Can We Speak of Repression in the Church?

Author: Jean Danielou


Jean Danielou

Repression is the dominant theme in a whole current of present-day literature. On any and every occasion they talk of repression. This can be in reference to the action of the police against a particular demonstration, but the same word is also applied to the discipline which a free person thinks he should exercise in subordinating to higher values the activity of his own impulses. In writers like Marcuse, freedom, as it is called, is not only a way of liberating self from the coercion of exterior nature but from everything of an interior nature, a way of. riding roughshod over every value, everything in short to which a man judges he cannot commit himself fully except in the degree to which he subjects inferior forces to superior values.

One of the more tragic effects today arises from the fact that a certain number of impostors are leading youth to view in one and the same way the coercion against which it has a right to react, and the free acceptance of fundamental values. Almost everything in literature, in the cinema, and in weekly magazines is permeated with a spirit of liberation, which is not liberation from unacceptable coercion, but, on the contrary, the will to be liberated from everything to which a man feels an unsuppressable need to submit or to accept in order to fulfil himself.


As far as the Church is concerned the problem of authority and liberty has elements in common with the general problems of authority and liberty, but therein it also presents particular elements. The Church, in fact, is not a society like other societies. In every society there exists a certain balance of liberty and authority as constituting part of the very structure of any human community. But in the case of the Church, authority derives from another factor. The consideration here is not only of the need, common to every society, of possessing a determined structure, but of knowing if Christ himself had the intention of transmitting authority of an absolutely unique nature, which is his authority in the order of truth, and authority also in the order of power to fulfil his own purpose; if Christ willed to entrust such authority, understood in this twofold significance to certain men so that they continue his own divine work in history.

It is exactly this which is today being contested. Recently Father Küng wrote: "In the early Churches the gifts of governing did not belong to a ruling class, an aristocracy of holders of the spirit who were distinguished from the community and raised above it to dominate it." Must we therefore say that authority in the Church is an action of dominion which some exercised over the collectivity, and that such a work is extraneous to the purpose of Christ who absolutely did not will that in his Church there should function an authority entrusted to persons by delegation?

It is a question of fundamental importance. Must we therefore say that authority in the Church, the authority of the bishops and the authority of the Pope, is an exercise of government which has become established in the course of the Christian centuries; that the hour has struck for a true democratization of the Church; that it is necessary, therefore, radically to contest this governing action and to submit all the powers to the democracy of the Christian people who would govern themselves with absolute power without any further submission to other powers?

It is precisely this that they would have us believe today. And precisely this that the seven hundred and forty lay people who signed the letter "If Christ had seen all this!" openly declared by stating that we are today living under a regime of oppression. Poor bishops! If they would oppress us a little, we would perhaps be the first to rejoice, because in the situation today, it certainly cannot be said that we are oppressed by their power!

This is exactly what they would have us believe, that we are victims of a kind of alienation, and that we must free ourselves from the oppression exercised by the Pope and bishops on Christianity, an oppression which impedes liberty of thought and theological research, which prevents the rise of heresies, (precisely that which these gentlemen desire), which hinders liberty on the moral as well as on the intellectual plane. When the Pope or the bishops intervene on a definite question, whether it be of doctrinal nature as when Pope Paul stated that belief in the Immaculate Conception or in the Assumption of the Virgin is part of the Christian faith, or when he intervened to affirm that there are definite norms for the Christian concept of marriage, some protest against the abuse of power and the interference of the authority of the Church in questions which, according to them, belong to the individual conscience.


It is necessary to face the question, because it is just this question which today debated, and to face it first of all historically. One thing is certain: the explicit intention of Christ to establish the college of his apostles during his earthly life, choosing the Church to entrust to them the power of authentically transmitting his own message and of communicating effectively the fruit of his own redemptive action. They are the Twelve who lived with Christ, who were chosen by him, who after Pentecost; authentically announced his message, baptized, presided at the Eucharistic celebration, and designated as their own successors those whom we today call by the name of bishops.

As Peter exercised the primacy, in that first community of apostles, so, in the collegiality of the bishops, the successor of Peter has always exercised the primacy. This was established personally by Christ and it will endure until the end of the world. This is the foundation which constitutes the Church itself, and through this hierarchy established by Christ are carried on the authentic transmission of the truth and the authentic continuation of sacramental life.

It is then absolutely false from an historical point of view to assert that in the Church this is a phenomenon on a secondary level, the reflection of certain sociological circumstances. It is instead an aspect fundamental to that which Christ willed to establish. He conferred all the riches which are his own on those whom he chose to be the instruments through whom he would have his own gifts transmitted. To contest the existence of this authority in the Church means to contest the very institution willed by Jesus Christ.


In the second place I shall add that if contestation of the authority in the Church is not legitimate as regards its divine foundation, so equally illegitimate is contestation on the fruitfulness of this authority. For if there is one thing in the Church which seems almost divine, it is exactly this: that in the world which through two millenia has known so many political catastrophes and so many ideological vicissitudes, in a world in which we see so much confusion and chaos, there endures a leadership ever faithful to itself, which in the midst of this chaos and these changes presents a stability so strong that one cannot but think that there is in it something attributable not only to human powers but to divine assistance. This solid rock, this immutable axis, we find it in the tradition of the Church which from Saint Peter perpetuates itself through the bishops united to the bishop of Rome, through the succession of Councils. This is, in my opinion, one of the most evident proofs that in the Church there is something divine. To wish to deny this in order to surrender to all the changes of present day ideologies, to wish to place the transmission of truth at the mercy of all human currents, to wish to undermine this authority which in a world so fickle is the seal of the divine which, we are sure, will bring back to the Church many men who have drifted away from her: well, this, I say, is the most absurd, most criminal deed we could commit. In the firmness and in the strength which the tradition of the Church offers, we see the greatest hope of the world in our time.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 March 1969, page 8

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