We Are Church Intl.

Democracy and human rights in the Church

We thank Iglesia Descalza for this article 


By José María Castillo (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Teología Sin Censura blog
September 10, 2014

To raise, from the outset, the issue I am trying to explain, I will start by asking a question: What moral authority or what credibility can an institution (the Church) have to the people of our time that, as it is conceived and organized, can't be governed as a democracy, or subscribe to human rights and put them into practice? This question is more fascinating for us and makes us even more uncomfortable when we think (at least for a moment) that the Church claims to "evangelize", that is, "to convey the Gospel." But how is it going to attempt to convey "the most sublime" (the Gospel of Jesus) if it can't accomplish "the most elemental" (democracy and basic rights)?

Given the question I just asked, the starting point of my thinking is this: democracy in the governance of the Church, as well as the implementation of human rights in it are two very vital issues and so urgent that whether or not the Church can or cannot be true to its origins (i.e. the gospel) depends on the right solution being given to these two problems. Likewise, whether or not the Church regains much needed credibility and can fulfill its assigned mission in the world also depends on its faithfulness to democracy and human rights. I also think that the Church (as a whole) has not realized at all the paramount importance of what I have just pointed out.

And yet another observation that to me is crucial: In this speech, I'm going to say (I've already pointed them out) things that will be unpleasant for some. If I speak this way, it isn't out of resentment or alienation from the Church. Quite the opposite. I'm saying these things because the Church matters to me a lot and my affection for the Church is very strong. The Church we have, not the one I might have in my mind. Because I was born in that Church. I live in her. And in her I want to die. I owe my knowledge of Jesus and his Gospel to the Church. What happens is that I often see the gap and even the contradiction that so many people feel between the Church and the Gospel. In the face of this, I can't be silent. Therein lies the content and intent of what I'm going to say here.

1. Starting point

The big problem we face here isn't the problem of specifying whether the Church can or can't be democratic, should or shouldn't be democratic. Of course. But there's a previous problem we haven't sunk our teeth into. I'm referring to the problem of the structure itself of religion. If we talk about the relationship between Church and democracy, between Church and rights, we get to a dead end if we haven't previously faced the problem of the relationship between the Church and religion. Why? Because religion -- as the religious event is known to us and apart from very few exceptions -- isn't just about the "relationship with God", but besides that, it is also a "mediated relationship." That is, religion is a relationship with God that takes place via (a "mediated" relationship) mediators associated with hierarchies involving a system of rituals, ranks and sacred powers, which involve dependence, obedience, submission and subordination to invisible superiors (cf. Walter Burkert, La creación de lo sagrado ["Creation of the Sacred"], Barcelona, Acantilado, 2009, 146). Hence "religious sentiment" is specifically the "feeling of reverence" and therefore "submission" (Jean Bottéro, La religión más antigua: Mesopotamia ["The oldest religion: Mesopotamia"], Madrid, Trotta, 2001, 59-65). Submission not only to God but also submission to the mediators, who act as "bridges" ["puentes"] ("pontiffs" - ["pontífices"]) between human beings and the Transcendent. Between "immanence" and "transcendence".

Now, to the extent that religion is accepted that way, lived and kept that way, it is simply contradictory and therefore impossible to establish a relationship that can be justified and implemented between religion and democracy, between religion and human rights. And so too, it is impossible to have a normal relationship between Church and democracy or Church and human rights. This contradiction is not usually "argued rationally" or discursively. But it is usually "experienced emotionally" by significant sectors of the population, especially in the more developed countries. Hence the frequent conflict that tends to occur between citizens and the religious hierarchies. Often, these conflicts tend to be explained, in the case of the hierarchs, by resorting to a loss of faith, moral relativism, the decline of morals ... And, in the case of citizens, the religious hierarchies are rejected for cultural, social, political and ethical reasons. In all that there may be, undoubtedly, some or a lot of truth. But none of that is the real reason for the eternal conflict between hierarchy and faithful, priests and laity.

And, when we dwell on these quarrels, inevitably we begin to lash out in the dark. Because, if we dwell on these discussions and those clashes, we're really all blind. Therefore, the strikes we give are striking out blind. Because the blind person, whether bishop, theologian, or lay person, if he stays on the superficial level and doesn't get to the heart of the matter, has no choice but to go through life blindly. At least, this is precisely what has occurred to me many times.

2. Freedom and equality

To speak properly about democracy and human rights one must start, logically, where the Universal Declaration begins: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." (Art. 1) Therefore, freedom and equality are the two basic foundations of democracy and the fundamental rights of human beings. So, where there is no equality and no freedom, there is no - nor can there be - democracy. Precisely because democracy is the system of government and coexistence that ends inequality and subjugation. Where there is inequality and subjugation, there can be no democracy.

