Have been wondering how best to express the actual place of the Church in the Modern World—a phrase by which one means the Catholic Church, of course, but also its celebrated proclamations of some three and four decades ago, and, most important, the fact that a hell of a lot more people live outside of Western Europe and the United States than live inside them.
After all, the topic has not been without a certain degree of interest lately. At least judging by the sheer volume of coverage the English-language media have been allocating to this single topic. And the mindless, hagiographic character of upwards of 99 percent of it.
Then I remembered that back in the early 1990s, a wonderful piece of public art used to grace the wall of a building on Chicago’s near-southwest side, in what I believe to be the Pilsen neighborhood (the borders of these city “neighborhoods” are not perfectly defined), a little to the north of Cermak Road, and a little to the east of Damen Avenue.
Can’t recall offhand whether the building itself was secular or religious—I only used to see the mural from the far side of a public park, as I drove north or south along Damen Avenue.
But in this largely Hispanic neighborhood, the mural I have in mind portrayed the image of Jesus Christ as a gang member.
One could tell this, incidentally, because the figure of Jesus in the mural was using his hands to flash the symbol for membership in a particular gang. Nothing disrespectful, to be sure. But there it was. As plain as day.
Or, rather, it used to be there. But not any longer. Sadly, the mural has long since been destroyed—painted over with some other image. And by now, by god-only-knows how many other images, leading up to the present state of the mural and the west-facing wall of the building on which it once stood. Maybe an image of Karol Wojtyla. Maybe an advertisement. Maybe an image of the Mayor of Chicago. Maybe whitewash. Either way, pretty much the same thing.
In one of my favorite commentaries last year, published in The Guardian just in time for Christmas, a British fellow named Giles Fraser reminded us that as “Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312,” and the subsequent imposition of the Nicene Creed under the emperor’s sponsorship in 325, the “church began to backpedal on the more radical demands of the adult Christ,” giving the world a “Christianity without the politics,” ultimately. A domesticated Christianity far more closely aligned with the politics of the worldly emperors, than with the politics of anybody who’d rise up against them. I mean, can you imagine what it meant not only for the Roman Emperors to embrace Christianity. But for the Christians of the early 4th Century to have the Empire’s version of their religion shoved down their throats!
I also remember circulating copies of Fraser’s December 24 commentary among friends, along with links to some of the major documents of the Catholic Church from the post-war period when this historical alignment between the Catholic Church and the worldly emperors began to re-align, if only partly.
Not insignificantly, these included what few documents I could find that came “from the underside of history,” as Gustavo Gutierrez’s exquisite phrase puts it. From the Liberation Theology of the same period, in other words—the “one attempt by the Church in the post-Constantine era to pay some attention to the story between the virgin birth and the crucifixion,” a friend of mine wrote back to me at the time, and “therefore destroyed with extreme violence and slaughter.” A very real and very worldly culture of death that reaches far beyond anything the fetid imaginations of Rome’s counter-revolutionary theologians ever could dream up.
This demolition proceeds apace, I fear.
The Church in the modern world.
Postscript (April 8). I hope that all of you are as heartened as I am to be reminded that the recently-departed John Paul II was not only an “ardent foe of unjust and unwise wars,” but that “his opposition to the war in Iraq – and to all forms of preemptive war – is at the very heart of the legacy he has left with regard to international relations.” (“The Anti-War Pope,” John Nichols, posted April 7, 2005.)
And that we can rely upon no less a bastion of the American Left than The Nation to instruct us about this. (As seconded by one of the newer bastions of the American Left, Truthout. And god-only-knows how many other progressive AlterNet- and CommonDreams-like electronic services to come.)
I can still recall this very same Nation not-too-long ago devoting some pages to the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, who, during the run-up to the Americans’ “unjust and unwise” war over Iraq, instructed The Nation‘s readers that, Yes, the 1990 “Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a violation of international law,” calling for a military response. And that, Yes, when “[c]onfronted with crimes against humanity, the international community must be able to act even with military force, if all other options are exhausted.” (“Letter to America,” December 16, 2002.)
But then when it came time to apply these cosmopolitan and indeed universal principles to the unjust and indeed criminal American aggression over Iraq, some three months later—fell silent. Curiously enough.
Papal Documents (Homepage), The Holy See, Rome
Papal Encyclicals Online (Master List)
Documents of the Roman Catholic Church (Homepage)
The Catholic Library Online (Homepage)
The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (Homepage)
Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor, May 15, 1891
Mater et Magistra, Encyclical of Pope John XXXIII on Christianity and Social Progress, May 15, 1961
Pacem in Terris, Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty, April 11, 1963
Ecclesiam Suam, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI of the Church, August 6, 1964
Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964
Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World Promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965
Populorum Progressio, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Development of Peoples, March 26, 1967
Evangelii Nuntiandi, Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, December, 1975
Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 1984
Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, March 22, 1986
Sollicitudo rei socialis, Encyclical To the Bishops, Priests Religious Families, sons and daughters of the Church and all people of good will for the twentieth anniversary of “Populorum Progressio,” December 30, 1987
“Dominus Iesus”: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000
“Empires Prefer a Baby and the Cross to the Adult Jesus,” Giles Fraser, The Guardian, December 24, 2004
“Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Pope’s Contradictions,” Hans Küng, Der Spiegel, March 26, 2005
“It’s Too Late Now for John Paul II to Repent,” Michael Dickinson, CounterPunch, April 4, 2005
“Media Objectivity Embalmed with Pope,” Sam Smith, Undernews, April 4, 2005
“The Pope Who Revived the Office of the Inquisition,” Jim Connolly, CounterPunch, April 5, 2005
“Pope John Paul II, a reactionary in shepherd’s clothing,” Barry Healy, Green Left Weekly, April 6, 2005
“A Profoundly Right-Wing Pope,” Vicente Navarro, CounterPunch, April 8, 2005
“Not in My Name,” Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, April 8, 2005
“Part of the Flock Felt Abandoned by the Pope,” Chris Kraul and Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2005
“Pope of Fear and Centralized Power?” Leonardo Boff, CounterPunch, April 25, 2005
“Triumph of the Theo-Cons,” Vicente Navarro, CounterPunch, May 2, 2005
“A Place for Dissent: My argument with Joseph Ratzinger,” Charles E. Curran, Commonweal, May 6, 2005
“Editor of Jesuits’ America magazine forced to resign under Vatican pressure,” Tom Roberts and John L. Allen, Jr., National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005
“Editor of Jesuit Magazine Resigns Under Pressure,” Larry B. Stammer, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2005
“Vatican Is Said to Force Jesuit Off Magazine,” Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, May 7, 2005
“Editor of Jesuit Weekly Is Ousted,” Mary Voboril, Newsday, May 7, 2005
“Jesuit Magazine Editor Quits Amid Conflict,” Alan Cooperman, Washington Post, May 7, 2005
“U.S. Catholic editor resigns after clash with Pope,” Philip Sherwell, Sunday Telegraph, May 8, 2005