US Catholic Faith in Real Life

There's room for both "binders" and "loosers" in the church

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When Jesus spoke of things being bound and loosed here on earth and in heaven, was he saying something about the church?

By guest blogger Ken Trainor

The gospel reading for the Sunday before last (Aug. 21; Matthew 16: 13-20), is the passage often used to validate both the founding of the church and the establishment of the papacy. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do you say I am?” Simon, son of Jonah, blurts out, “The Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Bingo. Jesus is moved by his answer and tells him that he is the rock (Petros) on whom he will build his church. From then on, we know this fisher of men as “Peter.”

This gospel passage has long been one of my favorites. In 2006, I stood before the ruins of Caesarea Philippi and read it aloud to the large with whom I was traveling.

What’s interesting about this location, which Matthew goes to the trouble of mentioning, is that it was also an ancient, sacred pagan site located very close to the headwaters of the Jordan River. In several places the water literally gushes out of the earth (at least it did in March at the end of the rainy season when we were there) and gathers to form the river that runs like a life-giving spine down the length of Israel. After visiting the Dead Sea (the other end of the spine), witnessing water gushing out of a mountain was a genuinely spiritual experience. Jesus must have carefully chosen this spot for his “coming out” to his disciples as they began the long, fateful journey down that liquid spine to Jerusalem.

In the gospel reading, Jesus says he will give Peter the figurative “keys to the kingdom.” And then he adds something interesting that often gets overlooked: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Until the Sunday before last, the last part of Jesus’ statement never really hit me. Popes, and Catholics in general, are very big on binding and very good at it. Indeed, the word “religion” itself likely comes from the Latin word meaning “to bind” (ligare). So it’s no surprise that most people are familiar (and more comfortable) with the binding part.

But Jesus goes to the trouble of adding “whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” If he mentioned both binding and loosing, he must have had a reason. He must have wanted us to hold in equally high regard anything that was “set loose” by the successors of Peter.

As far as I know, only one Pope in the history of the Catholic Church ever set anything loose: Pope John XXIII when he called for a Second Vatican Council and threw open the windows of a bound up church in order to “let in a little fresh air.”

Pope Paul VI carried what had been set loose to its formal conclusion in 1965, for which he deserves credit and great praise, but by 1968 (with Humanae Vitae, his encyclical upholding the church’s ban on artificial birth control) Paul was back to binding. His two successors, of course, have been very, very big on binding. (And we’ll never know what John Paul I would have done.)

Binding, of course, is the default setting for the traditional, doctrinaire Catholics who were deeply unnerved by what was set loose from 1962 to 1965 and the years that followed as Vatican II reforms were implemented. They were deathly afraid that this “loosing” would be the church’s “undoing,” so they resorted to major binding. In the process, however, they have shown very little respect for what was set loose, in spite of Jesus’ assurance that it would also be set loose in heaven.

And just what was set loose in 1962 at Vatican II? Those who were there and embraced what happened will tell you without hesitation that it was nothing less than the Holy Spirit.

Setting the Holy Spirit loose seems like something of which heaven would approve. Yet the church and conservative Catholics have spent 45 years doing their best (or worst) to bind up the Holy Spirit so it never gets loose again.

John XXIII opened the window to let some fresh air in. But it’s what he (and the council fathers and clergy and a newly empowered laity) loosed that thrilled so many once upon a time, and which continues to terrify so many others all these years later.

In the Catholic Church we have binders and we have loosers.

We need both.

Jesus, it seems, wanted it that way.

By Ken Trainor, a practicing, progressive Catholic, who was 10 years old when Vatican II began. For the past 20 years, he has been a reporter, editor and weekly columnist for Wednesday Journal, a newspaper in Oak Park. You can find his column at

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.