Church needs saving from its dysfunctional structure
Cardinals go to Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to begin conclave before the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005
The Catholic Church, aka the western church of the Latin rite, trades on tradition. That is what so fascinates many people: the lure of its continuity, the certainty, the serene provision of answers.
As anyone mildly acquainted with its history will know, this is a series of illusions. Christian history, like all history, is a delicious Smorgasbord of unintended consequences, paradoxes, misunderstandings, sudden veerings in new directions.
If you like to call that the work of the Holy Spirit, then fine, but do note that the Holy Spirit delights in confounding human expectations and going its own way.
The church of Rome, having been around from near the start of the story, illustrates this general truth particularly well. Its prestige derives from possessing the tomb of the Apostle Peter, who probably never visited the city.
This Palestinian fisherman, who would have spoken a version of Aramaic, plus enough street-Greek to make himself understood in the forum, may have been illiterate in either language, but he is represented among the books of the Bible by two elegantly-penned Greek letters written by two different authors – he himself was neither of them.
The current position of the Roman Catholic Church as the largest section of world Christianity depends on a variety of later accidents. One of these – the French Revolution of 1789 – produced the modern papacy. Until then, the pope was one Italian prince among several others.
Certainly he was equipped with a dozen centuries and more of ideological baggage, bulging with his aspirations to be something universal.
But he shared his power in the church inescapably with European Catholic monarchs, prince-bishops of the Holy Roman Empire and a host of other fiercely independent local jurisdictions in cathedrals and the like, all of which were themselves the products of the happenstance of history.
The revolution dealt them a devastating blow. As its consequences unfolded, it swept nearly all away, and the first World War delivered the coup de grace.
To begin with, it looked as if the revolutionaries would do for the pope as well. Poor Pius VI died in a revolutionary prison in France, his death in 1799 being recorded by the local mayor (with chilling Jacobin wit) as that of “Jean Ange Braschi, exercising the profession of pontiff”. But the papacy drew on its historical resources and on revulsion in much of Europe against revolutionary brutality and destructiveness.
It very successfully played the tradition card to create something brand new: a monarchy for the whole western church, which increasingly eliminated competition from rival jurisdictions. The 19th century revival of Catholicism laid the foundations of the rock-star papacy of John Paul II, kissing airport tarmac and thrilling crowds with the force of his exceptional personality.
While popular participation in secular politics has grown throughout Europe and America over two centuries, precisely the reverse has happened in the church of Rome: it has eliminated any wider participation, even that of kings.
The post-revolutionary Vatican remodelled the church across the world, to eliminate independence in church government, local initiative or scholarship.
In Ireland, the process took up the later 19th century, to produce the variety of Catholic Church still easily within the memories of many, embodied by such prelates as the late and widely unlamented John Charles McQuaid.