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Presentation of International Movement for We Are Church


Mr. Didier Vanhoutte,

Coordinator of International Movement of We Are Church (IMWAC)

I first want to say how grateful I am to have been invited to Chiang Mai by Dr. Paul Hwang, main organizer of the event. I am clearly not saying so as a simple person, but on behalf of IMWAC whom I am representing here. IMWAC, which means International Movement We Are Church, is a vast network whose calling is global. However, and precisely because of that, we have no lectures to provide. I have come here to share, and above all to learn. We are totally convinced that Asian Catholics are as firm in their faith in Jesus Christ as we are, and that the future of the Church in this part of the world depends on them. When I say so, I cannot but remember the documents received from Paul which prove how much you wish to have entire responsibility in what is to be done over here to succeed in bearing witness to the Gospel. Such an achievement appeals to the knowledge you have of the great Asian cultures and traditions which are admired everywhere. And let us remember, after all, that all European languages have a link with Sanskrit, which produced or greatly influenced a number of languages in Asia. But this is not what I am supposed to speak about, although we can have a talk concerning those matters later on if you wish.

Let us start from the beginning then. It all began in 1995, or rather in 1962 when the Second Vatican Council started, or perhaps in 1963 when the Encyclical Pacem in Terris was published. I was delighted to receive this Encyclical from Paul! It was a proof, supposing one was needed, that our concerns and interests were similar. John XXIII opened the windows of the Roman Catholic Church and let fresh air in, as well as, referring to Paul the apostle (Men “show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them, Epistle to the Romans, 2, 15), he asked everyone to rely on their own conscience and he restored personal responsibility. Such a restoration implied that each person had a part to play in the “economy” of the Kingdom, in the etymological meaning. The addition of all the members of the community led to a new concept (but was it so new?), to what was then called “the People of God”. As we know, that new approach shattered all the current conceptions of what the “Church” was at bottom, and the laity started to show the wish, already visible in a number of grassroots movements, to get involved more deeply in her life. Their commitment in the issues of the societies they lived in also became more frequent.

Those changes got more radical in Latin America, where poverty dramatically prevailed. The proposals of the Council were taken seriously, and Base Ecclesial Communities were created, as you know, in which Christians started reading the Bible and discussing its contents, and tried to live the message in their daily lives. South American bishops met on several occasions (Medellin, Puebla, Aparecida…) and more or less confirmed the undertaken changes. All that led to an intellectual upheaval started by theologians attracted by the implication of the “People” as such in the progress of the Christian faith and by the effective commitment of Christians in the social issues of their time, precisely where they lived. Gustavo Guttiérrez, if I am not mistaken, invented the expression “Liberation Theology”.

It is clear Rome was taken aback. A “revolution” was on its way, and the institution was afraid the ship might capsize, at least from its viewpoint. But what to do? The authority of the Council could not be squarely contradicted. Yet the Vatican gradually began to “put a brake on”. It is obvious the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with at its head Cardinal Ratzinger, took the lead and gradually, cunningly changed the course of affairs. Later on, when the changes had slowed down, more decisive steps were taken. Liberation theology was accused of Marxism, and great numbers of theologians were penalized or suspended (over a hundred), with the excuse that their teaching was in contradiction with the catholic Doctrine. Let me name three of the best known ones, whose courage inevitably led them to be, in a way or another, separated from the Church, Leonardo Boff, Tissa Balasuriya and Hans Küng.

It is not possible here not to evoke the capital part played by women in what was under way. Those who were the most terribly ill-treated by the Catholic institution and who had only one part to play, I mean keep silent, although they constituted that “womanpower” the Church could not do without, were those at the bottom of the scale. They had no access to any official responsibility. They were the lower part of the lower caste, the Dalits of the Church. The awakening of that half of humankind in modern societies, and in religions, is probably one of the major facts of contemporary history. They keep on being very active in the Church, not only claiming to have access to ordination and responsibilities, but they also want to alter the conceptions of the institution regarding sexuality in general and procreation and all ensuing rights in particular. Nothing positive is likely to occur within the Church without a total rethinking of their position, and they are very active to obtain it. You only have to read some women theologians, such as Ivone Gebara, from Brazil, for instance, or to witness the adamant will of American women religious to be convinced of that. It has to be remembered all along what I may happen to say.

