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A People not a Pyramid
Christianity: Leadership in a Society of Equals
A Ghetto Church and the problem of nostalgia
One of the last defenders of the immutability of the Church’s doctrine was Pius X the next to last of the militant anti-modernists. In his 1907 Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis the Pope condemned Modernism as a pernicious internal threat to the Church’s orthodoxy and orthopraxis. He charged that the Modernists erroneously taught that “ecclesiastical government requires reformation in all its branches, but especially in its disciplinary and dogmatic parts … a share in ecclesiastical government should therefore be given to the lower ranks of the clergy and even to the laity, and authority be decentralized. The Roman Congregations, especially the Congregations of the Index and the Holy Office, are to be reformed.” Modernism in the mind of Pius X was “the synthesis of all heresies.”
In his 1906 Encyclical Vehementer Nos, Pius X wrote to the French clergy and laity instructing them that the hierarchical organisation of the Church involves “a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock.” The latter are directed by the former who are endowed with the authority of God. Therefore, Pius concluded that “the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors.” 1
Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani was probably the most famous of the last ones standing. His motto was Semper Idem (“ever the same”)! Ottaviani and his Curial colleagues made sure that the intrinsic tension and discontinuity in the Council texts between two largely incompatible Christologies and Ecclesiologies would ensure that confusion, controversy and conflict would never cease possibly until another Council sorted out the residual mess.
Ultimately, Ottaviani was triumphant because he achieved stalemate on a documentary level but was resoundingly defeated on the level of the practical application of Vatican II. The bishops went home, consulted their people and applied those teachings, liturgical and structural reforms they discerned were the right ones for their people. In the view of some commentators, there is a pressing need for another Council to sort out the unfinished business and inconvenient legacy of confusion that Vatican II left.
Dismantling the barriers of alienation is top priority in the process of bringing about deep, systemic reform of the structure and life of the Catholic Church. This kind of profound rethinking and restructuring will address in a significant way the profound disenfranchisement and loss of their citizenship in a society of equals. The Magisterium of Vatican II that was interpreted and applied in practical by Pope Paul VI and the overwhelming majority of the Council Fathers has ensured that Catholic doctrine has shifted decisively from the stasis, appalling hesitancy and indecision of the Tridentine era to embrace a renewed presence and vision in the modern world.
There remain, however, some particular areas of Vatican II teaching which require fundamental correctives and reforms in the way Catholicism is structured, lead, how all its members share in its animation and governance and how it presents itself as moral community in the world. Banned Irish Redemptorist priest Tony Flannery explains:
The Second Vatican Council has put the People of God back into the centre of its teaching about church. Pope Paul VI wanted to give back fundamental rights to the People of God and commissioned the creation of a Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, a constitution for the church. That project was stopped by Pope John Paul II. But a church without respect for the conscience of each of its members, without appropriate participation on decisions in the church and without an obligation for those who are leading the church to give account, such a church lives in contradiction to the message of Jesus Christ and of the bible concerning each human being and to its own teaching about society. 2
Incompetence, failures of nerve and opportunities wasted
Despite the actions of the reform minded Councils, the papacy demonstrated an intrinsic weakness in its failure of nerve, courage and sufficient resolve to purge the Church of the widespread endemic corruption among bishops and courtiers in the Roman Curia. Even the last ditch attempts by Fourth Lateran Council (1512-1517 AD) to accomplish ungently needed systemic reform, it could not head off the voices of protest and discontent from all quarters of the Church. In the same year that Council ended, Luther affixed his 95 theses to the chapel door of Wittenberg Castle, an act which triggered the Protestant Reformation. The leaders of the Church showed that they lacked sufficient moral will and institutional flexibility to adapt quickly and confidently enough to challenges confronting them.
Unfortunately too, the papacy acted in a reactive way which only led to an even higher level of insularity and assertion of absolute authority. Papal reluctance and resistance to convoke a General Council finally gave way when Paul III convoked what has come to be known as the Council of Trent which, after a string of delays, began in 1545. A significant reason for the resistance and procrastinations by the Pope and the Roman bureaucrats was the ingrained fear that a General Council would take on a life of its own and turn out to be beyond control. If this fear had a name in psychology it would be “Horror Concilii.” 3 Vatican II proved this in dramatic form and much to the chagrin of the unnerved and rattled bureaucrats of the Roman Curia.
