Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Morals and People in the Catholic Church

Over at the First Things blog, there's a short piece by William Doino about how the press loves to pick on the Vatican. He cites as an example a quote from a Reuters piece (“This all seems to be a power game that matters only to the power players. It seems to be a Church hierarchy further distancing itself from people in the pews.”), as well as mentioning the firing of the head of the Vatican bank and the arrest of the Pope's butler. Both of which bring up two things which are not the point of the article, but which are worthy of further consideration.
First, these and other much more public stories over the past two decades have done great apologetic harm to the Catholic church. For almost three centuries after the Council of Trent, the standard Catholic apologetic against Protestants has been: we fixed the moral problems of the church (the theological problems never needed fixing anyway), so you can come back now. Over and over and over that has been the argument coming out of Rome, even as they have agreed with the earliest writings of Luther and Zwingli charging the Church of the early 1500s with atrocious morals. Now that those problems are fixed, we can, they argue, come home.
But of course, what we've been seeing in the past twenty years (and increasingly the evidence suggests that the last two decades are not isolated, but rather a part of a long chain of abuses) is that the moral problem has not been fixed. Rather, it has been hushed up.
This of course isn't to say that we dismiss an argument just because the people making it are sinners. If we did that, we could never listen to anyone, ever. We Protestants sin just as much (often without the guilt over our sin that our Catholic friends experience). My point is merely that it undercuts what has been a classic Catholic apologetic argument in favor of the papacy. I'll be interested to see how Catholic apologetics changes over the next couple of decades in light of these new revelations of corruption in the hierarchy...

Second, the charge is noted here (and has been made regularly in other places) that Rome is increasingly distanced from "the people in the pews." There is a divide, note observers, between the church hierarchy and the congregation. I would merely point out that A) there may not be so big a divide between Rome's non-American congregations and the church hierarchy (South American, African, and Asian churches seem to have little dissent with the Vatican); and B) the idea of needing unity between the people and the clergy is a fairly American one anyway. There's no idea in Catholicism that the church structure somehow represents (or even needs) the congregation. Remember, this is a religion where you can hold a service without anyone other than the priest present. What the people in the pew think is so far off traditional Catholicism's radar that these challenges are no doubt a bit puzzling to Pope Benedict- if he ever even hears them. The Catholic Church is (and, since at least the Council of Trent, formally has been) concerned with 1) the majesty and glory of the structure of the church (particularly the office of the Pope); 2) the governance of the Papal States (now just Vatican City); 3) the running of the diocese of Rome (the Pope's formal bishopric); 4) the theology of the church at large. (This isn't my list, this is from both Thomas Noble's works on the papacy and my own classes at Catholic University.) Nowhere on this list does "embodying the thoughts of the congregation" make an appearance.

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