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Wolf in the Henhouse

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Wolf in the Henhouse
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The word catholic comes from the Greek kata (meaning “through” or “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). This word was originally used by Ignatius of Antioch as early as the year 100 to precisely include all Christians, and it is a shame that it later was used to create boundaries rather than to be inclusive. Catholicity and oneness were two of the essential “marks of the church,” those quietly discernible elements, which like “the yeast hidden in the dough” (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21), expand and raise the message, enabling it to include more and more.

Catholicity is the unitive “whole-making instinct” within Christianity. Yeast doesn’t operate in an extrinsic way; rather, it expands dough from the inside out by “becoming one-with, part-of, and mutually benefiting from and contributing to the life of bread,” as Daniel Horan writes. [1] What a shame that any Christian group wanted to be the whole loaf instead of a yeast hidden inside the loaf—the organic Body of Christ. (The words “Roman” and “catholic” put together are actually an oxymoron; the word “oxymoron” comes from the Greek for sharp and foolish.)

Unfortunately, the bottom-up, inside-out, whole-making instinct did not last. Starting in AD 313, Christianity gradually became the imperial religion of the Roman Empire. It was mostly top-down and hierarchical for the next 1700 years. As the “imperial mind” took over, religion had less to do with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, forgiveness, and simplicity, and instead became fully complicit in the world of domination, power, war, and greed itself. The wolf started living right inside the hen house, and the common pattern of low-level religion was repeated.

Brian McLaren is not afraid to say directly that it is time for us to “face the dark sides of our Christian past”:

A lineage of evil . . . stretches from Constantine [in 313] to Pope Nicholas [V] to Columbus to contemporary American and European politics: the tradition of racial and religious privilege and supremacy—specifically white and Christian privilege and supremacy. . . . About forty years before 1492, Pope Nicholas V issued an official document called Romanus Pontifex . . . which serves as the basis for what is commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, the teaching that whatever Christians “discover,” they can take and use as they wish. . . . Christian global mission is defined as to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians around the world, and to steal “all movable and immovable goods” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery”—and not only them, but their descendants. And notice the stunning use of the word convert: “to convert them to his and their use and profit.” [2]

I am sorry to have to share this with you, but the impact of the Church’s collusion with empire must be confessed or we will never be free from it. It also helps us understand why so many have given up on Christianity and often, unfortunately, thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

And yet, we cannot be too glib, condemning, or angry either. It is not as if Christianity oppressed an existing egalitarian, democratic, pluralistic mind that already was in charge somewhere on earth. The Gospel values did not exist in any broad way until the last couple hundred years. Liberal critics and atheists must be honest about this. Ironically, the undoing of slavery, misogyny, oppression, and massive injustice proceeded from cultures that were influenced by the Gospel. God is both very humble and very patient, and it seems God’s best followers imitate the Divine in this regard. [3]

Gateway to Silence:
Give us wisdom. Give us love.

[1] Daniel P. Horan, “‘Catholic’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does,” Huffington Post, October 12, 2012,

[2] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (Convergent: 2016), 76-77.

[3] See Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic: 2016). This study of church history is also spirituality at its best.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk, Canossian Spirituality Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, December 3, 2016.

Image Credit: The Way of the Prophet (detail), silhouette image art work by Mike Van, concept by Vivienne Close.
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