History Clarifies and History Challenges

A Conversation:

It was a strange conversation. A friend who was, at that time, an American archbishop had congratulated me on an academic promotion. He slapped me on the back in his customary gung ho way and said: “You are a smart guy, a theologian, but remember that I have something you don’t have.”

“I have sacred power,” he continued. “I say the words over bread and wine. At once, bingo, Jesus Christ is right there on the altar in front of me. We bishops call it apostolic succession. I have power over bread and wine. I have power over people as well. I can fire laymen, even theologians like you, if I think they are heretics or disobedient. Just like that, I say the word and bingo they are out and finished.” He slapped me on the back again and laughed. I was flabbergasted…and very happy I didn’t work in his diocese. The archbishop’s sense of power resonated far more with Constantine the Emperor than with Jesus the Christ.   

Constantine & Helena:

Constantine (c.272 – 337) and his mother Helena (c.246 – c.330), also known as “Saint Helena,” left big marks on Christianity. Most of those marks were hardly blessings. Thanks to Constantine, authority and power in the church took on a very different meaning – very far from what they had meant for the historical Jesus.

Jesus never exercised power over people. He empowered people to live and act responsibly: loving God and loving their neighbors. Jesus exercised authority; but his authority was not one of control but one of influence: an invitation and an encouragement for people to believe and live as compassionate and caring people.

During the thirty years of Constantine’s reign as Roman Emperor (306 – 337) more changes took place in the status, structure, and beliefs of the Christian Church than had occurred in its first three centuries. Ironically in 306 when Constantine became Emperor, the Roman imperial government had been involved in a major effort to remove all traces of Christian presence from the empire. By the time Constantine died in 337, however,  Christianity was well on its way to becoming THE religion of the empire. Christian leaders had assumed the rank, dress, and duties of the old Imperial Roman civil elite. 

Before the 4th century ended, the tables had been turned completely. Traditional  pagan sacrifices had been outlawed and the old Roman state cults forbidden. Constantine’s mother Helena did her best to go shopping for Christian artifacts and pilgrimage sites for the new imperial Christian religion. Constantine appointed her the Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate important Christian objects and places. 

Thanks to Helena’s efforts and her well-paid enterprising “researchers,” she discovered all kinds of amazing things. In Egypt, for example, she located and ordered the construction of a church at the site of Moses’ legendary Burning Bush. There in the 13th century BCE God had asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Promised Land. (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17) 

Helena’s expertise however was primarily in Christian discoveries, many of which are now considered mistaken or simply imaginative suppositions. They did indeed have a powerful impact back then. Powerful impact was exactly what the imperial son, Constantine, wanted and needed to establish his Imperial Christianity

Helena found, for example, the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It became a major pilgrimage site. Most of today’s biblical scholars, however, would strongly suggest that Jesus was more likely born in Nazareth. It was the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David that led to the development of the creative biblical narrative about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Foremost among the religious artifacts that Helena discovered were the bones of the legendary “three wise men,” Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified. Her tour guides, probably with a good tip from Helena,  helped her discover, as well, the exact location where Jesus’ body was buried and the exact location in Jerusalem where the Resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven. 

Historians in the fifth century claimed that Helena had also found the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. To use their miraculous powers to aid her son, she had placed one nail in Constantine’s helmet and another nail in his horse’s bridle.

Constantine a Believer:

Getting back to Helena’s son Constantine, one really needs to ask how “sincere” Constantine’s conversion had been. Was he in truth a devout son of the church, or was he rather a political mastermind who grabbed the power he could gain by subordinating and using a well-organized and doctrinaire institutional church? He certainly had a powerful influence over the bishops at the Council of Nicaea. Many contemporary scholars would suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes, and therefore chose the growing and widespread population of Christians to conduct his political campaign. Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. Some doubt that he was ever really a Christian. He was not baptized until on his deathbed. 

