Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why the Catholic Church Will Not Save Itself

Every month, every week, the Catholic Church's scandal seems to deepen. Andrew Sullivan wants the Pope to resign. Christopher Hitchens wants the Pope arrested. Peggy Noonan has a brilliant column detailing the Catholic hierarchy's inability to grasp the problem and calling for "new blood" in the leadership. These are all reasonable desires. But none of that is going to happen.

The Catholic Church, by which I mean the Vatican hierarchy that governs the Catholic Church, is not going to become more accountable because it is faced with widespread public pressure. It is not simply that the current leadership happens to be poor at accountability. It is not the the Vatican organization hasn't caught up to modern management ideas about accountability. It is that the Church leadership considers its lack of accountability a core value. The Vatican believes in being unaccountable. It does not view unaccountability as an obstacle to its mission, or even as a tool on behalf of its mission. It views unaccountability as fundamental to the mission.

Part of this is that the Church is genuinely meant to be counter-cultural, to be in opposition to the secular world and its values. In practice, it hasn't always been so; the Middle Ages, when the Church was at the height of its secular power, was also a period when the Church was most in thrall to the secular values of the feudal society around it. (The Church did not oppose the medieval class system, for example, but actively promoted it.) Maybe it has never been entirely so. But the point is that the Church is meant to speak for divine and transcendent values rather than those of the historical moment. The Church is supposed to speak for Jesus's teachings, no matter how those teachings happen to poll. And they're supposed to stand by those teachings no matter what any king, senate, dictator or morning newspaper thinks about it.

From the Church leadership's perspective, making the Church more responsive to outside influences would represent an abdication of responsibility, and a failure. They see themselves as charged with preserving the Church's independent authority; they are terrified of leaving behind a Church that cannot stand up for its genuine spiritual values when those values are unpopular.

But of course, being answerable to no other Earthly authority is itself a terrible moral temptation, and the Vatican hierarchy has succumbed badly. When one is only answerable to God, it's all too easy and too pleasurable to mistake any number of one's own inner voices for the voice of divine guidance ... and if the God inside is always telling us what we want to hear, isn't that just a sign of our own faithful service? And soon enough, you have a horror show like the Church's handling of pedophiles, and a Church so deeply committed to its own authority that it defends that authority instead of the religious values, such as the protection of the weak and defenseless, that are at the heart of its mission.

The focus on preserving its own authority has misled the Church badly in the past, too, making some Catholic leaders far too comfortable with traditionalist and autocratic political structures that seem to share the Vatican's institutional means, even when those structures serve distinctly non-Christian ends. The Church's record of support for democracy in 19th-century Europe is depressing. In the twentieth century, groups like Opus Dei, which largely incubated in Franco's Spain, have sometimes seemed more attracted to top-down political arrangements than they seem concerned with the content of those arrangements. And nothing demonstrates the current Pope's clinical wrongheadedness than his dogged defenses of Pope Pius XII. Pius XII is rightfully an example of Church leadership yielding too much, and sacrificing too much of its voice in fear of political pressure; Mussolini and Hitler surely required full-throated opposition. But instead of seeing Pius XII as an accommodationist who harmed the Church, Benedict XVI makes it a point of principle to stand up for Pius, because standing up against outside critics is (to Benedict) defending the Church's autonomy. When criticizing a past Pope for accommodating fascism seems a greater evil than a Pope accommodating fascism, one has lost one's way entirely. And because Benedict recognizes no authority that will speak to him aloud, there is no one to set him on the right path again.

And even if this particular Pope stepped down, there is no one left to replace him that does not share his views. John Paul II did a very thorough job, over his long papacy, of filling the episcopate and the Vatican hierarchy with profoundly authoritarian conservatives like himself, of whom Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is only the most visible example. John Paul II and his successor shaped the Church organization methodically and thoroughly. Thirty years on, there are no liberals left, and frankly no moderates. The central Vatican agenda since 1978 has been to undo the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on modernization and its promise to include laypeople in decision-making. The chief goal of the last two papacies, and of all the Church officials appointed by those papacies, has been to "free" the Church of from modern and popular influences. The thoroughly admirable Hans Kung, with whom Father Joseph Ratzinger once taught, has a beautiful summation of this campaign and its consequences here. At this point, there's no one left in the Church hierarchy who isn't motivated by the conviction that the Church has already become too liberal and open and accommodating.

If Benedict XVI stepped down tomorrow, he would be replaced by a Benedict XVII with just the same disastrous and wrong-headed view of the world. The College of Cardinals who would be charged with electing a successor are now a college of little Ratzingers themselves, and would choose one of their own Ratzinger kind. They aren't going to get it. They would consider getting it as a failing and a sin. It will take another long ecclesiastical generation, at least, for the Vatican to get it, as the "new blood" Noonan longs for rises up the bureaucratic ranks. Even that new blood will be unlikely to gain promotion except through bad faith, as a generation that understands the Church's errors conceals that understanding from powerful elders who are committed to those errors as guiding principles. There's a long road left to walk, and no guarantee of walking it straight.

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