Everyone remembers John XXIII’s gesture of throwing open a window to symbolise his forthcoming Council which would bring the Church out of the shadows and open it to the world. That was some 50 years ago.
At that time my father was the editor of the Catholic Herald, so the expectations of the Council which we shared were considerable.
My father knew many of the problems. Shortly after taking over his editorship in 1934 he felt that he had to resign because a Church official was permanently on hand to ‘approve’ copy. He only returned when the official was removed. Later, he started the first Catholic newspaper correspondence page allowing for a free expression of opinion. Even in his last decade with the Herald, leading up to 1962, he had trouble with the bishops over questions like communication and ecumenism. And that was tricky because the bishops had the power to forbid church door sales – on which, at that time, the Herald was financially dependent.
So what were we expecting?
The most obvious expected change was that the Council would complement the teachings on the primacy of the pope by setting out the status of the bishops, not as delegates of the pope but with powers in their own right as representative of the Apostles. This, it was believed, would shape the Church into a collegiate organisation, without prejudice to the ultimate powers of the pope, and bring about a Church which was a community rather than a totalitarian structure.
And indeed that teaching was introduced. Unfortunately no road map or general indication of principles which would offer a pathway to community in action was put forward. There are those who claim that the conservative influences which sought to neutralise any change through the Council were happy that this should be so. When in due course the bishops finally returned home the old guard would remain in control at the centre.
And this, as far as we can see, was what happened. The popes appears to continue their one man rule. We do not know whether they do this in their own right, or as head of the college of bishops. If the latter, it is not clear how the views of such a college are present to him. The synods which are called to advise them do not represent the whole body of bishops and, it would seem, that the agenda is set by the Curia, and only after the synods are over is the official response published. Incidentally, over a long period, bishops appear to have been chosen for their orthodoxy – and orthodoxy, for this purpose, is not confined to solemn teaching but covers the whole party line. Although the comparison is odious, this looks remarkable similar to what happens in fascist dictatorships. Or perhaps a Renaissance court. Nor does the independence of the bishops appear valuable when it’s only freedom is to agree to the centre.
And the centre here is the Curia. Another feature of the fascist dictatorship is a kitchen cabinet. Naturally the Pope is but one man – he must have a staff or a civil service to assist him. But beware a kitchen cabinet which puts a barrier between the top man and his senior executives. Of course many of the diktats of the Curia appear with the Pope’s fiat attached but in the Church, as in commercial business, the chairman has little alternative to taking his advisers’ advice. The Council, having resisted attempts by the old guard to get them to rubber stamp the draft documents for the Council, asked for Curial reform. Yes, a few changes were made, but root and branch was required, cosmetics are a waste of time. “We’ve almost forgotten that reform of the Curia was part of Benedict’s program at the start,” recalled Isabelle de Gaulmyn, who was Vatican correspondent for the French Catholic daily La Croix at the time.”Seven years later, the Curia has never seemed as opaque, ineffective, closed and badly governed as it is today.”
There is more to say, but that is enough for the moment. Perhaps contributors to this Blog will have further examples and issues which will throw more light on the situation. And, from time to time, people have related their parish experiences. I am always glad to hear of these because I am fortunate enough to live in a large parish which is undoubtedly a Christian community, and much of which is directly handled by the laity – under the benign eye of a clergy which is much loved and much trusted.
Do I protest too much? Remind yourself of what the late Cardinal Martini had to say on his deathbed: “The church is tired, in the Europe of well-being and in America. Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous….The church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn’t it stir? Are we afraid? Is it fear rather than courage?”