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The Reformation of Matthew Fox 

Against the odds, an Oakland theologian -- most famous as a critic of Pope Benedict XVI -- takes his inclusive notion of Christianity global

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
Matthew Fox sat silently, meditating, centering himself in the near-darkness of the Castle Church. Throngs of tourists surrounded him. They'd come to see the site where, half a millennium ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a door, launching the Protestant Reformation and altering the course of history.

Fox, though, had traveled from Oakland, Calif., to Wittenberg, Germany, to do far more than merely think about the past. That afternoon -- May 18, 2005 -- he planned to make history. Fox would hammer his own 95 theses and call for a new reformation. The theses, in Fox's mind, were an antidote to the ennui of mainline Protestantism, the myopic thinking of fundamentalist evangelicals, and, most important, the abuses of power by the Catholic Church, led by a new pope, Fox's nemesis, Benedict XVI, previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Two of Fox's traveling companions rushed in, interrupting his thoughts. One whispered into his ear: "We have a crisis. The TV cameras are not showing."

The television crew was stuck in traffic. It was already 10 minutes to 4 -- there was no way they'd be there in time. The newspaper and magazine photographers wanted to take photos at 4 on the dot.

Fox's group faced a dilemma: If you try to make history, and only the print media show up, will anyone hear about it? "Obviously, this is postmodern," Fox told his friends. "We're going to have two events. We'll do it first for the photographers, then again for the TV people."

Unlike Luther, Fox couldn't pound nails into the door itself. The original wood was damaged and replaced with bronze during the Seven Years' War in the mid-1700s, so his group bought nails, hinges, and boards at a local hardware store and built a makeshift A-frame. At exactly 4 p.m., Fox, a former Dominican priest, stood in front of one of the world's most famous churches, hammering nails through a 6-foot-long, ancient-looking scroll produced by a man in Canada. The photographers wanted to make sure they got it from the right angle, and in the right light, so they asked Fox to hammer another nail. And another. And another.

After the photographers left, a bus pulled up, and a group of South African tourists poured out and ambled up to the entrance. Their German guide explained, in accented English, the significance of the church. When she'd finished, Fox raised his hand and told the tourists why he was there. His face was crosshatched with wrinkles, and his once-blond hair had turned a strawish platinum, but even at 64, Fox retained the boyish, jovial demeanor of his Midwestern youth. The South Africans listened to Fox speak, his voice at once robust and hypnotic, like the rumble of a freight train filtered through a mug of warm tea. The guide tried to shuffle them along, but the tourists were hooked. They wanted to stay and listen to this strange man talk about a religious revolution. Then the bus threatened to drive away without them, and Fox presented them with 15 copies of his book A New Reformation, sending them on their way.

When the TV crew arrived, Fox hammered and posed and answered questions for them, too, wearing a blue collared shirt and a beige jacket. Only two dozen people watched. The cameraman shot over their shoulders; to viewers of the regional evening news, it looked as if hundreds had attended. "He worked it. Ha!" Fox guffawed a few months later. "We didn't know if anyone would show up, we didn't know if the media was going to show up. That was the good part -- the media showed up."

The theses themselves, like most of Fox's writings, were a sensible response to a serious issue: the crisis of Christianity in the West. Fundamentalism, corruption, and tedium are driving worshippers away, and Fox hopes his political-minded, optimistic ecumenism will bring them back. The event, though, was an outlandish publicity stunt, designed to raise awareness of a theological war Fox had long since lost.

Once the enfant terrible of the Catholic Church, Fox wrote extraordinarily successful books suggesting, among other things, that homosexuality is not a sin and that priestly celibacy should be voluntary. As his ideas roamed further from traditional Catholicism, he hired a witch to work at his Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality and named his dog his spiritual director. Fox was stripped of his collar in 1993 after theological clashes with then-Cardinal Ratzinger. During the past decade, he revamped the institute to support his alternate vision for Christianity: that anyone can be a mystic or prophet, blessed with divine energy. Fox also developed a rave-style ritual called "Cosmic Mass," to help followers access their spiritual side in a communal setting. Over that time, he continued his crusade against the Vatican, and when Ratzinger was elected pope, Fox became the media's go-to lefty talking head, decrying the new pope as "the inquisitor general of the 21st century," a threat to theologians, women, and even yoga.

In public, Fox casts himself in the role of good-hearted liberal fighting against the evil church. In truth, though, Fox has little chance of changing the direction of Catholicism during his lifetime. But there is an underlying battle, between Matthew Fox, self-appointed, publicity-seeking defender of "true" Christian faith, and Matthew Fox, the shy academic who just wants be left alone to teach and write. Without that inner tension, Fox could never have turned on hundreds of thousands to his creation-centered theology, becoming one of the world's most famous priests. Yet Fox the press-hungry iconoclast irritates serious theologians, just as Fox the scholar is often a turnoff to the mass audience. He now walks a tightrope between his two selves, trying, somehow, to please everyone -- and persuade them to change their beliefs.

In late summer 1970, Matthew Fox returned to the Midwest to teach, after four years spent earning a doctorate in spirituality in Paris. Barely a month into his first semester at the Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa, Fox was rocking the boat. He gave a homily at community Mass arguing that celibacy didn't mean priests should be sexually repressed. The notion that "impure thoughts" among priests might be acceptable seems tame now, but in a Dominican school 35 years ago, it struck a nerve. Twenty students lined up at his door that night to speak with him, many of them crying. Fox was soon elected subprior (second-in-charge) of his residence. Almost every student, and almost none of the priests, voted for him. The priests wouldn't let Fox assume his position -- they thought he was too dangerous. For many students, it was the authoritarian last straw, and they left the Dominican order. Fox moved to Chicago and commuted to the institute during the second term.

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein


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