In the meantime, traditionalists got organized under the command of a French bishop, Marcel Lefevre, who was excommunicated. He led a square opposition to the reforms, at the head of a very hostile and convinced group, Saint Pius X Fraternity. We remember how deeply embarrassed the Vatican was, not knowing what sort of attitude to adopt, and often yielding to their demands.

Meanwhile, a lot of Catholics whose lives had been changed for the better by the Council, and whose faith had been revived, got more and more concerned by what appeared as a return to the Church prevailing before the Council, and some sort of restlessness became perceptible. Some began to protest, sometimes vehemently. Their dissatisfaction overflowed in some occasions, for instance when Jacques Gaillot, a liberal French bishop was dismissed in 1995. Very surprisingly, whatever the Vatican might do proved inefficient, useless. Instead of re-establishing its authority, the attitude of the institution seemed either to empty churches more rapidly (in Europe), or to push the faithful into the arms of the Evangelicals (South America).

At the same time, the scandal of sex abuse blew up almost everywhere. A group of Austrian Catholics could not bear keeping silent in such circumstances, and launched a petition which, within a short time, collected over two and a half million signatures in Austria and Germany, claiming “We are the Church!” It was another way to remind the Roman institution what one of the teachings of the Council had been: the Christian People is “the People of God”. Therefore they considered nothing could really be decided without, or, worst, against lay people… I must admit it is still a dream to come true. It was also a protest against the protection enjoyed by the clergy guilty of such abuse, with the clear complicity of Rome, as well as a claim of responsibility and autonomy for local Churches. This is what Christian Weisner, from Germany, in charge of the contacts with media for IMWAC, explained concerning the intentions of those at the origin of the petition in an address to “Call to Action”, in the United States, in 2011: “We want to help our church to see the ‘signs of the times’ so that people in the modern world will better understand the message of Jesus – a message of a loving God who does not exclude anyone.”

The movement soon spread over Europe, each group then writing its own document, getting organized in its own way. It clearly appeared that some rules had to be established, so that the members from all countries could work together and harmoniously support the fulfilling of the promises of the Council. Contacts were soon established with North and South America, and IMWAC crossed the Atlantic. In principle there is a formal meeting every other year to take decisions as to the general policy of the network, and an informal one in between, usually when a majority of member groups participate to EN-RE annual conferences. EN-RE is a friendly European network (European Network Church on the Move).

This is the beginning of the “Manifesto” agreed upon by IMWAC members and proclaimed in Rome in August 1997:

Here in Rome, 35 years ago, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. Catholics throughout the world have put great hope on this event: that might result a more credible church – free, collegial, poor, and a servant.

  • We need a Church of love, where all are accepted equally.
  • We need a catholic [i.e. universal] Church, where each person is welcome with his/her life experiences, images of God and longing for community.
  • We need a Church that affirms God’s creation, that acts in a reconciling manner and reflects the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for all humankind.
  • We need a Church committed to justice and peace, and which puts solidarity with the excluded of the world at the centre of its action.

The network needed to be organized, but in a rather loose way, in order to preserve each group’s autonomy. Therefore, the guidelines as they were established are at the same time more concise in what concerns the goals and more explicit as to the way IMWAC is to work. They read:

[IMWAC] “focuses on the need for a Church

  • which values participation ,
  • with all ministries open to women and men,
  • with optional celibacy,
  • which values sexuality and primacy of conscience,
  • which is committed to social justice and human rights,
  • which does not marginalize its own people.

As a brotherly and sisterly ‘communio’, we have no hierarchical form of organization. Local groups (the members) are independent and the only ones responsible for their actions. For international cooperation there is a need for an ‘instrument’ in order to reach agreement.

The International Movement We Are Church (internally called IMWAC) therefore establishes the following working guidelines.”

I will of course stop here and not read you the whole of the document. However I have it at your disposal in a computerized version.

It is obvious the extension of the network altered its nature, for the better I feel, each group bringing about its own conceptions and most urgent worries. The unity of the network was carefully preserved, while its substance became magnificently diverse. A clear sign of that is the use of languages. Whereas German was the initial tongue, two languages are now kind of official: English first, of course, and Spanish. But Spanish is not understood by all, and there are other occurrences of other languages being used, for example French, Italian and Portuguese/Brazilian. The choice of languages is only a practical question, since no language is better than another. We simply need to understand one another, and we select the most appropriate device to succeed doing so. Things are not ossified to that regard.

