A decade ago John Paul II emphasised the error of treating the Church as though it were a multinational corporation and thus subject to a purely human form of authority. While the point is well taken, the human side of the Church remains vulnerable to our fallen human nature. We see a clear precedent in the strictures which Jesus reserved for the leaders of Judaism despite their guardianship of the divine covenant.
Most people will recall that Lord Acton’s claim that power tends to corrupt was written about the Renaissance popes. Fewer will know (if only because of its very recent publication) of a study which measures and confirms this tendency, under experimental conditions. In simple terms, the more powerful (and secure) you are, the higher the standards you are likely to enforce on the people you control, and the lower the standards you apply to yourself. In other words, power is a serious “occasion of sin”.
We learnt, at our mother’s knee, that if occasions of sin cannot be avoided, they must be minimised by prudent precautions. Thus all those who hold ecclesiastical authority, from pope to priest, must work actively against the corruption of power. We have seen in microcosm what happens in a national clergy whose power is so institutionalised that even independent civil authority defers. In macrocosm we must accept that the Church has been corrupted by power at least since it became the pet religion of the Roman Empire. We should not be surprised; it is only continual, active defence against the corruption of power which can mitigate even if it cannot entirely avoid.
While abuse of power is found in other religions, the Catholic Church’s case is particularly difficult because its unity depends on a firm basis of revealed doctrine and the lynchpin of the successor to St Peter. It cannot be otherwise, nor would we wish it, but the danger of this near-absolute power is exceedingly great. It may be useful to look at some examples at random.
Outstanding, of course, has been the refusal to allow freedom of conscience in choice of religion. Error was held to have no rights. The result was enforcement of Catholic teaching, including the extremes of torture and death. It led to the Catholic colonisation of territories, and so the use of civil force for preservation. There are few behaviours which we deplore in Islam which have not been enthusiastically pursued by the Church in its time. Even in later days when this was achieved through concordats, it continued. When Vatican II finally accepted the full rights of conscience, the tardiness in dismantling the shameful concordat with Franco’s Spain demonstrated the lingering desire to maintain power at the expense of the individual. When John Paul II announced in 2001 that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty”, we are lost for comment.
Vatican II rightly emphasised that the bishops, although acting in communion with the Pope, hold their diocesan powers independently as successors to the Apostles. But it has become hard to distinguish in practice the difference between being in communion and simply being a delegate. And this is made all the more obscure by the relatively novel practice of the pope choosing the diocesan bishops. A new bishop should, of course, be chosen by the local Church, with full consultation at all levels, while the Pope retains a veto which would only be used with extreme rarity. This would be a charitable way of protecting a pope from the temptation to use placemen.
I have written before about the Church’s own principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should always be taken at the lowest practicable level. In general this is continually breached (perhaps the arrogation of the translation of the English translation of the liturgy by the Vatican is the outstanding current example).
And the attitude towards being a listening community is well summed up by the Congregation for the Clergy’s statement: “All believers have the right and duty to take an active part in the mission given to the Church… but they do not have either the right or duty to give advice to the hierarchy in their exercise of their pastoral task.” Can we imagine a modern business, hoping to be successful, informing its members that they have neither the right nor the duty to give advice to management?
We do in fact know a good deal about how secular cultures form, how they are preserved and how they change. This may give us some clues. Here, however, I will simply quote from two recent popes, both presumably guided by the same Spirit.
First: “The Church has always opposed errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations…”
Second: “To protect the Catholic faith against errors arising from the part of some of the Christian faithful it appeared highly necessary to us, whose principal task is to confirm his brethren in faith, to add (new) norms to the text of the presently valid Code of Canon Law, in order to impose expressly the duty to preserve the truths proposed definitively by the Magisterium of the Church, and, concerning the same matter, to institute canonical sanctions (against the violators).”
You may see, as one senior theologian did, a marked contrast between the two approaches to the use of authority. Which one relates, do you think, most closely to the Gospel? How can the Church at all levels maintain its God given authority while minimising the abuse of power? The answers to those questions may define the course of what the Church will give the world over the long distant future.