Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text


Founded in 1840


It would be entirely understandable if Benedict XVI wanted “business as usual” signs to go up at the Vatican as soon as possible after his retirement, and for the new man in charge to carry on the good work of the old though perhaps with extra energy. What is emerging is something rather different – a growing groundswell of conviction, apparently at all levels in the Catholic Church, that things cannot go on as they are.

to be governed collegially, a formula that has been expressed as “never Peter without the Apostles, never the Apostles without Peter.” The International Synod of Bishops never came near to doing justice to that. The Vatican Curia must be made answerable to a church government which is genuinely collegial, instead of being the instrument by which the Pope – or appointees acting in his name – control the bishops.

The scandal of clerical child abuse and subsequent episcopal cover-ups refuses to die down. The dramatic resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien has calmed nobody’s nerves, and the growing evidence of dysfunction in the Vatican is hardly disputed. But the most significant crisis in the Church is the breakdown in koinonia – love, trust and fellowship – between the hierarchy on one hand, and priests and people on the other. If the leaders of the Church are not careful, the laity could desert in droves. A retreat could accelerate into a rout.

And all such structures must incorporate the principle of subsidiarity, which Pius XI expressed in Quadragesimo Anno by declaring: “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.” The undermining of episcopal conferences must be reversed, and they should regain control of liturgical changes that the Vatican has wrested from them. The same renewal of structures must touch the lives of ordinary Catholics in their parishes, so they too can feel part of the People of God and not mere customers and clients.

The major question facing the forthcoming conclave is how to turn round this collapse of confidence before it is too late. And that demands a far-reaching reform of structures, including giving the laity the right to participate in church decision-making. Yet even the tentative proposal for diocesan pastoral councils contained in Vatican II’s decree Christus Dominus has been widely ignored. The Vatican is not interested. The laity, it has clearly decided, is not to be trusted. It has to be said, the feeling has become mutual.

The profound crisis of church governance is far more serious than a few personality clashes among members of the Vatican Curia which could be sorted out by some job reshuffles and early retirements. The root of the problem is structural, not personal. An institution with 1.2 billion members all over the globe cannot be run by what is essentially an unreformed Renaissance monarchy and its elderly cosseted courtiers.

Doing nothing is too dangerous. The Versailles of Louis XVI led eventually to the anarchy of 1789 and beyond. But it is not beyond reform: the necessary theological resources already exist. The Second Vatican Council wanted the Church

Theological discussions aimed at church unity with the Anglican Communion, through the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, produced a model of church government based on a balance of forces between synodical government and a Petrine primacy, holding it all together. It goes without saying that a synodical model of this type would have to include substantial lay participation. By this means the neglected concept of a sensus fidelium, as a source of theological insight feeding into the magisterium, would be given new life. And that is what the Catholic laity are longing to see. The Church has put vast resources into producing an educated laity, and an educated laity demands to be heard.

There is a big reform agenda here. If the conclave rushes to a quick decision, it may miss a unique opportunity to address issues which are deeply troubling in the Church and which, if left unattended, could have catastrophic consequences. Pope Emeritus Benedict, towards whom Catholics everywhere have shown great affection in recent days, deserves a better legacy than that.


To discover that, despite their intense lobbying, more than half the Catholic MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of gay marriage, must have been disconcerting for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales. In the United States, one poll found a majority favouring gay marriage even among practising Catholics, despite a strong campaign against by the Church. Compared with the population as a whole, Catholics were more in favour of gay marriage than non-Catholics. Did raising the profile of this issue cause Catholics to change their minds in favour of it? These results rather scotch the idea that Catholics are mindless zombies who do whatever the bishops tell them to.

Yet the Catholic case against gay marriage was a good one. Clearly the equality argument was found to be even better. This indicates a significant change of attitude, and it reflects generational shifts in the wider population. Gay men and women are visible across the media, by and large not visibly different, no better or worse than the rest of the population. When Cardinal Keith O’Brien called gay marriage a

“grotesque subversion” and “madness” it attracted widespread censure. No wonder the accusations of inappropriate behaviour as a younger man – strenuously denied – were so damning. If true, it made him look a hypocrite. For the Church this was a public relations disaster.

There is no more mileage in this issue for the Catholic Church, and the sensible course would be to put it on the back burner with the heat turned low – to make peace with the gay world and move on. Technically yes, homosexuality is against the rules – but so is contraception; so is living together before marriage; so are lots of things people do together in private. As the late Archbishop Derek Worlock once said of contraception, these issues are “not the acid test of Christianity”. The Church has many things to say to society – about care for the elderly, about housing and homelessness, about education, social justice, the need to restore probity in public life, integrity in banking, not least about compassion in welfare and health care. Politics is about priorities, and about not picking fights one cannot win.

2 | THE TABLET | 2 March 2013

Skip to main content