The underlying mentality of authoritarianism which governed the behaviour of the monarchical popes over time assumed a kind of creeping gradualism of its own and was absorbed into the lower echelons of Church government and governance. Advancing clericalism acquired and embraced this mentality which became embedded in the subculture’s makeup. Many of its various forms continue to manifest themselves to the present time and wreck havoc both inside and outside the Church as Gaillardetz and Huels observe:
“The attenuation of the bishop’s relationship to the local church generally coincided with a gradual shift in the church’s ecclesial self-consciousness. The bishop’s integral relationship to his local church was obscured because the church moved away from its theological identity as a communion of Eucharistic communions and became structured as a universal, corporate entity governed by a monarchical power.” 4
Most of the challenges Vatican I faced but rejected were what Vatican II, for the most part and with some success, attempted to embrace. Instead of the formulaic, dogmatic style of Scholasticism used at Trent, Vatican II adopted the modern language of Christian humanism and, with it, a new semantic framework in which to frame and articulate the Catholic faith. The humanists made an concerted attempt to do this at Trent but the Scholastics with their fixed idealised cosmology and amorphous ‘deposit of Faith’ theology prevailed. At Vatican II it was a very different story. The vast body of scholarly research carried out by eminent Catholic theologians during the decades leading up to the Council provide to be a decisive factor in persuading the bishops that there was solid justification to embrace major shifts in Church doctrine and practice. Most of this ‘new’ theology was expressed in the plain language of modern Christian humanism not in the bloodless categories of Scholasticism. John O’Malley explains what an enormous conceptual struggle this was:
“The three words overlap in their meanings, but in general they look, respectively, to present (aggiornamento), the future (development), and the past (ressourcement). They all are concerned with change and, in the context of a reluctance to change, operate as soft synonyms for it and of synonyms for reform. They signal the abandonment of the so-called classicist worldview that saw human living in static, abstract, and immutable terms. 5
During almost four decades of the John Paul II – Benedict XVI papacies, the Catholic church entered a mini ice age as major reforms of Vatican II such as collegiality, subsidiarity and synodalism were pushed sideways, rejected or ‘re-interpreted’ out of meaningful existence.
This is a classic reversion to the safe, predictable and controlling governance over an unequal society. The casualties of this kind of authoritarianism are community identity, communion and the bonds of trust. All are either compromised or shattered as a patronising elite assumed the baptismal gifts given to all then proceeded to dole them (spiritual ‘substances’) out again like presents as if these were a privilege and not a right.
It is becoming increasingly evident that Catholics throughout the world are dissatisfied, even scandalised, with the way the Leadership has failed them and diminished Christ.
Catholics have come to the conclusion that, collectively, their bishops are the real problem and not the key to the solution. Brendan Hoban, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (Ireland) captures something of this in a recent article protesting the dysfunctional and irresponsible system of Church leadership which has treated its clergy and laity with contempt:
“With adults distraction, annoyance and resentment are not the half of it when they feel that someone somewhere has decided that they don’t need to know (or aren’t able for) what some authority decides is (or is not) ‘good’ for them. Because once they find they have been deceived their allegiance is compromised. It’s what adults do.
Which is why openness, transparency and respect are prerequisites for sustaining loyalty. . ……. Adults will only give their loyalty if they are respected as adults.
Which is why infantilism – treating adults as children – no longer works in the modern world. And which is why the Catholic Church, in a more open and questioning society, is struggling so hard to maintain the loyalty of its members. ……
…….Catholics no longer automatically accept direction based on the word of church authority. What pope or bishop or priest says is no longer regarded as authoritative. It has to pass through the sieve of reason and experience. It has to make sense.” 6
In a recent article in the Australian Fairfax press, Michael Kosiol writes of national and global loss of trust placed in public institutions including religious bodies:
“(Social Researcher) Hugh Mackay says there are good reasons for the collapse in Australians' trust. A multitude of scandals including politicians' travel rorts, sexual abuse in the church, trade union corruption and misbehaviour by the banks has seriously tainted the country's major institutions, he says.
