Church should not ignore signs of the times and turn its back on world

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 01:00

RITE & REASON:Vatican style of government models itself on pre-Christian Roman imperialism

THE RESULTS of the survey conducted by the Association of Catholic Priests, when taken in conjunction with the national census figures of those who still consider themselves as Roman Catholic, has opened a window on the state of Irish Catholicism that is alarming, yet altogether predictable.

There is of course an obvious explanation for some of this disaffection, namely the clerical sex abuse scandals and the cover-up by some bishops and senior clergy of the atrocities to protect the institution. However, this explanation should not excuse church leaders from any deeper analysis of what has been happening to religious belief and practice here, for several decades now.

The anaemic summary of the findings of the Apostolic Visitation that has been published shows just how out of touch Rome and the Irish bishops are with the real feelings of the vast majority of Catholics here. Nor could one place too much confidence in the upcoming Eucharistic Congress to address the core issues that are at stake for many people.

A perusal of the programme suggests that no critical analysis or dissenting voice will be heard.

Slogans such as “a la carte” and “liberal” are being freely thrown around in order to discredit those who seek to ask the deeper and more far-reaching questions.

These have to do with the theological nature of the church as founded by Jesus Christ and the quality and inclusiveness of its rituals to re-present his radical voice and example.

Just 50 years ago Pope John XXIII called Vatican II to “open the window”, as he put it, on the church.

Deprived of its temporal power through the loss of the papal states in the 19th century, the Vatican had turned its back on the world and the intellectual and political movements that were occurring in Europe.

Pope John had other issues in mind in calling the council. The final years of the reign of his predecessor, Pius XII, were marked by his ill-health and infighting among the cardinals of the curia, as to who would get the their hands on the reins of power.

Vatican II’s lasting legacy is, or should be, that the Roman Catholic Church should never again ignore the signs of the times or become isolated from the world, even when it has to challenge the predominant values, following the example of its founder.

In the event, a process of retrenchment was set in motion and the energy released in the church worldwide was suppressed. The old guard gradually got its way once more. Insights such as the collegiality of the bishops, whereby the bishop of Rome was to be understood as primus inter pares, (the first among equals) were slowly but surely set aside.

The curia, rather than the local church, took charge of the appointment of bishops, ensuring that only those who would carry out the wishes of the centre without question would be chosen. Today the Vatican bureaucracy is determined to reintroduce a centralised style of government that models itself, unwittingly or otherwise, on pre-Christian Roman imperialism, with the bishops as mere enforcers of policy, like provincial governors of old.

Papal infallibility, recently invoked by Benedict XVI on the issue of women’s ordination, has given the successor of Peter an aura of divinity that is not dissimilar to the aims of the imperial cult honouring the divine Caesar: the intention, the language and the symbolism are all cut from the same cloth; Roma locuta est, causa finita est, (Rome has spoken, the case is closed.)

Dr Seán Freyne was professor of theology at Trinity College Dublin from 1980 to 2002

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