In looking at what changes might be needed in the culture of the Church in order to avoid the scandal examined in the Australian Royal Commission we come back to a subject which we have addressed before on these pages: subsidiarity. One reflection of the Commission was the hierarchical nature of the Church. This suggests an acceptance of the virtue of obedience: we simply obey the regulations of our immediate authority. We do not question.
Subsidiarity, as a principle, does not exclude obedience but it requires that, as far as possible, senior authority should not make decisions which can be made at a lower level.
Not only is it a general principle, it is one which has been formally accepted by the Church in its teaching. In practice it depends not so much on a set of rules but on an attitude of mind. Because we are fallen we tend to be reluctant to reduce our power by allowing decisions to be made by our inferiors. We can always find a rationalisation for holding on to our authority. The right attitude of mind is one which constantly seeks ways to increase the responsibility and commitment of those we lead.
And this appears to be a dangerous thing to do. If something, for which we are ultimately responsible, goes wrong, it looks a poor defence to say that the error was made by a junior who had not been given precise instructions. So a good delegator needs to be tough, confident and to believe that in the long run subsidiarity will give the best outcomes. Weak and anxious leaders find it nigh impossible. The neurologists suggest that such people have a greater brain capacity for emotion which has to be controlled through creating certainty wherever possible.
But even those who wholeheartedly accept subsidiarity will know that there still have to be some basic rules. The difficulty lies in distinguishing these from those decisions which should be left to individual choice. Everyone who has been a parent will have to judge similarly as the children grow up. And in this situation the judgment continuously changes as the growing children must learn to take on more and more responsibility.
However the practical instinct of the Church, despite some changes initiated by Vatican II which have not yet gone very far, is to rely on permanent tradition. Unfortunately this carries the danger that we do not easily distinguish between what is true for all time, and what may well be changed because our understanding has developed.
That is, I would argue, why change in the Church’s culture is inherently a problem. Little details can change here or there but since the culture is characterised by the avoidance of change it is hard to see how it might come about. It may teach subsidiarity but its own structure protects it from putting it into action.
Strangely enough the occurrence of great importance is our old friend Humanae Vitae. I am not talking about whether the doctrine is right or wrong but that the verdict was likely to be so damaging that even many bishops felt it necessary to make it clear that conscience – even in a moral doctrine which had been taught for centuries as an absolute demand of natural law – must give way to the authority of conscience. And that a rejection of this solemn teaching was consistent with being a fully paid up Catholic.
Today, it is the conscience of a pope which is at question. Should it ever be possible, under certain circumstances, for a remarried Catholic who will not undertake to forego the act of marriage to receive the Eucharist? I won’t try to answer this. But it seems ironic that the issue is between the traditional understanding of adultery and the traditional understanding of the authority of the pope.