"It's not as though this is just a strange stage of history," Mackay says. "I don't think there's any mystery about why it has happened. Institutions are just like individuals in this respect: if they become too powerful, they will be corrupted by their own power and they will start to become inward-looking." (Bold added) 7
This is exactly what Jorge Bergoglio said to his fellow Cardinals shortly before they elected him Pope and that’s probably what Archbishop Coleridge was referring to in his address to the priests in Auckland at the end of 2014.
A concluding remark in his own words
There is an emerging acceptance by Catholics that the age of Church entitlement and special consideration are over. Church leadership is now under unprecedented pressure to accept its civil obligations to present as a trustworthy citizen of the State and to commit to unprecedented openness, transparency and accountability in relation to the Catholic Faithful.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge in his Knox Lecture in Melbourne in 2016, announced that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference had after discussing for years the possibility of holding a national synod, had finally decided to convoke a National Council (Synod) to take place in 2020. He said that the tipping points for the bishops were the continuing dramatic decline in active participation in Catholic Church life and the forthcoming report on the Catholic Church the by Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In August 2016, Archbishop Coleridge made further reference to this National Council/Plenary in what he sees as its historical, social and theological context:
‘Archbishop Coleridge said bishops had agreed a plenary council or synod was needed because “we are at a time of profound cultural change. Not only in the wider community, but in the Church.” …. “I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over – by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It’s over. Now, how do we deal with that fact?” Archbishop Coleridge said. (Bold added) 8
The Catholic community and the rest of the population of Australia will soon find out, possibly much sooner than 2020. One certain way of dealing with “that fact” is to make the National Plenary Council fully inclusive, to make sure that its not just an episcopal talkfest but that all give given equal voice because they are all sisters and brothers in Christ. As the Archbishop Coleridge has affirmed, “It has to be an assembly of the whole Church and not just the bishops.” That’s what the Sensus Fidelium is all about.
- VEHEMENTER NOS. Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the French Law of Separation February 11, 1906. (Accessed 12/02/2017 http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-x/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_11021906_vehementer-nos.html)
- Tony Flannery, “Goal of Working Group on Fundamental Rights in the Church,” Tony Flannery’s Blog, Feb 08, 2017. (Accessed 12/02/2017 http://www.tonyflannery.com/goal-of-working-group-on-fundamental-rights-in-the-church)
- John W. O’Malley, Trent. What Happened at the Council (Harvard, MA: Belknap, 2013) 49-76.
- Richard Gaillardetz and John Huels, The Selection of Bishops: Exploring Canonical Alternatives, Wordpress files p. 17. (Accessed 22/01/2017 https://richardgaillardetz.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/election_of_bishops.pdf)
- John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard, MA: Belknap, 2008.
- Brendan Hoban, “Thinking for Ourselves” Association of Catholic Priests, 28 November, 2016. Hoban goes even further, drawing attention to the enormous damage that is inflicted on the Faithful as a result of the Church hierarchical culture of patronising, condescending and infantalising authority:
“….. As Gabriel Daly points out, perhaps the worst effect of enforced conformity is that it weakens conscience. Accordingly, it diminishes an individual’s capacity for personal conviction and moral growth. In simple terms, if we insist in treating people like children, how can we expect them to respond as adults?” (Accessed 21/01/2017 http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2016/11/thinking-for-ourselves)
- Michael Kosiol, “Distrustful Nation: Australians lose faith in politics, media and business,” The Age, January 21 2017.
- Mark Bowling “Brisbane Archbishop calls for first synod for entire Catholic Church in Australia since 1937,” The Catholic Leader, August 17, 2016. (Accessed 21/01/2017 http://catholicleader.com.au/news/brisbane-archbishop-calls-for-first-synod-for-entire-catholic-church-in-australia-since-1937)
Part III of this essay will offer some further observations about the current state of the Catholic Church’s leadership, organisational structures, the exercise of authority and governance practices, the laity and a more detailed examination of what the fundamental rights and obligations of all Catholics would look like and operate in a revitalised Fundamental Law of the Church. Areas of special attention will be the autocratic, unaccountable exercise of papal and episcopal authority; the urgent need for a system of redress in cases of the violation of the dignity and human rights of the Faithful; the measures necessary to correct and remedy the Church’s system of governance which tolerates secrecy and self-interest over transparency, accountability and justice for all the Faithful.
David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal