On the need for institutional authority

John McNeill posted a well-written and quite thought-provoking post on his blog recently, "The Theology of Fallibility Part IV," in which he asserted that "the paternalistic hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has lost contact with the Spirit of God and is no longer its instrument."

It's hard to argue with that. This loss of contact has happened repeatedly throughout the history of the Church, so this is neither unprecedented nor particularly surprising. McNeill notes a parallel in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is sent to prophesy against the leaders of Israel ("the shepherds") who have failed to take care of God's sheep:
The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34.1–6)
After yammering on for a bit, God finally announces, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep" (Ezek 34.15). The leaders, having proven themselves inadequate to the task of shepherding God's flock, are cast aside, and God himself will take on the responsibility of leading the people of Israel.

McNeill notes that "Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collasping Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and the Spirit of God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding." He points out, for example, that the destruction of both temples brought about new forms of Judaism (a "text-based" Judaism after the first temple was destroyed, and Rabbinic Judaism after the second).

Of the Church he writes, "There is no doubt in my mind that we are at present in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding." He describes Joachim of Fiore's Trinitarian conception of history, which understood the time before Christ as the Age of the Father, the next dispensation as the Age of the Son (Joachim called it the ordo clericorum), and finally the Age of the Spirit, in which ecclesiastical authority would no longer be needed. McNeill writes, "I believe that time is now."

To many reform-minded Catholics, this is indeed an appealing possibility. I have some issues with it, though, which I thought I would share.

There is a substantial segment of the Church that has developed enough intellectually and spiritually to effect "a relocation of authority within the self," as James Fowler put it.1 This doesn't mean ecclesiastical (or other) authorities play no part, but it is more of an advisory role subordinated to the individual's judgment.

A Church full of such people would have little need for ecclesiastic authority, as Joachim of Fiore imagined. Unfortunately, the Church is not full of such people. A much larger segment of the Church is comprised of individuals who, for one reason or another, have not advanced to this stage.

The fact is that everyone has to develop through a number of stages to get to the point where external authority is no longer necessary. Where conditions are favourable -- that is, where people are adequately educated and their spirituality properly nourished -- many will do so. But such conditions are pretty rare. In the global south, where Catholicism is seeing its largest growth, these conditions are nonexistent for most people. If their Catholic leaders were to stop functioning as authorities, they'd find authorities from some other church who would be only too willing to tell them what to think and how to behave. There is no escaping the fact that most Catholics are in a dependent relationship with external authorities. (This is true of most religious people, actually.)

The problem, as I see it, is that most people in authority positions in the Church don't see development beyond the need for external authority as "growth" at all. Their "leadership" is geared towards keeping people in a dependent relationship. They have no interest in empowering anyone to relocate authority within the self and take responsibility for their own choices. If anything is going to be reformed, I think it has to be this.


[1] Stages of Faith, 179.

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Br. David Steindl-Rast

With so much of my free time lately being devoted to reading about the crisis in the Church, I decided I needed to take a break and reconnect with some of the worthier things in the Catholic tradition.

So last night I watched this documentary about one of my spiritual heroes, Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. If you aren't familiar with Br. David, this is an excellent introduction.

I can't quite explain why, but I was strangely moved by the sight of "St. Peter's Barn."

This is part 2, about his encounter with Buddhist monasticism:

And part 3, about dishwashing, among other things:

Finally, an article about Br. David on the subject of authority, containing an important insight that Christianity desperately needs to reclaim: "A Revolution of Authority."



Fr. Tom Doyle: "Survival of the Spirit"

I just read a very insightful speech given by Fr. Tom Doyle at a SNAP gathering a couple of years ago. (I first read excerpts from it on Enlightened Catholicism, and as usual Colleen's comments on the address are worth reading as well.)

One thing Fr. Doyle said that struck me as having some importance:
Victim/survivors [of clergy sex abuse] need to explore the substance of some of the official apologies and then come to an emotional as well as cognitive acceptance of the fact that the institution and its office holders will not because they cannot respond in a manner that would reflect full awareness and accepted responsibility. Some victims get "stuck" in an almost endless contentious process trying to get the official Church to realize the enormity of their actions. They need to come to a realization that the Church's narcissistic self-concept of a perfect society renders its leaders incapable of comprehending that the responsibility is rooted in the very core of the institutional Catholic Church. (emphasis in original)
A lot of Catholics are calling for reform, but unfortunately the people who know what needs to be done and the people with the power to actually do it are two completely different groups of people.