Imperial Christianity:

In 313 Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan. The edict stopped the persecution of Christians and launched a period in which Constantine began granting favors to the Christian Church and its members. He truly created what one could call “Imperial Christianity.” After his death in 337, Constantine’s influence continued to grow and was strongly felt.

It came as no great surprise, therefore, in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome, starting already with Pope Damasus I in 366, had already become an authoritarian monarch. The institutional church took over the Roman governmental structure, with dioceses, and the Roman imperial court liturgy, remnants of which one still finds in Vatican ceremonials. 

Imperial Christians forgot the message of Jesus the Prince of Peace. Christian militarism became strong and fearsome. Under Imperial Christianity, bishops adopted as well a changed ministerial focus. The compassionate service and humility of the historical Jesus were replaced by a hardened framework of entrenched, and occasionally cruel, authoritarianism. 

Bishops began to stress that disobedience to them amounted to disobedience to God. The official sanction for disobeying a priest or a judge was death. Bishops were both priests and judges. Christian bishops in fact became regional judges, ordering the execution of those who were disobedient or criminals. A clerical culture anchored in strong clerical power became well established. 

Women under Imperial Christianity were edged to the sidelines and denigrated. It was all so clearly contrary to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth and the important roles women had played in his life and in the lives of first century Christians.

A great many Imperial Christian “Church Fathers,” became outspoken misogynists. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407) who became the Archbishop of Constantinople in the autumn of 397. Called the “golden mouthed” he said: “It does not profit a man to marry.” Then he explained why: “For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?…The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.” Golden mouthed?


Today we still experience the reverberations of Imperial Christianity. Clericalism remains a problematic issue. (Sometimes I think many of the younger clergy are more rigidly clerical than the older generation.) We have a church hierarchically and qualitatively divided into laypeople, at the bottom, and the ordained, on top.

Thinking about ”lay” and “ordained,” I found Pope Francis’ May 11th Apostolic Letter, titled Antiquum Ministerium (“The Ancient Ministry.”) very interesting. The letter establishes the “lay ministry” of catechist. I am not certain whether the document accurately reflects Pope Francis’ theology or that of his Vatican-approved ghost writer. It sends, however, a mixed message. 

Antiquum Ministerium begins with a welcomed reminder that Christians in the early apostolic communities operated with great creativity in exercising and sharing ministerial roles. They formed one egalitarian community that promoted a variety of ministerial roles. Everyone sharing an equal status as members of the Body of Christ.

I was surprised to see that by the end of Antiquum Ministerium, however, one of the concepts that the new papal document clearly safeguards is the strict dualism of clergy and laity, that had been codified with great institutional rigidity in the 16th century Council of Trent. 

Rather than make all the baptized faithful co-sharers in the work of catechesis, as was the practice in the early Christian communities,  Antiquum Ministerium reinforces the segregation of clerical (sacred) ministry and “lay ministry.” The bishop is still explicitly designated as the “primary catechist.” Lay people are seen once again as helpers of the clergy. They are called to engage in “cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” 

In reality, the ministry of catechist does not need to be defined as a “lay ministry.” It is simply a form of Christian ministry shared and exercised by all members of the church. We are all catechists, some more specifically engaged in that ministry than others. For a good fifteen years, I was once upon a time a very actively engaged catechist in high school and parish ministry. As an historical theologian today my catechetical ministry continues but in a different form and context.

Changing Structures:

In today’s church we need to not just say nice words. We need to make changes in structures. We will not move beyond the virus of Constantine’s Imperial Christianity, with its distorted ecclesiology, until we shift from a polarizing authoritarian leadership model to a dialogical communitarian model. It can happen. 

We need to understand and affirm an important clarification about ordination. The historical Jesus did not establish ordination. No one at the Last Supper was ordained. The early men and women who presided at celebrations of Eucharist were not ordained. Ordination, starting somewhere around the year 100, began as a way for Christians to insure and promote qualified and credible leaders. One could say it was a form of quality control. It was created by the church not by the historical Jesus.The ordained had community approval. They were competent and trustworthy.

