Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The pontiff is not so potent

The shape of the world's oldest living bureaucracy, the Catholic church, is very much misunderstood. Guardian
One of the things that both the pope and his enemies agree on in the current crisis looks completely obvious: the Catholic church is a global organisation. It may be the instrument of the salvation of the world, or it may be, in the words of one excited online commenter, the greatest criminal conspiracy in history; but either way it matters, and the pope runs it. What he says goes, and what he believes is what all Catholics ought to believe.

I think that both camps are wrong. Whether or not the church should work like that, it doesn't. At the end of this crisis, this will be still more obviously true: whatever form the church does survive in, it will be more decentralised. But in the meantime, the belief that the Catholic church is an efficient organisation, in the sense that Google or Toyota might be, simply misleads everyone involved.

Because the Catholic church appears to be one global body, the crimes of any Catholic priest anywhere, or at any time, appear to contaminate all of them; the inaction or complicity of any bishop is taken to be the policy of the whole church. To judge from the coverage of the last few months, you would think that in 1970 an Irish orphanage was a more terrible place than a Romanian one. This is clearly absurd, but it is an absurdity that arises naturally from the way that the Catholic church is taken to be a single moral entity in which every part is responsible for the crimes of every other part, and all is centrally directed by the pope.

The Catholic church is certainly the world's oldest living bureaucracy. The Vatican departments are still known by the name of their equivalents in the early years of the Byzantine empire. But does the pope have more power over his subjects than an emperor did? Does he even have the power over his employees that Sergey Brin or Larry Page can exercise? The question answers itself. Although it looks as if the pope can promulgate laws, he cannot see them obeyed. Elected popes (and they are elected, if only by cardinals) wrestle with their civil service just as elected politicians do in the outside world.

The one thing that the pope, and the Vatican as a whole, can do is to appoint and, in case of need, sack bishops. This is a power far beyond that exercised by any other religious leader I can think of – possibly the Mormons have a similar structure – and would be the envy of any archbishop of Canterbury. But it doesn't amount to a great deal. It has certainly made the present crisis worse.

The last great exertion of centralised power in the Catholic church was not, as some people think, the pontificate of John Paul II, which was marked by a disciplinary and doctrinal crackdown, but the reforming Second Vatican Council of the 60s, which John Paul II and his then lieutenant, Cardinal Ratzinger, were trying to control. The council changed the church enormously, largely abolishing the Latin mass and introducing a new freedom and responsiveness to the laity. But it was able to do so precisely because it was a council, in which all the bishops were present or represented. They all owned its decisions. They all, or almost all, put them into action when they returned to their homes.

The council admitted that much of what popes had thought and done in the preceding century had been mistaken. The next three popes have variously struggled against this fact. The first, catastrophic mistake was that of Paul VI, who in 1968 reimposed the traditional ban on contraception.

This was disastrous not because anyone took any notice, but because of the subsequent papal effects to enforce it. Under John Paul II, any expression of doubt in this ludicrous ban would bar a priest from promotion. The result, especially in the Irish church, was the promotion of a generation of men who would put loyalty to an institution ahead of loyalty to the laity.

So the popes got all the bad effects of an organisation – blame-dodging, cowardice and the illusion of power – and none of the real power that might have produced enforceable rules. They thought the way out of this dilemma was to gain more real power. But the Catholic church is built from voluntary bodies today, even if it wasn't in Ireland 50 years ago. If it wants to close the gap between its power and its pretensions, it must adjust its pretensions. A pope who looks for followers will find he's lost his audience.

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