised him for his lowly, suspicious origins. Callistus died during a riot in 222.
Spacer What a messy church! Christians own other Christians as slaves. A Christian woman, Commodus' concubine, succeeds in getting Callistus and other Christians out of prison. A church divided by class and social status. A slave and ex-con becomes pope --- and a saint. There is always messiness in the church.
Spacerright: Callistus I depicted in a detail of a mosaic by Pietro Cavallini in the apse of the church Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome.

Church Scandals
Spacer Scandals will always be with us, Jesus said. There were scandalous popes during the Renaissance, like Alexander VI and Julius II. Alexander fathered nine children by three different women. Julius, the great patron of Michelangelo, spent much of his papacy storming up and down the Italian peninsula dressed in silver armor at the head of his own army warring against his enemies. Study of Julius II by Raphael
Spacer Not only were there scandalous popes, but scandalous religious too. Listen to the complaints of the medieval poet William Langland in his religious allegory Piers the Plowman:
Spacer ". . . friars followed folk that was rich
SpacerAnd folk that was poor at little price they set,
SpacerAnd no corpse on their kirkyard nor in their kirk was buryed
SpacerBut quick [unless while alive] he bequeathed
SpacerThem aught or should help pay their debts."

Spacer Sexual misconduct of priests was common in the Middle Ages. Some parishes made their priests sign a contract promising to find their women elsewhere, so as not to deplete the local supply of marriageable girls.

Learning from crises and scandals
Spacer Crises and scandals will always be with us, but God's grace always triumphs. Let's open some windows into the past that we may understand our church today. We'll ask four questions:

  1. What happened and why?
  2. How did the church respond to the crisis?
  3. How has that historical response shaped us as a church?
  4. What can we learn for today?

Who can belong to the church? A first century challenge
Spacer The earliest crisis facing the church was whether Gentiles could enter it. What happened and why?
Spacer The church at Antioch, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sent Paul and Barnabas to preach throughout Asia Minor. In a number of towns, they preached first to the Jews and then to Gentiles who accepted their message. Controversy flared: should Gentiles become Jews before becoming Christians? Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem went to Antioch demanding that Gentiles be circumcised and obey Jewish purity laws in order to be Christian. Division deepened and even Peter refused to eat with Gentile Christians for fear of becoming 'unclean." It got to the point where the two groups would not share Eucharist.
Spacer How did the church respond to this crisis? Paul, Barnabas and other leaders of the Antioch church discussed the matter with the apostles and elders at a meeting later called the Council of Jerusalem. It was decided that Gentiles need not be circumcised or obey Jewish dietary law; they had only to avoid meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods and to avoid fornication. They also were to be mindful of the poor. The Church made room for both Gentile and Jewish Christians.
Spacer How did this historical response shape our church? It became inclusive and yet diverse. What makes someone Christian is not race or legal practice, but faith in Jesus Christ. right: ruins, Church of St Simeon in Antioch
Spacer Can we not learn from this today, when our church is so divided into liberal and conservative factions? In time of crisis we are tempted to demand absolute conformity, yet history shows how unsuccessful this course is. The early church advises us to discuss our differences honestly and respectfully, not condemning one another, but allowing as much diversity as possible within the boundaries of our faith.

Choosing to forgive: a third century crisis
Spacer One of the most divisive issues in the third century church was how to deal with those who lapsed from the faith during periods of persecution. What happened and why?
Spacer In the year 250 the Roman emperor Decius launched a persecution of the church by rounding up Christians and ordering them to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Many Christians bravely gave their lives for the faith, but others lined up at the pagan temples to offer sacrifice --- so many, it is said, that overworked officials told some of them to come another day. Even church leaders like Pope Marcellinus succumbed to the pressure by surrendering copies of the scriptures and offering incense to the gods.
Spacer Christians valued suffering for the faith. In fact, the word martyr means 'witness;' the death of the martyr was an ultimate witness to its truth. By contrast, those who offered incense or turned over the church's holy books or vessels were considered traitors.
Spacer When the persecution ended, as many apostates sought re-admission into the church, opinions differed about what to do with them. The church was split. The Donatists, a hard-line party which believed that traitors contaminated the church, formed a separatist group.
Spacer How did the church respond? After the martyrdom of Pope Fabian (250) the Roman church delayed electing his successor until the persecution eased. There were two candidates: Novatian, a brilliant presbyter and leader who wanted to exclude the lapsed, and Cornelius, a much less talented man who favored receiving them back into the church after they had done appropriate penance. Cornelius was elected.
Spacer How did this historical moment make us who we are? We are a church that recognizes human weakness and receives back repentant sinners. This is an important lesson for today when many feel disappointed and betrayed by church leaders over the sexual scandal and its cover up. Like many Christians of the 3rd century we may want a church that is pure and perfect, but history shows that this is impossible. The Donatists didn't prevail.
Spacer Certainly, we must insure justice and compensation for victims of sexual abuse and reform the structures that permitted the abuse; but we must still be a church that forgives. Forgiveness does not deny that wrongdoing took place; in order to forgive, one must first blame. Yet forgiveness recognizes the offender as human; it relinquishes the right to vengeance and blesses the offender's future. Like the church of the 3rd century, healing must be our goal.

