A new humility may fix the Church
Clericalism is doing the Church great harm, but what’s the solution? DR SIPHIWE MKHIZE suggests a humility based in the concept of kenosis.
Today, we are living in an enormously traumatic moment that at its core has been produced by the sin of a Church that is called in its every essence to reflect holiness to the world.
At every level in the life of the Church we are confronting elements of rot and corrosion, and a need for radical reform in our ecclesial community.
We need this so it can regenerate the reality of missionary discipleship that is the vocation of every Christian.
At such a moment, the theology of the Church must be imbued with a deep humility rooted in the recognition that our Church is truly the pilgrim people of God.
We are people of God seeking ever-deeper understanding of the pathway to which the Lord is guiding us. Our theology must therefore incorporate the vocation of the laity as the centre piece of the Church.
The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects the traditional prism that focused on the work of priests.
The Holy Father’s more generalised notion of pastoral theology in the writings includes the whole body of faithful in relationship with God.
The datum of his pastoral theology is a lived experience of the faithful in the concrete call of their discipleship.
Such a transposition is essential in the current moment for our Church, for clericalism is radically at the heart of the multidimensional crisis that the Catholic community faces today.
Pope Francis blames clericalism in the Catholic Church “for creating a culture where criminal abuse is widespread and extraordinary efforts have been made to keep the crimes hidden”.
The clericalist culture “is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and again abuse of power”, the pope said.
He pointed out that clericalism can be “fostered by priests themselves or by laypersons”.
Yes, lay people can fall into clericalism too! Thinking that their contributions to the life of the Church are only second-rate, or that in all things, surely “Father knows better”, or that priestly virtue exceeds Christian virtue.
Pope Francis said that clericalism is our ugliest perversion. Clericalism, whether fostered by the priests themselves or by laypersons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many evils that we are condemning today.
The answer is kenosis
I learned recently that the pope is such a fan of the work of Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo that he called Vattimo to congratulate him on his latest book.
As a result, I was led to give more attention to Vattimo’s prescription for ecclesial health: What the Church needs is more kenosis!
Kenonis has been defined as becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will, as exhibited in Jesus’ “self-emptying” surrender to the Father’s will (see Phil 2:7).
In face of the Church’s continuing struggle with scandals of sexual and financial abuse, everyone rightly proclaims the importance of becoming more humble. In the light of history, we would be foolish not to proclaim the importance of becoming more humble. Humility, however, is not enough.
The very nature of the Church involves at its heart pastoral action to heal the hearts of men and women who are suffering. Kenosis is one remedy for this suffering.
Humility is a virtue, but kenosis is a practice. The two, of course, belong together, though while kenosis cannot happen without humility, humility doesn’t always lead to kenosis.
The intensely humble Pope Francis has every sense in proclaiming that this attitude requires change.
In fact, of course, in Charles Dickens’ novels and in the Catholic Church, any humility that is merely cringing is pretty much the opposite of true humility.
Kenosis, or self-emptying, is what happens when our need to be humbled is patterned after the divine life.
Discipleship needs humility
In the Incarnation, Paul says in Philippians, it is God who empties the self of God in becoming human in Jesus Christ. In a strange way, we know that Christ is God in history because he was, for all his compassionate and healing actions, in human terms, a figure of weakness and failure.
Discipleship of Christ begins in humility, which should not be hard for human beings who have open eyes. But it has to continue in the actions that humility requires—the self-emptying that stands as a sign of contradiction to the world around us. Even if it is destined to end in failure.
There is a lesson in divine kenosis for a Church struggling with resolution to the ongoing crises of sex abuse and abuse of power. God’s parallel to human humility is divine compassion, and kenosis is the action that cashes in that level of concern.
A truly humble Church, patterned after the life of Christ, will empty out all self-concern in the pursuit of purification.
Clericalism got us into this mess by wrapping up our self-concern in the mantle of “protecting the good name of the Church”. We will get out of this mess—if we ever do—only by abandoning all attempts to be anything other than totally open.
Evidently, our leaders have not all yet reached this point. Kenosis, it seems sometimes, is reserved for God, but divine kenosis is really a teaching tool on the way to achieving true humanity.
What’s needed from us
The kenosis demand of clergy is pretty obvious; discipleship of Christ requires service before prestige or, more accurately, only the prestige that follows from a life of service that is not seeking that kind of recognition.
But what is not quite so obvious is that there is no kenosis if there is no action. Interior acts of humility, however sincere, do not cut it.
What will clergy in general and bishops in particular do? One thing they could do would be to act on the conviction that there is a difference between Church management and sacramental leadership, and that management is not a clerical charism.
Step aside and let qualified laity do what qualified laity are qualified to do.
The kenosis demand of the lay community is less obvious but equally important.
The virtue of humility has been preached to the laity for many centuries and very successfully internalised. This contributed considerably to the ease with which bishops could hide predatory priests from the law.
But the humility the Church preaches to the laity is deeply a-kenotic because it calls for no action at all. It not only does not involve actions that grow out of humility, it positively discourages them.
Lay humility assumed by the laity cannot accept that understanding of the virtue.
The humility of the Hebrew prophets did not prevent them from challenging their leaders, even if this put their lives in danger.
Self-emptying for the laity today is not about giving up prestige, but rather giving up the comfort that accompanies passivity.
Every time we do not speak when we should, or when we do not act when action is called for, we are failing in our discipleship of Christ who personifies the self-emptying of God.
Dr Siphiwe F Mkhize is an author and ethicist, and a member of St Dominic’s church in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal. He delivered this year’s Denis Hurley Memorial Lecture.
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