Catholic leadership- Complacency or complicity?

Sunday, June 16, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- The crisis in the Catholic church is much more than a matter or priestly misdeeds and inadequate supervision by some bishops and cardinals. It is the latest chapter in a longstanding struggle between two competing visions of how the church should be governed: the traditional model of a closed, authoritarian church versus a liberal philosophy of a church characterized by collegiality, accountability and transparency.

Pope Pius X (1903-1914) was the symbol of Vatican authoritarianism. Historian Thomas Cahill states that "Pius X was suspicious of all intellectual activity, which he thought could only confuse the faithful. There was one sure standard amid the student intellectual confusion of the modern world -- the pope had all the answers anyone needed."

Pius X himself wrote that there should be "no question, no subtleties, no opposing personal rights" to a pope's rights, "but only obedience." Pius X was canonized as a saint by the now controversial Pius XII (1939-1958).

After the death of Pius XII, the cardinals who convened to select the next pope were deadlocked on two candidates, one liberal and one conservative. They compromised on the elderly Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, 77, who became the 258th pope and took the name of John XXIII (1958-1963). The cardinals assumed that John would preside briefly until the rival camps could agree on a long-term successor.

John XXIII ended up serving as pope longer than many expected, but not long enough. During John's brief tenure, he began to revolutionize the Catholic church. He was not secretive like his predecessors. He was open to praise or criticism. Pope John revised the Good Friday liturgy to exclude the reference to "faithless Jews." He convened the first ecumenical council in a century, Vatican II. Collegiality and collaboration would replace domineering authoritarianism. The Curia was aghast.

"This holy old boy," as Cardinal John Montini (later Paul VI) called him, was determined to bring the church into modernicity. The Jesse Helms of Catholicism, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, said: "I pray to die before the council's end. That way I can die a Catholic."

Pope John XXIII began meeting with other religious leaders. His meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury was the first between a pope and an Anglican leader since the Reformation. John met with many Protestant leaders, Jewish rabbis, even with Shimoists and communists. He spoke French with Jacqueline Kennedy and exuberantly called her "Jackie." He urged the prime minister of Italy to form a coalition government with the Socialists.

John promulgated "Pacem in Terris," an encyclical that was, in a way, a Catholic bill of rights. "Society must always rest on the firm pillars of truth, justice, love, and freedom." John championed women's rights, a topic never previously mentioned by a pope

Time ran out on Pope John XXIII in 1963, and his favorite and presumed liberal Cardinal John Montini became Paul VI. Paul brought Vatican II to a less fully successful conclusion. Paul decided to emphasize once again the unquestioned authority of the pope. Paul deleted two of the issues slated for debate in Vatican II, clerical celibacy and birth control.

In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, was elected pope. He selected the name John Paul II. John Paul has devotedly guided the church back to the era of Pius X and Pius XII and away from John XXIII. The church he directs will never alter its position on birth control, divorce, homosexuality, married priests and female priests.

In the current crisis of sexually abusive priests, there is a cultural and ecclesiastical split between the European and American church. This cultural divergence is reflected in the statement from the top Vatican canon lawyer, who says things considered outlandish by Americans. For example, he advises that bishops not cooperate with civil authorities and that when a problem priest is transferred to a new parish, the priest's background should not be revealed to the new parish. Incredible as this sounds, it does reflect the antediluvian history of Catholic canon laws.

Some of the American cardinals and bishops who went to visit Pope John Paul II to discuss the pedophilia crisis are trying to adopt different policies. However, these cardinals were all selected by the pope and fundamentally reflect his conservatism. That may be one reason why many of them, as they ooze between complacency and complicity, have such difficulty coping with the several contentious problems that beset the church in the 21st century.

Thomas E. Eagleton is a lawyer and former U.S. senator from Missouri.

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