Church needs saving from its dysfunctional structure
The reforming work of the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) looked for a moment as if it would roll back this 19th-century innovation, but the curia’s bureaucrats in the Vatican were left to implement council initiatives, and we all know the results of that in the two pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Benedict, arch-traditionalist, expounding even this week a narrative of Vatican II in which nothing much happened at all to the church, has by his resignation set the church on yet another new path.
It is paradoxical but admirable that this sensitive and learned man has recognised the limits of his office. The all-powerful, all-providing papacy constructed after 1789 has simply been too much for any one man to embody, regardless of whether he is frail or old.
The cardinals whom John Paul and Benedict appointed to parrot the myth of enduring tradition will no doubt resist the implications, scrabbling around to find the most convincing representative of the post-French Revolution state of the hierarchy. But it is just possible that the Holy Spirit might seize them afresh.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful surprise for the Christian world if they reached beyond the conclave and chose someone from beyond their ranks? That’s a big ask at the moment. But look back before the French Revolution, and we can find stories to help the church in framing a more workable version of its future than the present dysfunctional structure.
At the moment, the debate between Catholic “liberals” and “conservatives” is stuck around the second Vatican Council: what happened there? Not much? A lot? Even more than a lot, but frustrated by the Curia? Let’s recognise that the debate is much older than that.
A great many Catholics over the centuries have considered a monarchical papacy a very bad idea: particularly all those monarchs, prince-bishops, cathedral chapters. They constructed coherent theologies out of their convictions.
Historians use labels for these ways of thinking which have become merely pieces of historical jargon: Gallicanism; Cisalpinism; Conciliarism.
It’s a pity that these words now seem off-putting and archaic, because once they were living affirmations that the church’s future should be decided in broader arenas than a few chambers in the Vatican palace.
That future won’t resemble the past – it never does – so I’m not suggesting we restore the Holy Roman Empire, or the heirs of Louis XVI to the French throne. But history has rich resources to offer: showing how they did things in the past, so Catholics can find sensible solutions for what to do next.
In the middle of what any fool can see is a deep crisis in Catholic Church authority, let historians ride to the rescue.
* Diarmaid MacCulloch is fellow of St Cross College and professor of the history of the church, Oxford University. His book Silence: a Christian History (Penguin) will be published in April.