At the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, it was decided that the pope should be less of a chief executive and more a judge of final appeal. Local bishops should have greater authority and discretion. It was called the principle of collegiality, or collective authority.
The first test of collegiality after Vatican II involved the Church’s teaching on contraception, not long after the pill became available. The bishops wanted a relaxation of the rules. But Paul VI decided on his own conscience and sense of infallibility to confirm the ban on condoms and the pill.
For three decades, John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger – first as cardinal enforcer, then as pope – have stuck rigidly to the papal doctrine on birth control. At the same time, they have consistently clawed back powers from the bishops to the papal centre, weakening the autonomy of the local churches.
John Paul and Benedict, moreover, strenuously enforced a prerogative appropriated by the popes as recently in the Church’s long history as 1917: It insists that only the pope can nominate new bishops. Local hierarchies, clergy and laypeople have no say in the matter. This has ensured the appointment of generations of papal yes-men, who tend to be weak and often disappoint the faithful. (Under John Paul and Benedict, no priest could hope to be elected who had questioned papal teaching on sexual issues.) It has also meant long delays in replacing bishops.
The centralization of papal and Vatican power and downgrading of bishops was a major reason for the failure to grapple with the pedophile-priest scandal. Decisions on defrocking were referred back to Rome. Both John Paul and Benedict believed that the scandal was cooked up by journalists and lawyers. When they could disregard it no longer, both cited Satan as the principal culprit. Abusing priests were allowed to reoffend and escape justice for years.
Second, there is the problem of true Catholic identity. According to the past two popes, it means strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, which forbids sex before marriage, using condoms or the pill, divorcing and remarrying without an annulment, living in a gay sexual relationship etc. – all of which, unrepented, condemn a person to hell.
Figures vary across the world, but, by papal standards, there are a great many Catholics “living in sin.” And people are not going to confession as they once did: In the U.S., statistics show that only 2 per cent of the faithful go to confession nowadays. Yet, contrary to doctrine, most still receive the Eucharist at Mass. This means that there has been a deep and growing split between papal teaching and popular practice for decades.
John Paul appeared to ignore the dysfunction. Benedict, by contrast, knew what should be done: In interviews and writings, he declared that Catholics who were not prepared to follow the rules should leave the Church. As recently as last summer, he preached a sermon stating that those who dissented from Church teaching yet stayed within the Church were acting like Judas – the gravest sin that could be imagined.
He was not referring just to sex, but to priests and nuns who called for a married priesthood, or for a female priesthood. Likening the truly faithful Church to the Christians in the catacombs, “a faithful remnant,” or the hot centre of a dying star, with the flotsam and jetsam of dissent in orbit around it, he expounded his preference for a smaller, totally loyal Church.
Papal teaching on “life” and sexual matters has had a profound effect not only on Catholics but on non-Catholic perceptions of the Church. The failure of the Roman centre to deal with the sexual-abuse scandals has eroded the Church’s moral authority throughout the world. At the same time, the Church often appears out of touch on medical and scientific questions such as in vitro fertilization, HIV/AIDS prevention and embryonic stem-cell research.
I once interviewed an extraordinary cardinal archbishop in Milan, the late Maria Martini, who was one of the favourites at the last conclave. Rev. Martini said that, on the question of contraception, for example, the right use of language and theology should make it possible to maintain the Church’s teaching against the “contraceptive mentality,” while being more lenient on a couple’s specific situation.