What do we exist for?

One of the first of our obligations is to keep up to date, in what concerns facts as well as ideas. It means it is necessary to have links with groups all over the planet, because imagination and clear-sightedness are everywhere, and are certainly not exclusive.

The main perspective, to start with, was to obtain more democracy within the Church and an equal treatment for women and men, including the possibility for women to be ordained. Next, it is obvious you cannot have access to democracy if freedom of conscience is not at the heart of the process. And equality between women and men implies the whole approach to sexuality is rethought. Meanwhile, celibacy will of course lose its significance. Besides, the claim for democracy within the Church cannot be separated from the fights to reach it in the surrounding societies. But is it a surprise this link exists if you remember the Gospel keeps on reminding us we have to live in solidarity with the people around us, more particularly with the weakest ones, the poorest ones?

Let us remember the so-called Pact of the Catacombs, signed by about 40 bishops during the Council, among whom Helder Camara. Here are the first articles (words of the bishops):

1_ Regarding housing, food and means of transportation and everything concerning these things, we will seek to live in accordance with the common average level of our people.
2_ We renounce forever wealth and its appearance, especially in clothing (expensive materials and brilliant colors), and insignia of precious metals (such things should, in effect, be evangelical).
3_ We will not possess either movable or immovable properties, or bank accounts in our names.

One can just wonder why that type of decision constituted a kind of scandal, since it is closely related to the message of Jesus. Many quotations of Francis, the new pope, are simply relevant in the same way, and see how they are praised by the public. With the years going by, the fifth point of the introduction to our Guidelines seemed more and more important. Remember, we want a Church which is committed to social justice and human rights… The arrival of new members, particularly from Latin America, increased our deep interest for that fundamental issue, all the more because they had been nurtured on Liberation Theology. A team of our Brazilian members has just sent us a message issued by Brazilian Base Ecclesial Communities sent to the participants in the World Youth Day. A short excerpt: We want to announce to all youths from all continents who will be attending the World Youth Day  […] that, according to Christ the Liberator´s testimony, we seek to experience a prophetic spirituality, which becomes visible in the preferential option for the poor. We also have important links with groups in the United States, for example with Call to Action, as Paul Hwang knows. And those groups actively support LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), representing about 57000 sisters, who are suspected by the institution of behaving in contradiction with the Catholic doctrine and who are now being scrutinized by the Vatican, mainly for helping people in difficulty, particularly women having previously undergone an abortion. This is what one of them recently wrote: At bottom, my life as “Sister” is about serving with Christ, in Christ, and to some extent as Christ for the sake of the people on my street, in my town, and within reach. My life as “Sister” is about translating the good news into a knock on a door, a meal for children, a listening ear, a word of comfort. I know that walking with people through their messy and complex lives is good reason not to head for the hills.

It is evident such a behaviour is not specific of the western world. This is, for instance, what Virginia Saldanha, from Mumbai, India, says: When I studied theology, I was drawn to Liberation Theology. I began to apply the praxis of liberation theology to my own context. I decided to take up the cause of domestic workers – women I was directly in touch with. They work in my parish area and are mostly poor Dalit women. I thought that if my life as a middle-class widow was tough, it must be much worse for these women who are poor and disadvantaged by their caste status. I began organizing them to teach them about human dignity and the rights they are entitled to under the Indian Constitution. I met with much opposition in my own community, but it proved that my efforts were successful in empowering these women. [National Catholic Reporter]

This obvious necessity to go deep into the understanding of the Gospel, in which the Kingdom is proposed to all, can lead to a non-exclusive conception of religious belief. This is a short extract of an analysis by Rolando Lazarte, from Kairos/Nós Também Somos Igreja, Brazil, member of IMWAC, about “inter-religious dialogue, Practice of integrative and inclusive spirituality, without ideological, doctrinal or institutional frontiers”: the more [on the one hand] we understand that not only each of the religions is a path to God, but, more radically, each person follows only one fully personal and singular path towards God, the more [on the other hand] we will be able to have a (more) fluid, (more) realistic understanding, regarding to what is the connection of every human being to God. So you can see that not only do we want a more democratic Church, but, remembering the Assisi process, as Christians, we are aware we also have to respect other cultures. Let me quote Jorge Costadoat, a Jesuit, and it is translated from Spanish, God revealed himself through history, and through history carries on revealing himself. [Please note there is no serious reason to say “him” instead of “her” for God…] Since the Spirit blows where she wants, we do not know where or when that is going to occur, and no one is going to be the owner of that Revelation, not even the Roman Catholic Church. In reality, I mean the Institution, contrarily to the past teachings of the papacy.

