Reforming Popes, Holy Councils: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

About the Author
David Wagschal

Change is in their air. There is no doubt about it. Even within the last 20 years we’ve seen a major change in the role of the church in society and in society’s view of the church. Internally, churches are experiencing increasing fragmentation and polarization as different groups respond to these changes in different ways. Almost all denominations are in the midst of some type of transition.

Recently we’ve seen some interesting developments within two of the oldest Christian confessions: the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In the former, the pontificate of Pope Francis has been decisively reformist, marked by progressive “signaling” on all manner of issues, particularly the environment and the economy, but also gay rights and even abortion. The Orthodox churches have been keeping a lower profile, but they too are about to hold their first formal pan-Orthodox council in centuries. Topics include relations with other churches, the status of Orthodox Christians outside of traditional Orthodox countries, and a variety of ritual practices.

Both developments have created quite a stir within church circles (and sometimes even without). Commentators have been carefully weighing the nature and significance of phrases, statements, and each and every political move.

But when I encounter the commentary, controversy and buzz, I keep having the same existential reaction:

Does any of this matter? Really?

I know that sounds impetuous, but I think it’s a serious question – and maybe the elephant in the room.

If we take a step back, are we sure that these structures and authorities have so much to say that is so important in the first place? What authority – exactly – do we believe they have? What claim on us do we really think they have?

To put it more bluntly, do we Christians actually believe that formally constituted groups of elderly men (and they do remain mostly men), in any denomination, have something to say of such critical importance that my salvation depends upon it? Do we believe they have a real claim to truth?


And even if we have a rather “low” theology of traditional church authorities, and are quite happy to admit that Popes or councils – or any other ecclesial institution – are liable to err, are we still certain that it’s a good idea to continue to maintain these old structures? Is it justifiable? Healthy? On what grounds? Might there be other, better ways now to exercise and imagine Christian authority? (Or maybe do away with that concept altogether?)

I would like to propose that, today, it’s these questions that should be front and centre in conversations around renewal and reform. Conversations need to shift from why this Pope said that, or that council document implies this, or what this decision may mean, to “why, again, are we so worried about what a Pope or a conciliar document says in the first place? And, honestly, are we that worried?”

I admit opening up these questions is very tricky. These traditional institutions and processes are not superficial overlays on the tradition; they are in fact deeply rooted in the traditional (Greco-Roman) theology. To question these institutions is to question some very fundamental doctrines of the mainstream historical Christianity.

But why should we be afraid of doing this? If the doctrines are sound, then fine. If not – well, let’s take courage, and try to fix things.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start to explore what I believe are the “big ideas” that theologically underpin many traditional church structures.

I will explore, in particular, four major pillars of the traditional ecclesiastic institutions:

1) The “incarnational” view of the church.

2) Salvation as process/participation.

3) The imperative to homogeneity/unity.

4) Truth as knowledge.

These are all “motherhood” notions of traditional ecclesiology. But there are some surprising problems with all of them…!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are welcome to use an alias (please see our "Comments" section for further informtion on our editorial policy).