Benedict’s New Clothes

Michael Bayley, at The Wild Reed, and Colleen Cochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, show a fascinating exchange of views on the declining numbers in the Western church.  (Both are responding to a reported drop in numbers in the US /Canadian Catholic Church, but the same pattern applies even more in Europe.)  Colleenbelieves that this decline is a reflection of disillusion by baby boomers at the failure of Vatican II, coupled with an ingrained aversion by generation x’ers and millenials to enforced conformity; Michael argues that his ‘crisis’ is in fact an opportunity, and quotes examples of the  ways in which local churches are refusing to go along with the Vatican, and taking control of their own circumstances.

In general, I agree with Michael, but here I am tempted go even further. Reading and reflecting on his links, and on some related material, I began to wonder. In our outraged reactions to the events of the past few months, to Vatican excesses and stupidity, have we all been missing the point?  In seeking to assert and extend Vatican control, is not Benedict increasingly resembling the Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor:  displaying to the world the new clothes he does not have?

Among Michael’s links, I was particularly enthused by the story from the Netherlands, reported in the National Catholic Reporter. Later, I came across a report in New Catholic Times on how Asian bishops are holding fast to the V2 reforms, and a story in Dignity’sQuarterly Voice called “The Gay Catholic Insurgency”.  In this, Brian McNeill reflects on a book about the Russian military’s struggle against Afghan insurgents, which he sees as an instructive analogy for the struggle of the church to contain gay Catholics.  Substituting the words “Church authority” for “the military” and “the Catholic faithful” for “the people”, he quotes:

“The church authorities can never defeat a truly grassroots movement of the faithful. We, the GLBT insurgents, never need to win, we just have to continue to fight. In fighting against us, the hierarchy is fighting its own people, which thwarts its stated purpose of proclaiming the Gospel, and creating the Reign of God. They will never win as long as we continue our efforts. The harder they fight us, the more they alienate the Catholic faithful and reveal themselves as hypocrites.”

Quite so.

From my own experience, I draw a different analogy.  Growing up in South Africa, the first 25 years of my life coincided with the relentless extension of apartheid repression into many areas of life.  In 1976, the Soweto youth revolt began a new phase of popular resistance.  Increasingly, the state attempted to counter with increasingly harsh security legislation and military control, but this was simply met with further resistance.  As years passed, it became obvious that real power was being transferred from the official apparatus of the state to the unofficial popular leaders in the townships. One after another, bits and pieces of apartheid legislation fell into abeyance as they were ignored or publicly flouted in passive resistance, until these laws were gradually repealed.  When the formal political transformation began in 1990, this was not out of the generosity of the government wanting to change, but out of simple realism – the recognition that political reality had indeed changed already, and there was a need to adjust to the new circumstances.

In “The pain and the endgame”, one of James Alison’s many insightful observations was that as a consequence of the bludgeoning we gay and lesbian Catholics have received, we have become highly sensitive to small slights, while tending to lose sight of the signs of progress. So let us take stock of current progress (not specifically on LGBT issues here, but more generally).

Whatever the stance of the Vatican on sexual issues, it is a common observation that at the local level, Catholic parishes and individual priests are far more tolerant and understanding of nonconformists (e.g. to contraception, to divorcees, or to young adults in sexual relationships before marriage) than they used to be.

At senior levels of the hierarchy, the fuss over SSPX, and over earlier controversies, saw unprecedented levels of public criticism from the ranks of the bishops.

Despite official insistence that the topics of married priests and women priests are off-limits, in practice such discussion is becoming widespread, even encouraged, in some national churches.

Despite vigorous opposition, the womenpriests movement is growing, and attracting willing congregations. At the Spirit of St Stephen’s, parishioners are doing it for themselves – just as the Netherlands’ Dominican order is actively recommending. And the full body of Asian bishops is insisting on continuing to implement the empowerment of the laity, and of local churches, as promised by Vatican II. This degree of resistance, public criticism, and non-compliance would have been unimaginable before the Council.

In lamenting the incomplete implementation of the council’s intentions, the failure of the laity themselves to accept fully the responsibilities they were offered, and current attempts to undermine the reforms, we lose sight of one crucial fact: The empowerment that was put into effect, cannot be undone. To switch from Hans Christian Anderson with whom I headlined this post to the Arabian Nights, the genie has been let out of the bottle, and cannot now be forced back.

There was a time when it was possible for church authorities to control all access to religious knowledge and influence, but those days have gone. First was ceded access to scripture, then to a vernacular Mass, to active participation in the liturgy and to ministry, and to formal theological studies. In the world of modern technology, theology, canon law, church history and scriptural study are all freely available to anyone, even outside formal training institutions, to anyone with a keyboard and internet connection.

In the secular world, democracy has spread even in Latin America and Africa.Organisations of all kinds have found, over the last few decades that the old hierarchical pyramids of control no longer work as they used to, and are being replaced by flatter structures and horizontal project teams. Osama’s victory was just the most dramatic, most public example, of the value of this.

No power can continue indefinitely to hold onto control without the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the governed. Benedict’s attempts to further centralise control are flying in the face of modern realities. Unless he and shi successors recognises this reality, the greater the danger that they will find themselves controlling a shrinking, lifeless institutional church – but life and authority will have flowed to a real, living church beyond his reach.

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