Matthew Fox speaks at American Catholic Council gathering

by Sharon Abercrombie

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DETROIT, MICH. -- Addressing the first American Catholic Council, Fr. Matthew Fox encouraged the nearly 2,000 participants attending to “adapt a different way of being church. Travel lightly. Carry a backpack filled with the words of Jesus, the mystics and the prophets. Be faithful to Matthew 25’s vision of compassion and remain true to the collegiality of Vatican II” rather than to “an institution that Jesus never heard of,” he said.

The American Catholic Council was organized by progressive Catholics to implement Second Vatican Council reforms. Its agenda for the weekend – reclaiming the Spirit, vision, freedom and joy of the People of God – grew out of 100 Listening Assemblies involving 5,000 Catholics from across the United States.

Speaking on the eve of Pentecost, Fox highlighted a theology of Christian vocation as inspired by the Holy Spirit. “Every Christian’s vocation is to be a mystic and a prophet who falls in love with life and beauty, cherishes friendship, the Earth and those different from themselves.”

“Looking down the river of our own life, there have been turns and detours and times when we have reinvented ourselves and taken another direction.” But that is because the Holy Spirit has a lot of surprises in store and loves to go to work when there is chaos,” he laughed, quoting his mentor and teacher the late Father C.M. Chenu.

One major reinvention of Catholics, Fox said, has been the American Catholic Council. “Your biggest mistake would be to underestimate the importance of this conference.” He named it “prophetic and is spot on in doing what needs to be done -- to speak truth to power.”

Quoting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fox urged the group to be mindful that “our life begins to end when we stop speaking about things that matter” – planetary devastation, social justice, the silence at the highest levels around clergy sexual abuse, married priests, women’s ordination, homophobia, and the preferential option for the poor.

Members of the American Catholic Council likewise held these matters close to their collective heart last weekend at Cobo Hall. On the ACC’s agenda was an endorsement by conference attendees of The Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, a manifesto drawn up by board members. They include primacy of conscience, women’s ordination, freedom of expression, universal ministry, the right to the sacraments, to meaningful participation in decision making including the selection of leaders, participation in the interpretation of the Gospel and church tradition, the right to convene and speak in assemblies where diverse voices can be heard, and to participate and promote social justice in the world at large and within the church structures.

During his talk Matthew Fox shared a few adventures of his own. Ever since he penned Original Blessing, and started his own creation spirituality master’s degree program (first in Chicago, then at Holy Names University in Oakland, and finally, in 1996, in downtown Oakland,) Fox successfully captured the undivided attention of one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope.

In 1988, Ratzinger, then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, forbade Fox from speaking and teaching for a year. Fox acquiesced, but since then has continued his work full force. He has written many books, including The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, The Reinvention of Work, The Christian Mystics, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, A New Reformation, and his most recent, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. Currently, Fox is a visiting scholar with the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

About five years ago, Matthew Fox created his own “bill of rights,” inspired by Protestant Reformation leader, Martin Luther, who drew up 95 Theses around the church corruption of his day. Luther nailed his manuscript to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Fox decided to write his own version. He figured there would be 25 ideas at most, but after waking up in the middle of the night with more inspirations, “I ended up with 95.”

A few of them, as outlined in A New Reformation are:

-- God is both Father and Mother.

-- Ideology is not theology; ideology endangers the faith because it replaces thinking with obedience …and demands loyalty oaths to the past.

-- Eco-justice is a necessity for planetary survival and human ethics; without it we are crucifying the Christ all over again in the form of destruction of forests, waters, species, air and soil.

-- Religion is not necessary, but spirituality is.

-- There is a priesthood of all workers (all who are doing good work are midwives of grace and therefore priests), and this priesthood ought to be honored as sacred and workers should be instructed in spirituality in order to carry on their ministry effectively.

-- A preferential option for the poor, as found in the base community movement, is far closer to the teaching and spirit of Jesus than is a preferential option for the rich and powerful, as found, for example, in Opus Dei.

-- Economic justice requires the work of creativity to birth a system of economics that is global, respectful of the health and wealth of the earth systems and that works for all.

-- Celebration and worship are key to the human community and survival, and such reminders of joy deserve new forms that speak in the language of the twenty-first century

-- Christians must distinguish between Jesus and Paul.

Fox took his document to Wittenberg and nailed it to the Cathedral doors there.

When Original Blessing recently came out in its first Italian translation, the author decided to celebrate by repeating his Wittenberg experience in Rome. Fox chose Maria Maggiore, the Basilica of St. Mary Major for a specific reason. Retired Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston,is archpriest there. Law resigned in 2002, after covering up for predator priests in his archdiocese. He was appointed to the Italian post in 2004.

As Fox prepared to display his 95 Theses on a tripod set up in front of the Basilica, he spotted seven men wearing sunglasses off to the side, watching. His Italian publicist warned that they were Vatican plainclothesmen.

The entourage decided to proceed, in spite of possible trouble.” What will happen will happen,” shrugged the publicist. It did. As Fox showed a video clip of the proceedings, the screen in Cobo Hall suddenly went blank for a few seconds. The police had grabbed the camera and roughed up the camera man.

Given such inhospitality, Fox said he was very surprised when, last month, a national television station invited him back to Rome to talk about God. There would also be a debate with a bishop. A few days before the return trip, he received a phone call from the station. The appearance would not happen after all. “A cardinal in the Vatican cancelled it.”

“That shows just how repressive and far reaching the Vatican is,” said Fox, who was stunned by the move.

When things like that happen, the speaker said he draws strength from the words of many progressive theologians, including Lutheran Dorothy Soelle. Soelle once said, “Every day I am afraid He has died in vain. He needs you. That’s all there is to it. Help Him. That is what faith is.”

Despite the overarching scariness of the entrenched Curia, Matthew Fox believes that Soelle’s vision of faith will prevail, and “lay councils such as yours will be the real redemption of Christianity as we know it.”

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