Another thing he said:
The victim's anger at the Church and possibly at religion in general needs to be acknowledged and affirmed as a healthy response to the abuse. If it has not been done earlier in the recovery process this might be the appropriate time to examine the radical distinction between organized religion and spiritual security and strength. The toxic belief that God will be displeased if the victim feels anger towards the Church must be dispelled and replaced with a more realistic belief that the organized religious body has actually been a barrier to a secure relationship with the Higher Power. Victims attribute spiritual power to the visible Church because it has been presented as the only pathway to God. Most Catholics are never allowed to progress beyond a level of spiritual and religious development that is early-adolescent at best. The recovery process from clergy sexual abuse offers a unique opportunity for spiritual maturity. (emphasis added)
This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately: the possibility that this scandal might actually encourage spiritual development -- not only in victims of abuse, but among Catholics in general. After all, an individual's disillusionment with external authority can lead them to take greater responsibility for their choices, something far too few Catholics are willing or even able to do under normal circumstances.

At least, the optimist in me imagines that that might happen. The realist in me knows that things are going to have to get a whole lot worse before they get better.



Commonweal Editorial: "Benedict in the Dock"

The editorial of the April 9th issue of Commonweal has been posted on their website, and I think it is well worth reading. Here are some excerpts.

In his last years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and from the beginning of his papacy, Pope Benedict has demonstrated a real understanding of the nature and scope of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. He came to that understanding much too slowly, but once he grasped the dimensions and horror of the scandal he acted with diligence and genuine remorse, accelerating the process for removing priests, meeting with victims, and demanding at least some measure of accountability from his fellow bishops.

(He certainly comes across as one of the good guys in the Marcial Maciel debacle, at least in Jason Berry's telling of it -- which everyone should read, by the way.)

Much of the pope’s good work in this regard is now likely to be brushed aside as the history of his own negligence in handling an abusive priest when he was archbishop of Munich thirty years ago comes to light. It should not be surprising that then-Archbishop Ratzinger accepted an offending priest from another diocese, placed him in therapy, and immediately reassigned him to another parish where he abused more children. Burying rather than confronting the problem of abusive priests is what nearly every bishop did at the time.

I've spent a lot of time trying to decide what to think about the various accusations being leveled at the pope. Many of the things being written about him, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, have every appearance of being knee-jerk responses that predictably line up with the writer's previous feelings about Benedict: his admirers certain of his innocence, his detractors equally certain of his guilt, even before many of the pertinent facts came out.

Now, I think, enough of the facts are out, and basically I agree with Commonweal's take on the Munich situation:
No sentient person could believe the denials church officials in Munich and the Vatican made on behalf of the pope, saying Benedict played no role in the transfer of the abusive priest. With dreary predictability, documents have surfaced showing that the pope had in fact presided at the meeting where the transfer and reassignment were approved. Even if Benedict paid little attention to such administrative details, as archbishop he was still responsible for putting that priest in a place where he could abuse again. The church should have made this story known to the public years ago. Mistakes can be forgiven; what breeds mistrust and cynicism is the refusal to admit error.
What is most bothersome to me about the Munich situation is not what he did at the time, but the fact that he's not owning up to it now, and has instead let a subordinate take the blame. I'm sure he believed at the time that the priest in question was not a risk to reoffend, and one can imagine him receiving ill-informed "expert" advice to that effect; but if he had just admitted his negligence in this matter, he would be in a very different situation right now.

I wonder, though, how much of the Vatican's response is coming from Benedict and how much is coming from the very corrupt curial officials around him (see the Jason Berry article mentioned above -- I had long ago heard of members of the curia receiving lavish "gifts" and large sums of money from Maciel, but I didn't know it was people like Cardinals Sodano and Dziwisz).

How much freedom does a pope really have? If the pope decided to blow the whistle on the corruption in the curia, what would happen? Why do I have the feeling we'd be seeing a conclave about sixteen days later?


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