Now, what is most opposite, radically contrary to the two principles I've just noted (freedom and equality) is religion. Because religion is hierarchy and obedience. Hierarchy and obedience to God, of course. But not just to God. Rather, hierarchy and obedience to God through the "mediators" who are essential in religion. And who are the ones who make up the constituent hierarchies of religion. Well now, hierarchy is the same as inequality (rank, honors, powers, categories...). And hierarchy is the same as submission of some (those who obey) to others (those who rule). Submission on dogmas, rituals, norms, traditions... Therefore, where there is religion there cannot be freedom, nor can there be equality. Which is not to say that where there is a relationship with God, there cannot be freedom, nor can there be equality. Relationship with God is one thing. Relationship with the religion of the sacred, with its hierarchies and resulting inequality and submission, is something else.

I will talk about this shortly. But first we need to clarify another important issue.

3. Equality and difference

Inequality is one thing and difference is something else. Difference is a fact. Equality is a right. It's a fact that men are different from women, white people are different from black people, etc. But that doesn't mean that men have rights women can't have. Or that white people have rights that black people can't have, etc. "Difference is a descriptive term." While "equality is a normative term" (Luigi Ferrajoli, Derechos y garantías. La ley del más débil ["Rights and Guarantees: the Law of the Weakest"], Madrid, Trotta, 2001, 79). Differences can never be "inequality factors" (op.cit., 79-80). Because when differences are set up as inequality, one moves from the scope of "facts" to the realm of "rights". Which leads to that, when one is different (for whatever reason), that "fact" becomes a "right" or a source of rights that are not available to others.

This shift from facts to rights is much more common than we think. It happens in politics, in the world of business and labor, in the field of science and knowledge, in society in general .... And a very special way it occurs -- and plays out -- in religion, particularly in the Church: men have rights that women don't, clergy have rights that lay people can't have, etc, etc. Which, for large sections of the population, is simply irritating. Especially in two areas of life to which we are almost all very sensitive. I mean everything to do with money and sex. That the Church is seen as a religion, is a fact. That this fact has become a source of rights, which are de facto privileges, is something that is visible to all. This is already, in itself, outrageous. But if the opacity of what is hidden is added to this, what the public is not informed about ... then the "outrageous" comes to be "irritating". No one knows exactly how much money the Church takes in. No one knows where that money comes from. No one knows what so much money is invested in. Nor how it is invested. It's true that there are bishops, priests, men and women religious who are exemplary and even heroic. But it's also true that, for example, the tax privileges of the Church are important. But, what does that mean? What consequences does it have? It's known that those benefits were -- at least in the years of the Zapatero government -- greater than the privileges the Church had during the time of Franco (Cf. Julio Jiménez Escobar, Los beneficios fiscales de la Iglesia Católica ["The tax benefits of the Catholic Church"], Bilbao, Desclée, 2002, 371). And as for the field of sex, suffice it to say that until the pontificate of John Paul II, the Vatican severely forbade anything related to child abuse from being known. From the time of Pius XII, I had heard of such abuses. As I also knew of the strict prohibitions imposed by Rome in this matter.

4. Jesus and religion

Because of everything I just said, the originality, genius and currency of the Gospel is even more striking. Because -- and I say it now -- the Gospel is not a religion (in the sense I just explained), nor can the Church be an institution that represents a religion.

I'll explain. We know that Jesus was persecuted, insulted, threatened, judged, condemned and executed by the hierarchical representatives and rulers of the temple religion, the religion of the sacred, the religion of the law and rites, the religion that threatened with punishments and condemnations. The men of religion, in Jesus' time, realized that what they represented and what Jesus represented were two incompatible things.

All this explains why Jesus took the side of "the last." And he confronted "the first". As he took the side of "the little ones" (the children) and confronted "the big ones" (the high priests). Just like he had conflicts with "the powerful" and befriended "the weak" (cf. Lk. 1:51-53). In other words, Jesus took sides with the victims of the politico-religious system that is based and remains on the foundation of holy hierarchies, sacred powers, honors that come from above, privileges that "God's" dignitaries are entitled to... Here we're getting to the bottom of it. Because, ultimately, we're touching on the only foundation that squares with the only one who can reasonably be called "God," the Father of goodness. That is, the Father who is good to all, to both the righteous and sinners, the "lost" and the "observant" (Lk. 15:11-32), and who - if He puts someone first - favors the Samaritan while proposing the priest as an example of what not to do (Lk. 10:30-35). 