Under Imperial Christianity, however, ordination gradually came to be understood as a power and control mechanism, in a segregated society of “ordained” and “lay.” As the archbishop, mentioned above, liked to remind me, I have a doctorate in theology but remain “just a layman.” He had sacred powers which in the hierarchic society elevated him above the common “layperson.” 

The words laity and lay come from the Middle English lai, meaning “uneducated.” They ultimately come from the Greek lāikós, meaning “of the common people.” Perhaps we really should just stop using these words. I am a theologian not a “lay theologian.” And there are catechists not “lay catechists.”

Fortunately, understandings do change. History does clarify. History does challenge. People today should be encouraged to move forward. Our encouragement comes from knowing that the Spirit of Christ has not abandoned us and that the challenge is now in our hands — to study, to collaborate, to structure, to reform, and to re-structure according to changing human needs and growth in human understanding. 

Early Christians did a lot of structuring and restructuring in the days before Constantine. We can do it today as well. We do need to work together. Praying and working for unity and reconciliation for all in the church. 

A contemporary perspective is important. We are not in an ecclesiastical doom scenario. Restructuring is already happening. New church configurations ARE evolving. We may not yet have a clear idea of where the development will take us. I believe it will be good. 

On this Pentecost 2021 weekend, I suggest we also need to remember that unity does not mean the uniformity and rigidity, which was Constantine’s approach. The Spirit of Christ gives simultaneously unity and diversity within that unity. In Acts 2:5–11 we read about Christians from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages and yet “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Unity and diversity are not a contradiction. They are our richness. 

There is great diversity among Christians today. There will be great diversity tomorrow. May we all be supportive collaborators: removing walls of polarization in our churches that protect misogyny, clerical hegemony, homophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

As mentioned last week, in 1979 Bishop Ken Untener, wrote: “We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

  •  Jack

P.S. In keeping with my annual practice, I will be away from Another Voice for about three weeks of R & R & R (reading, relaxation, and reflection). When I return, I hope to have some worthwhile thoughts to share with you. I hope you will have some to share with me as well.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

My wife and I got our second Moderna vaccinations last week. When we got home from the clinic, we gave a cheer and said now, at last, we can look forward to being again with family and friends. The Covid-19 pandemic, in our area, increased rapidly in March–April 2020. That is when we went into our Covid-19 retreat. We got our supply of face masks. No more visits. No more classes. Carefully sanitized grocery shopping.

The Covid-19 pandemic at home and around the globe has been a strong reminder of the fragility of human life as well as of our interdependence and need for one another. 

These past months I have done a lot of reading, thanks to Kindle,….and a lot of thinking. It has been much more than an old-style forty-day retreat. We have had more than a year of topsy-turvy polarized politics, topsy-turvy polarized religion, and a lot of just plain nonsense and irresponsibility about Covid-19 precautions.   

Occasionally various lines from a reflection, written by an old Michigan friend, Ken Untener, the fourth Bishop of Saginaw, kept popping onto my head. He had often told me: “It helps, now and then, to step back.” On Covid-19 retreat, and now as we look toward better days, Ken’s words offer wisdom and reality. Ken’s reflection, titled “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is my Another Voice post for this week:

It helps, now and then, to step back

and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of

the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

which is another way of saying

that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,

ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.


“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is an excerpt from a homily given by Cardinal John Dearden (1907 – 1988), and written for him by then Father Ken Untener. The occasion was a Mass for deceased Detroit priests on October 25, 1979. Ken Untener was named Bishop of Saginaw in 1980.

On March 27, 2004, Bishop Kenneth Edward Untener, Bishop of Saginaw, died of leukemia. He had been my older seminary classmate at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit: he in college and I in high school. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1963. Two years later, seminarian John Dick was sent by his bishop to study in Louvain. Years later Ken became my contemporary church hero as well as my good friend. On occasion we even shared the same stage as speakers at catechetical and continuing ed conferences.

Ken Untener’s death on March 27th at age 66 coincided with my 61st birthday. His death on my birthday touched me deeply. 