At the end of the eleventh century, Gregory VII issued a document to define his role as an absolute monarch at the head of the Church. Its title, in latin, was Dictatus Papae. Article 22 reads: The Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness. We must of course understand that he, Gregory alone, was the Church, was the authority. Who could believe such a thing today? Let us quote Jorge Costadoat, a Liberation Theologian, once more. In brief, the Church must be in harmony with the Spirit of Christ crying with the poor; on the other hand, it must appeal to the help of social sciences which will make it possible to understand better what is happening with the people and societies.

Those people and societies may actually live anywhere, and must have our support. For instance, let me remind you that IMWAC issued a statement for the support of Pedro Casaldaliga, bishop emeritus of Brazil, who had received death threats, because of the efforts he had made to help the Xavante people, living in Mato Grosso and about to lose their territories, against Latifundia owners and politicians. IMWAC wrote: In this environment the right of the Indigenous people has to be asserted. We may remind there is no discrepancy between that statement and what BECs [Base Ecclesial Communities] declared in Brazil before the arrival of Francis for WYD [World Youth Day]: we affirm our commitment to participate in the struggle of the Afro-descendent, Indigenous, Peasant Youth, and in the struggle of fishing people and “Quilombolas” communities as well, defending their identity and territories [extract]. It is a fact all cultures are local, and approaching the Divine mystery, even when we follow the steps of Jesus, is only possible absorbing local spirituality. Such is the case in South America, for instance, and some even speak of an Indian, as they locally say, theology. It means a particular relation with Nature, for example, with “la Pachamama”, or “Mother Earth”, or “Mother World” rather, if you prefer, such a concept differing from that of “Gaia” referred to yesterday.

I can see no justification why such an attitude should not prevail in Asia.

Besides, most issues are global, economic crisis, climate change, unemployment, injustice generally considered, etc. As Christians, we cannot not be concerned. After being involved in the World Social Forum in Tunis this year, IMWAC issued a document along with EN-RE (and this is a very short excerpt): We reject free trade agreements that are imposed by States and transnational corporations and we affirm that it is possible to build another kind of globalization, made from and by the people, based on solidarity and on freedom of movement for all human beings.

Well then, Peace on Earth. For all men and women of good will… To achieve that dream, that high hope, we need a new Church, a Church whose reorganization was started, but certainly not finished, half a century ago. These days, Francis, the new pope, seems to be reshuffling all hands. Is it for good? Or is it only an appearance? IMWAC do not want to be critical on principle, and we are ready to help if things are in line with our Manifesto. We want to encourage any move in that direction. WAC Germany recently issued a text entitled “Let’s Renew the Church… with Francis”! Let me quote one of its paragraphs: “Francis practises a spiritual leader style. He shows an example of “the good shepherd”. But will he be able to push through a reform of the Roman Curia? How in the long run will he fill the positions in the office of the Secretary of State and the Congregation of the Faith? Which official decisions will he make for example with reference to women in the Church or the American nuns?” And this is only part of the document. You could hear that we (I allow myself to say “we”, because that German text was warmly approved by our groups) are ready to welcome any positive change, but at the same time we clearly intend to watch what is going to be actually done. Given what happened with the Council these last 50 years, we can only consider having to wait and see.

But our position does not consist in waiting for new opportunities with folded arms. Acting appears an evident necessity. It is why IMWAC has been working on an important project, along with the European Network, soon joined by other groups, such as Call to Action in the United States. This project is called “Council 50”. Its aim is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s end, “for a Third Millennium Church”, “to give a new impulse to the renovation of the Church”. Council 50 is open to all groups who might be interested. The idea is not only to organize a big event in Rome in 2015, but to incite all groups to organize other events, on the same date, everywhere, so that all media become conscious of the importance of the anniversary, but may come to know our claims.

I can provide more details concerning that project later on, as well as concerning other issues I only gave hints about. I have already been too long, although I left many questions aside. But I am entirely at your disposal for more information, if you wish.

<Peace on Asia>, Seoul : WTI 2013