Hence, if we're talking about the Church, starting at the beginning, we have to say that Jesus did not found the Church. We know that the Church has its origin in Jesus (“... Ecclesiae... initium fecit”. Vat. II: LG 5). Nobody doubts that Jesus was a deeply religious man. But Jesus didn't found a religion. Jesus lives in such a way that his relationship with the temple, with the priests, the scribes and the Pharisees was such that the religious hierarchies realized that what they represented and what Jesus represented were two incompatible things. That's why the religious hierarchs condemned him to death (cf. Jn. 11:47-53). Now, the death on a cross of a criminal, executed as a subversive, wasn't nor could have been a religious ritual in those days. It was an act radically opposed to everything religion represented then. Moreover, according to the gospels, at his death, Jesus felt abandoned even by God (Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:34, cf. Ps. 22:2). Of course, Jesus' death was a sacrifice. But it wasn't a "ritual" sacrifice. It was an "existential" sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus didn't offer a "religious ritual" (Heb. 9:12,25) but he offered "himself" (Heb. 7:27, 9:9-14), that is, he offered his own existence.

Decidedly, Jesus did not found a religion. Rather, what we can say is that he moved religion -- he took it out of "the sacred" and put it in "life", in correct ethical relationships with one another. So the only time the N.T. uses the word "religion" (threskeia) is to say that religion is "to care for orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27). Just as when the N.T. urges Christians to implement the central act of religion, the "sacrifice" (thysia), it states that the sacrifices that "please God" are "to do good and to share what you have" (Heb. 13:16). The N.T. shifts religion in that it moves it from "the sacred" to "the secular", from rites to social relationships.

5. The Church and religion

It's a fact that in the great community of believers in Jesus, with the passing of time, two phenomena have occured which, viewed together, are very worrisome. Because both are very serious really. It's these two facts: 1) The Gospel, as a way of life and organizing principle for the Church, has been marginalized to the extent that exactly the opposite of what Jesus commanded or prohibited is being done quite naturally; 2) To the same extent that the Gospel is being marginalized, Religion -- the sacred, the rituals, the temples, the priests -- has been growing more powerful until coming to the situation we're in now: the Church is an institution that is more religious than evangelical. So people know that, when we're talking about Christianity and the Church, we're talking about "religion", we're not talking about the "Gospel." Because, for many citizens, the Church is as clearly religious as it is strictly anti-evangelical.

Now, as long as this state of affairs endures, confusion about the the Church, the Gospel, and religion will be constant. Moreover, while things continue this way, the Church will feel incapable of keeping alive the memory of Jesus. And what Jesus represents in the history of mankind.

Moreover, the Church, being not just a religion but also a state -- its relations with the other states, and the consequent presence of the Church in every country, will be subject to endless complications, ambiguous situations, countless contradictions, etc. Above all, the contradiction that the Church presents itself as the spokesperson of the Gospel of the poor, the weak,...at the same time as it presents itself as the bearer of a power that is above all the powers of this world. And it presents itself as a bearer of human rights, while having a theology and law that dare not speak of real effective equality between men and women, clergy and laity, etc, etc.

Let's say, clearly and fearlessly, that if the Church wants to exist in our time and not in pre-modernity, it must modify its theology and canon law. The Church, if it wishes to preach the Gospel, has to modify church law. As it has to modify the theology underlying such law. 

6. Concluding proposals

1. Keep the papacy as the current bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is trying to make it -- being basically the bishop of Rome. And acting as an appellate body for matters that cannot be resolved at the local level.

2. Regain the synodical government that was in effect in the Church of the first millennium. Such that it would be the synods (national and regional) that would appoint the government positions, look out for the faithfulness of the churches to the Gospel, and make decisions for the better government of the dioceses, parishes, and specific communities.

3. Renew and update the praxis of the sacraments. It's important to know that the canons of Session 7 of the Council of Trent on the sacraments are not dogmas of faith (José M. Castillo,Símbolos de libertad. Teología de los sacramentos ["Symbols of Freedom: Theology of the Sacraments"], Salamanca, Sígueme, 1981, 320-341). As such they can, and should, be modified to bring them up to date. That would be the task above all of the local synods, in which lay men and women ought to have a voice and decision-making capacity. Perhaps one the most crucial things would be "inculturating" the sacraments so that our "religious rituals" could be practices and experienced as "symbols of faith."

4. Finally, the Church must emphasize not only the duties of the faithful but also the rights of all citizens. Not just out of respect for those citizens, since respecting someone is defending that person's rights. But also because if it exaggerates duties over rights, that generates an "impoverished moral system" (J. Feinberg, “The Social Importance of Moral Rights”, in J.R. Tomberlin (ed.), Philosophical Perspectives 6. Ethics, 1992, p. 179). The Church has stressed too much, for example, the duty to silently and patiently bear the intemperate behavior and even the abuse that we men have often committed against women. And that, repeated for centuries, has been a determining factor in the forbearance and fear with which women have endured the violence of patriarchal and sexist society. Even resulting in many murders by "respectable" elders who suddenly kill their wives before committing suicide themselves. The moral sermonizing that women have endured during their tireless church attendance has fostered a culture of fear and silence, with the consequences we all know. 

Translator's Note: This appears to be the prepared text of José María Castillo's remarks to the 34th Congreso de Teología given September 5, 2014 in Madrid. Castillo is vice-president of the Asociación de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII which sponsors this annual conference.