Ecclesia corrupta

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Ecclesia corrupta

  1. John says:

    Liturgically this seems almost an ‘empty’ time of the year, the gap between the expectant build up of Advent and the nativity and the coming of Lent. Yet if we look at the readings in light of our discussion about power, they become very interesting.

    In Old Testament times there were two schools of thought on kingship/ leadership. There still is today. The Psalms (many of them ascribed to a king!) frequently extol the king, through whom the people are blessed and protected. Yet the story of Samuel and Saul also makes it clear that wanting a king is lack of trust in/ turning away from the protection and kingship of God alone. As with so much else, it was because of their weakness that God allowed a king. Was it not, much later, because of weakness in the early Christian community – greed and lack of sharing of food in assemblies that the office of deacon was instituted?

    Turning to the Gospel readings we hear about the early preaching and miracles of Jesus. His authority shines out because his words are backed up with his deeds. The Jewish establishment were scandalised by Jesus – ‘Why does he eat with prostitutes and sinners?’ He was the supreme authority who came to us to be despised and rejected, and because of this was a stumbling block to the Jews.
    A very telling feature of Jesus’ teaching-in action was His confrontation with, not adoption of, the ‘Power’ in this world. Jesus, later re-emphasised by Paul, made it very clear that the Prince/ the ruler of this world is Satan. Now there is a sobering thought for anyone taking up office! The downfall of the Old Testament Kings was then, as now, the work of the evil One, the very office carrying within it the seeds of corruption. When God’s plan was misunderstood, even by His closest disciples, what was Jesus’ response? – ‘Get behind me Satan!’.

    The call for a ‘listening community’ is also very poignant. Jesus, quoting the Psalms, inveighed almost angrily about institutionalised religion whose adherents had ears but could not hear, eyes but could not see. How do we become a church where all listen? – when we feel the message ‘Listen!’ is not being listened to! Or – to return to the question put – How can the Church at all levels maintain its God given authority while minimising the abuse of power? How do we even hold this debate without being accused of echoing the bigotry of those broken-away Christians who see the pope as the Antichrist? Or persuade deaf ears to listen without embracing the sensationalist tactics of groups like Fathers for Justice and Green Peace?

    • We need to de-personalise the contention. Many of us may bear hurts and complaints about particular church office holders. It is not our task however to allocate blame to individuals. This must remain (as for David and Solomon) between them and God. At the end of the day they are the ones who have been chosen, not us – who need to be aware of our own temptation to personal pride and jealousy. How easily accusing others of lack of humility becomes pride!
    • We need to practise as well as call for the virtue of listening – genuinely listen to what is being said, whoever is saying it – whether they are someone whose views we usually disagree with or not.
    • We need to learn more about how to combine leadership and humility – about which much has been written, for example in the monastic context. See for example http://monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=461 The whole human story reflects our need for leaders. How often does a project flourish because of the charisma and commitment of an individual – to inspire/ lead others to action? But …
    • We need to look out for and give priority to the true Good News where teaching-in-action can be clearly seen, and give our own lives to service, not to oratory, focusing on what He sent us out to do. (Do you see Jesus entering the debate about the language of the liturgy and the qualities of the choir? Or is this not typical of the agenda of the Temple leaders whom he condemned?)

  2. Ion Zone says:

    The church itself, though seen as moderately infallible, is made up of people who are anything but.

  3. Superview says:

    Your comment is interesting John and I enjoyed reading the linked article on leadership and humility. I think you summarise by saying don’t blame individuals, listen and ask to be listened to, improve the leadership model used (in the Church?), and try and live a life that keeps the right priorities – especially by not getting tied up with argumentative topics. Modest though this advice sounds it is actually very difficult to follow. You also say we have an inherent need for leaders. I would modify that by changing it to leadership, which has many more possibilities.

    Bearing in mind the topic is ‘How can the Church at all levels maintain its God given authority while minimising the abuse of power?’ Ion Zone’s succint comment asserts (I think) that it’s the fault of individuals (and by omission, not the structures or systems or values of the organisation). I am still working on the notion that the Church is ‘moderately infallible’.

    I want ask what power is for in the Church and to leave the question open, not least because I came to this blog tonight because I heard on the TV news about the terrible events in Haiti that the Archbishop has been killed when his Palace collapsed. It is deeply saddening that he has lost his life in this way, as with all those who have died. Yet I am moved to ask, in a country that really does look like one of the poorest countries in the world, what is a priest of Jesus Christ doing living in a Palace?

  4. Ion Zone says:

    I may have been a little harsh there, but, in a way, that’s what we need. Temptation and failure is a theme of humanity, and has always been so. Yet without capacity to fail we lack capacity to do anything of meaning and are not free. I would stress that if a priest commits wrongdoing *it is that priest’s fault.* Who else is there to blame when all that priest has been taught prohibits that action? There are many people who would say the actions of one member of a group are the fault of the entire group, even if the code of the group is explicitly against that action and, indeed, may be the reason that action is illegal.