Martin LutherWhich way to reform? A 16th century question
Spacer In the 16th century the church faced one of its greatest crises; the Protestant Reformation.
Spacer What happened and why? In 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany setting in motion the Reformation.
Spacer Several years later Pope Paul III appointed a papal commission to investigate its causes. All the cardinal appointees were men of integrity and scholarship who called for church reform. The commission's report, presented to the Pope in 1537, was blunt. It blamed the ills of the church, including the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, squarely on the papacy. As evils, it listed: the papal sale of spiritual privileges, the practice of allowing one bishop to control several dioceses, personally benefiting from the income of them all, heretical or pagan teaching in universities, the corruption of religious orders, the ignorance of ordinary parish priests and poor spiritual direction in convents of women. The report was unwelcome to the papal curia, which did its best to block it. A copy became public, however, and the tide for reform ran strong.
Detail - Council of TrentSpacer How did the church respond? Everyone wanted reform, but the reformers divided into two camps. One side believed that the way to respond to the Protestant Reformation was to hunt down heretics and eliminate them. This camp supported the establishment of the Roman Inquisition with powers of arrest and scrutiny all over Europe.
Spacer The other camp believed that the best course was to find common theological and doctrinal ground with the Lutherans and work for reconciliation. This side initially lost the argument and the Inquisition was established. But in 1554 Pope Paul III, realizing that repression could not repair the church, launched the Council of Trent to tackle doctrinal and practical reform. In sessions on and off for eighteen years, the council grappled with doctrinal issues contested by the Protestant reformers and formulated clear and cogent statements on justification by faith, the seven sacraments, transubstantiation and purgatory.
Spacer On the practical side it promoted preaching and teaching, attacked abuses and superstition, and insisted on more conscientious fulfillment of episcopal and priestly duties. It started an entirely new system for training the clergy in special colleges or seminaries designed to produce a better-educated, more moral and professionally conscientious clergy.
Spacer How did Trent shape our church? It produced a church better organized, better staffed, more clerical, more vigilant --- and more repressive. It set high standards for the clergy, so that by the nineteenth century it was an unspoken assumption that a priest, bishop or pope should be a perfect saint. Clerical sin became shocking and unthinkable.
Spacer At the same time, the church came to see itself as an alternative society attacked by the world around it. Its good name was to be protected at all costs, and so the mindset developed: 'we never make mistakes."

Augustine by El GrecoA "hospital for incurables"
Spacer What can we learn now? Perhaps we need to temper the emphasis on perfection inherited from the post-Trent church with wisdom from another time. For example, the medieval church, which was profoundly influenced by the thought of St. Augustine, was a realistic church. It preached holiness, but realized that Christians, including the clergy, are sinners. It saw the church itself as a 'hospital for incurables' as well as a school of perfection. From this Augustinian model can we learn to be more truthful, humble and resilient? After all, we carry the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels.
Spacer Scandals and conflicts will surely continue, but our church will always be holy because Jesus Christ who calls us is perfectly holy and shares his holiness with us. He is the ultimate and sure source of our life, who lifts us when we fall and guides his church through uncertain times, till it comes to that Kingdom where God reigns and we are delivered from evil. He has promised to guide us to that moment.



Sign of the Passion
index to all Compassion articles online - email questions or comments
Copyright 2004 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ, USA

Publisher: Terence Kristofak, C.P., Provincial Eastern Province
Editor: Victor Hoagland, C.P. • Coeditors: Mary Ann Strain, C.P. and Kevin Dance, C.P.
Art Director: Sr. Mary Clement • CSAC Circulation: James Fitzgerald