A Catholic foot-washing ceremony

Does the Church have an addiction to titles?

“Pope”, “(arch)bishop”, “monsignor”, “Father”… “Your Holiness/Eminence/Grace”. Does the Catholic Church have an addiction to titles?

That’s the intriguing idea that was put forward a few days ago now by Dominican Ulrich Engel in an interview in the electronic pages of katholisch.de, a website of the German Bishops’ Conference.

Engel’s ideas carry weight: he’s the director of the philosophical-theological research center Institut M.-Dominique Chenu in Berlin.

But here I’d like to put Engel’s ideas under the tip of my own electronic pen, and take them and run in my own direction.

Simply put, Engel’s idea is that though we need language to communicate, that language we use also implies relations of power.

That power is neither good nor bad in itself, and besides: the Church is not the only place where we experience relations of power.

The question is, though: which comes first – the power structures or the language that captures them?

That is to say, in the Church: could Catholic leaders still exercise their authority effectively without their often extravagant titles?

The Dominican Engels says yes.

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Church titles like “Father”, “shepherd”/”pastor” (and “flock”), “monsignor” (“My Lord”) and so on reinforce hierarchial structures of domination and subjugation, and as such are prone to abuse, spiritual and worse.

Not only that, but Engels thinks the labels – and the hierarchy behind them – are a hindrance in reaching ordinary people today, who find it all “weird, outdated and abstruse”.

It’s not that power is always and necessarily bad in itself.

Without power, for example, nothing would ever change.

But the Church must ask itself: does the power of its leaders’ titles overpower or empower? Does it build up or tear down?

Is the power inherent in the Church’s titles the same power as Christ’s in the Apostle Paul’s famous hymn in Philippians: Christ who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… [and] humbled himself”?

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Priest Engels went so far as suggesting the Church might look at abolishing all its titles.

Could we address ourselves all by our first names? Could we call the Pope ‘Francis’ – or ‘Jorge Mario’ – to his face, and would the Church still work?

Or, more importantly, would the Church work better with more egalitarian language?

Would the abuse of children and vulnerable adults be a thing of the past? Would women and other people shunned by the Church finally find a home there?

As Engels recalls, the first and foremost power in the Church is God.

As such, Catholics’ foremost sense of duty is to Her (and yes, I’m using inclusive language) – not first to any priest, bishop or cardinal.

How best to honour that duty to God, then? Surely by honouring one’s sister and brother human beings with the familiarity and uniqueness of their first name.

That might make all the difference in the Church, and it doesn’t need any complicated theological manoeuvring to implement… just openness.

Next on Novena:

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Mada Jurado

Reporter and community manager at Novena
Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.
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