  5. st.joseph says:

    I am not able to comment on the Power and Corruption in the church, as I dont know anything about it. I am not a Historian so I would be speaking out of turn. But I would like to make a small contribution and that is , if the church showed power over the centuries ( I dont know about corruption), maybe it was necessary to combat the Muslims from trying to kill off Christianity also the Communist regime. I believe we have to thank Pope John Paul 2nd for his achievment .
    I listened to the Holy Fathers address to-day to the Jewish Synogue in Rome and it is well worth listening to. It shows that there is so much hope for good relationship with them on both sides.
    A priest friend phoned me from Fatima last week with some sad news , Last week someone had painted ‘Islam ‘all over Pope John Pauls statue and sprayed all over the walls and on Our Lady.s statue . Also the night before someone had broken into the Tabernacle in Sister Lucia’s Church and scattered the Hosts all over the floor. We are Christians and are tolerable now, and so we ought to be, but we cant be that tolerable as to ignore the fact that we are being challenged.We can live with the thought that Jesus will be with us until the end of time, when ever that is.I expect the church to be powerful enough to defend Herself, I wouldnt like our heirarchy to walk around like Jesus in sandals and a beard,and sleep rough with no where to rest His head.

  6. Ion Zone says:

    From what I gather the people who ordered the first Crusade (not all the Crusades were particularly sanctioned or holy in nature) had legitimate reason to do so from their perspective. Though, from what I remember, most of the so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ in Europe began with the ousting of the Church from power by a local lord, who would then use God as a reason to justify actions that benefited only himself.

  7. Horace says:

    I would like to quote here a brief extract from the “Decameron of Boccaccio” – a fascinating book, written about 1350 (first printed edition Venice 1471).
    It seems to me very relevant to the theme “Ecclesia corrupta”.

    The book consists of . . “one hundred Novels or Fables or Parables or Stories, as we may please to call them, which were recounted in ten days by an honorable company of seven ladies and three young men in the time of the late mortal pestilence, . . ” (an outbreak of plague in Florence in 1348, which they had fled the city to escape).

    This comes from the second story; Jehannot de Chevigny, a merchant, had a close friend, Abraham a devout Jew, whom he was trying to convert to Christianity.
    However Abraham insisted that he “first go to Rome and there see him whom thou callest God’s vicar on earth, and observe what manner of life he leads and his brother cardinals with him; . ”
    On his return:-
    Jehannot . . . asked him what he thought of the Holy Father . . To which the Jew forthwith replied :- “. . . To the best of my judgement, your Pastor, and by consequence all that are about him devote all their zeal and ingenuity and subtlety to devise how best and most speedily they may bring the Christian religion to nought and banish it from the world. And because I see that what they so zealously endeavor does not come to pass, but that on the contrary your religion continually grows, and shines more and more clear, therein I seem to discern a very evident token that it, rather than any other, as being more true and holy than any other, has the Holy Spirit for its foundation and support.”

  8. Superview says:

    Horace makes a good point and it is a paradox that, despite all, the Church seems to survive and yes even thrive – more in some parts of the world than others at present. I suspect a Christian pen behind the story though, as I don’t think Judaism conceived of the Holy Spirit in the same way – they don’t have a Duality in the Godhead do they?

    The way in which the Holy Spirit guides the Church is a profoundly important question. There seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary in all sorts of issues and across all of the Church’s history. Yes, we know that the strict theological context has narrow terms; yet it is clearly widely assumed that everything the Vatican does is to be received with reverence as if it was of divine origin – a view that needless to say the Vatican encourages. The truth must surely be that it must be subject to the same test of credibility as we apply to the rest of matters of moment? I read recently – I think in the Catholic Herald – that even Pope Benedict observed that the Holy Spirit does not guide the Church in the choice of Popes, as evidenced by the fact that there have been some shockers (not his word). This will surprise many of the faithful. I remember a diplomatic phrase used in an article some years ago that “It would be difficult to rescue their reputations.” Quentin also quotes (with no date) an extraordinarily patronising – actually, insulting -statement from the Congregation for the Clergy, about which I knew little. A quick web search and I found this on their website:

    “Diocesan bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular Churches entrusted to them “with counsel, persuasion, good example, but also with the authority of sacred power” ”

    The quotation is referenced to ‘Lumen Gentium’, John Paul II’s ‘Pastoris Gregis’ of October 2003, and Canon Law. So I guess everyone understands what is meant by ‘the authority of sacred power’? I don’t. Power corrupts and power in the Church corrupts is a theme of ‘Ecclesia corrupta’. I have no wish to be irreverent, but to me it looks like another example of over-egging the pudding.