Yes indeed….It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. We plant seeds that one day will grow.

  • Jack

Praise for a Prophetic Woman Theologian

A couple weeks ago, a friend in the Netherlands sent me a recent book (a Dutch translation from the original Portuguese) by  Ivone Gebara, the Brazilian Catholic, woman religious, philosopher, and feminist theologian. (Photo attached.) I had a chance to meet Ivone a few years ago when she was on a lecture tour and have always had great respect and appreciation for her and her ministry. 

Today a bit of background information about Ivone Gebara and then some reflections about her key theological focus: “ecofeminism.”

Ivone was born in São Paulo and, as a young woman,  joined the Augustinian Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady. She holds two doctorates: one in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and another in theology from L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

For almost seventeen years, Ivone Gebara taught at the liberation theology Instituto Teológico do Recife in close collaboration with the institute’s founder Archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909 – 1999), called the “bishop of the slums.” He was well-known for his social and political work for the poor and the struggle for human rights and democracy during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985).  Government authorities began to harass Câmara actively in 1968, interfering with his ministry in the slums and condoning machine-gun attacks on his residence. The Instituto Teológico do Recife existed from 1968 until it was closed in 1989, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1920 – 205), under direction of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s Prefect of  the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the historical Roman Inquisition. From the very beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II had built a case against ”liberation theology.”

The closing of the Instituto by the Vatican had a major impact on Ivone Gebara’s role as an educator and her own philosophical and theological viewpoints. She was uncomfortable with the church’s resistance to change and with a liberation theology that ignored the patriarchal power structures in the church. In the church, she saw an oppressive hierarchical worldview that categorized people in terms of gender, race, and class.

In 1995, Gebara was tried and convicted by the Vatican for defending the decriminalization of abortion and stating in an interview in the Brazilian weekly magazine  Veja that she did not believe that abortion was always a sin, based on her observations and reflections about the life experiences of poor women throughout the Brazilian slums. In the United States, the National Catholic Reporter (1995:24) reacted to her Vatican condemnation by proclaiming: “Ivone Gebara Must Be Doing Something Right.” She was punished with the penalty of “silence” and ordered to “reflect” on her ideas for two years in Europe. It was during this time that she completed her second doctorate at L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

Today Ivone Gebara is a key leader in the Latin American ecofeminist movement, writing, teaching, organizing, and working with marginalized and impoverished women. The term “ecofeminism” was created in 1974 by the French writer and civil rights activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death).

Ivone Gebara Is the  author of over thirty books and numerous articles published in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and German. One of her books in English which I strongly recommend is Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press 1999).

Gebara’s commitment to social justice for women has shaped her understanding of what the theological task ought to be and has contributed to the development of her methodology and feminist theological vision. Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It explores the connections between women and nature in culture, economy, religion, politics, and literature. It takes from the Green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism a view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit, and oppress women.

Ivone Gebara’s pioneering feminist work and her own life ministry and witness, have inspired Christian women in Brazil and globally to challenge and oppose an androcentric theology that diminishes women’s place within the church and within society. She is indeed a wonderfully prophetic woman theologian. 

In Ivone Gebara’s book Longing for Running Water, there are many observations I have underlined. Here is one that strongly resonates with my own theological sense of purpose and meaning: “I  think it is always important to understand our need to refashion our beliefs and their particular formulations in each new moment of history…..Theology will have to carry out its social role with greater humility and openness. Its truths will always need to be open-ended…. They will be mere approximations of the Divine Mystery: attempts to grasp the meaning of our existence, if only in a tentative way. We will need to leave behind absolute statements and “ex cathedra” truths, and learn to live in the midst of the extraordinary….Religious experience is polyphonic and multicolored, despite the fact that in the depth of each of us we hear something of the same note or perceive something of the same choir. It is a search for the meaning of our existence, a groping for that “mysterious something” that is within us and at the same time surpasses us.”

The Divine Mystery still speaks to all of us. Our response is our challenge….

  • Jack