Michael Walsh on the Vatican’s Problem: Abuse and Renewal

At Open Democracy, there is one of the clearest analyses 0f the problem in the  Vatican that I have yet seen. Here are some extracts:

There are many reasons given for the imposition of celibacy on (the majority of) Catholic clergy, an obligation with a long and problematic history. Some of these reasons are practical, others ascetical, but there are good arguments for claiming that celibacy was originally imposed to mark off clergy as a separate caste within an increasingly Christian society. That was a long time ago, but the “caste” mentality survives to this day.

It is not true, of course, for all Catholic clergy, many of whom are well adjusted human beings, but it is true for some that they socialise almost entirely within clerical circles. ….. There is, in other words, a distinctive clerical culture which celibacy has an obvious role in maintaining. In their daily lives they are not challenged by wives or children.

The most deleterious aspect of this culture is the assumption by the clergy of the mantle of authority and the power they assume goes with it. It is insidious. It is exercised without reflection. It used to have some kind of basis in the better education clergy enjoyed, but that distinction is now gone. Their parishioners rightly show reverence to an ordained minister, but that is exploited. It is exploited unthinkingly in many minor ways, but it is also exploited by some in their abuse of women and of children. They are in a position of power bestowed on them by the church’s law, and they make use of that power for their own ends, sometimes immoral ones. Not all, of course, do so, not even most, but enough have done so in so many different countries of the world (clerical culture is a global phenomenon) that they have brought about the greatest crisis in the Catholic church since the 16th-century reformation. And just as in the 16th century, the Vatican is floundering.

The problem with the Vatican is that it shares this clerical culture, and to excess. There is a pious belief among Catholics that the Vatican is run by the best clerical civil servants the church can produce. It isn’t. With some few exceptions it is staffed by people who have drifted into their jobs by inertia, because they happened to be in Rome, or because they wanted to be close to the source of power in the church. And they regard that power as untouchable, answerable to no one under God. There was a canonical phrase, much beloved by medieval canonists, that the pope may be judged by no one. Papal power has in fact waxed and waned, but at the moment it is at its height. The so-called Magisterium – or teaching authority to which obeisance is demanded and is widely made – dates (in its present incarnation) only from the mid-19th century. It is a new thing, but no one except academics seems ready to question it.

And it is no longer limited only to the papacy. It has been extended to the Vatican offices, the “congregations”, tribunals and committees that make up the administrative structure of the Catholic church. This is a nonsense, but again it goes unquestioned. The Vatican does what it likes. It is imposing a new and unwelcome (by many if not by most) English translation of the liturgy. It is attempting to attract back into the fold the highly reactionary Society of St Pius X which went into schism as a result of the Second Vatican Council. It has, apparently without consulting even those in the Vatican charged with ecumenical matters, made an offer to dissident Anglicans to reunion, which has caused embarrassment to the English Catholic bishops and irritation to their Church of England counterparts.

The publication in 1968 of the encyclical Humanae Vitae banning artificial means of birth-control was the turning-point – in two ways. First, the pope of the day, Paul VI, rejected advice from a reasonably representative committee of Catholics, both lay people (including a married couple) and clerics. Had he not done so, and quite irrespective of the decision reached, it would have been a potent symbol of consultation within the people of God. Second, after initial heartsearching the ban was in any case widely ignored by Catholics. This seriously undermined papal authority. Pope Paul was aware of the danger, and never issued another encyclical. Pope John Paul II and his successor tried to make the acceptance of their interpretation of papal authority on these matters the test of one’s Catholicity. It hasn’t worked. Catholics haven’t necessarily left the church in droves, though many have indeed ceased to practice. They are simply paying less and less attention to Rome.

The Vatican is helpless in the face of the current abuse scandals because it shares the same mindset, the same clerical culture, that gave rise to it. It recognises such abuse as a scandal, but wants to contain it within the ranks. It acknowledges the moral failings of some of its clergy, but has for too long failed to insist that such behaviour is not only sinful but it is a crime. The letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the church in Ireland at last acknowledges that priests guilty of paedophilia must answer to the civil, as well as to the ecclesiastical, authorities (see “Pastoral letter of the Holy Father…”, Bollettino, 20 March 2010). That is an important step from a man who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appeared to want to keep these accusations secret within the bosom of the church. But who does he blame for this scandal? The modern world, and the misinterpretation of Vatican II. His remedy? Just more old-time religion.

After the crisis of the reformation the Vatican survived, oddly enough with its prestige enhanced, for two reasons. A reforming council was called, the Council of Trent (1545-63); and there was an extraordinary renewal of the men at the top. The modern church has had its reforming council, Vatican II. It has not yet had the renewal of the men at the top. This is long overdue – and some women would be a start.

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2 Responses to “Michael Walsh on the Vatican’s Problem: Abuse and Renewal”

  1. Greg Says:

    This is a thoughtful and well expressed contribution. As I have reflected on the recent reactions of the Vatican to sexual abuse the word that come to my mind is “chaos”. They blame the press, bad priests, secularisation, you name it, anyone or anything but themselves.

    What they say does not solve or change the problem in any way to make it better but perpetuates and intensifies the sense of sadness, offence and disappointment. The chaos at the top simply mirrors the chaos that we experience everywhere else in the church and it is getting worse not better.

    I agree that it will only be solved when there is a radical conversion at the top. This would not be simply continuing the present structures more moderately, humanely and inclusively. For what it is worth, I feel, sadly, that things will have to get much worse before that happens. Come the Revolution? Come Lord Jesus!

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      “Crisis” is an entirely appropriate word. Out of crisis, comes an opportunity for renewal. When I first started reading John McNeill, was in an on-line posting of his original letter to the American bishops, in which he refers to a “Kairos moment” facing the church. That gave me start, because the first time I had ever heard the phrase “Kairos moment” was back in South Africa, in the midst of the turmoil around the country’s rapid and dramatic transformation. What McNeill was then referring to, was a deep crisis facing the Catholic Church, out of which the Holy Spirit would indeed “renew the face of the earth” – or at least the face of a deeply misguided institutional church.

      Since then, the crisis has merely deepened, and the more I see of it, the more parallels I see with the South African political transformation. One of these parallels is how the really important change came with people simply disregarding the regulations that affected their daily lives. In the Church, we see the same thing with people simply ignoring the teachings on sexual morality. Another was the increasing evidence that government was simply out of touch with the thoughts and lives of ordinary people, and a third that significant groups within the National Party’s natural support base began open criticism, and even direct talks with the “enemy”, opening up discussions with the banned ANC. These too, have parallels in the current situation of the Church. The “revolution” you refer to is surely on its way.


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