  9. Superview, a couple of points here. It is difficult to interpret the concept of being “guided by the Holy Spirit”. Does that ipso facto mean that the outcome is guaranteed in some way? In our personal experience we may pray for guidance but mean no more than that we open ourselves as far as we can to God’s mind in the matter. We may hope that the Spirit will help us to a better decision but, in the end, our decision is fallible. And we have to test it to see whether the spirits are from God (1 John). I suppose that to be the same of the Church in non infallible matters.
    The Congregation for the Clergy quote was dated some time after the Council but before 1983; I can’t put it closer than that because it was quoted passim In National Catholic Reporter. I learnt afterwards that the position had been changed in the 1983 version of Canon Law (Canon 212), and I hope to get a mention of this is in my next column.
    I fear I am responsible for your other quote too. This is from my book “Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church: “As Cardinal Ratzinger said on Bavarian television ‘It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.’ He said the Spirit leaves considerable room for the free exercise of human judgment, probably guaranteeing only that, in the end, the church will not be ruined.”. The reference was to a report in NCR 19 April 2002.

  10. st.joseph says:

    I have looked in the Dictionary and under the word authority it relates to power. I have gone back to the comments made in Autocracy and authority and I may be wrong but there are a lot of the same comments made on the subject of power as made here.I still dont know about the corruption in the church-only that I feel if Satan has his way he is doing a lot of it in his mischivous ways. As far as power in the church, my belief is that it stands for upholding certain Truths of what we are to believe as Catholics and every one in other denominations if they care too, and many do, not only members of our church, those who have seen the Light an can recognise it as the Holy Spirit speaking through the Ordained and laity- sometimes more through the laity, as our Bishops do at times regretfully dont speak loud enough, maybe they just want to give the laity the opportunity to be heard. I am being kind to them now. I didnt hear many noises from the Heirarcy when Mary Grey was doing her rounds and Matthew Fox-I have plenty of anti-catholic literature to prove my point! I was pleased when the church did use Her power to stop them both. I believe in free speech, but not what they were proclaiming! There are plenty of catholics who would like a democratic Church and we ought to be able to speak our mind but it is not acceptable when it is going against the Truth as we know it. We know what is happening to the Anglican community. As far as democracy is concerned it does have its place. But as the saying goes. ‘You can please half the people all the time,All the people half the time,but you wont please all the people all the time.The power we need from the laity is to speak loud and clear what the church is saying on matters of Faith and Morals and correct those even in ‘power when they dont! But in the end if people dont want to listen no power from the church will convince them, we all have a free will .Jesus was Crucified for speaking the Truth also to show us the Way to His Kingdom. He didnt compromise.

  11. Ion Zone says:

    I am a bit late, but I think I have something to add on the nature of authority. In debates, I try to offer an outside view on the situation, and this has lead to me being seen as a bit of an antagonist, the outside view is often the harshest or most uncomfortable standpoint.

    It was because of this that when someone stated on a forum that, in science and other institutes of higher learning, the more you discover about the universe the less you are inclined to believe in a higher power. I offered an alternate hypothesis – that the existence of many scientists for which this is not true hints that the actual cause could also be peer pressure, it does not seem like very much, but many people see the idea that a scientist might still be at the whim of social dynamics was one they did not like at all – there was nearly an argument, but peer pressure intervened to shut me down.

    It occurs to me that we may enter a time where the scientific process may not be criticised for all its human failings, it is not the cold and logical machine we often imagine it to be, and it is not without its problems.

    Perhaps there is a parallel here that could be drawn.

  12. Superview says:

    It is surprising that no one challenged Quentin’s statement that ‘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.’ Perhaps it’s because it is unremarkable and attracts widespread support. There exists research that shows in six different western countries with democratic government a majority of Catholics supporting the proposal. We should not forget that it used to be the case before the tradition was changed.
    More recently there has been a call for the Irish to be involved in the selection of their Bishops following the scandal of child abuse and the cover up by the Hierarchy. It does offer a way forward towards a gradual unlocking of the extreme centralised control exercised by the papacy. At present the process involves consultation with a secret select few, and the diocesan churches are ignored as if they were too ignorant or unworthy to participate. Perhaps Quentin you could develop your thoughts on how it might happen? Left to the Vatican, wouldn’t it be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas? After reading your thoughtful book “Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church”, (which was quickly obtained from Amazon but don’t ask what it cost!) – I hope you may have a realistic and yet optimistic view.
    The same ideas might be applied to the appointment of parish priests. An Anglican friend was discussing recently how they are able to influence the appointment of priests, and it seems a wise and charitable arrangement which was sensitive to the feelings of all parties. They don’t always get it right, but there is the great merit of sharing in the responsibility for the outcome. In contrast, as the shortage of priests worsens – and it is going to get much worse – and the stories multiply of bizarre behaviour by newly-appearing priests of unknown origin, our parishes are expected to shut-up and pay-up (the one consistent factor being the interest in the money). The prospect of the Bishop showing wisdom and leadership in these situations appears negligible – one is unlikely it seems even to get a reply.
    Why is it that the Catholic Church attaches so little trust in the Spirit, and actively prevents participation of its members while demanding absolute obedience? Is it because the Hierarchy fundamentally believes itself to be the Church? Or is there a more lamentable reason?

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