The Catholic Church's dissenters miss the boat

The Catholic Church's dissenters miss the boat

Chris Hilder

Chris Hilder is a public servant in Canberra working for the Australian Department of Defence in Project Performance Management. He returned to Australia in June 2004 after 18 months in the US on exchange with the US Department of Defense working in the same field. He has a Degree in Law and a Graduate Certificate in Strategic Procurement.

With the passing of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI it has been interesting to watch the same old dissenters appearing in the media - and none more so than the ubiquitous Paul Collins.

Dr Collins' main line has been that Church "reform" requires authority to shift from a "top down pyramidal authoritarian structure" to a "bottoms up democratic structure".

His premise is false because the Church's structure, as created by Christ, is collegial with real authority given to the bishops as successors to the Apostles to teach and lead their local congregations under the headship of the Pope who provides leadership to the entire Church.

George Weigel points out in The Courage to be Catholic that the Church is not "authoritarian", but rather "authoritative": "An 'authoritarian' is someone who makes someone else do something purely as a matter of wilfulness: you do this because I say so. An authoritarian does not give reasons for his or her decisions or commands." An authoritarian is arbitrary.

On the other hand, someone who is authoritative is obedient to the truth. The Pope and bishops, if they live up to their responsibilities, are not authoritarian, but rather are faithful and obedient servants of the Truth, who is Christ.

As for the rest of Paul Collins' claim, it is simply impossible to effectively manage a large organisation through a "top down pyramidal" structure. In the modern world large commercial organisations have flattened structures of dispersed authority and leadership with clear lines of reporting back to a central body that is responsible for global tasks, thereby eliminating a coordinating bureaucracy.

This sounds very familiar because this is the Church's structure. For while Christ dispersed real authority and leadership to each bishop, in order to ensure fidelity to the Truth, He did not do away with top-down authority and leadership, ensuring Peter and his successors would have primacy.

A "bottoms up democratic structure" is in fact an oxymoron because this is not a structure, but merely an anarchic rabble.

Bureaucracy can be a major source of problems in large pyramidal organisations, stifling leadership, responsibility and action. However, it is not the sole cause of organisational problems, which can also arise through poor leadership - such as a failure to maintain discipline.

In his book George Weigel argues that a strong causal factor in the Church's problem of dissent was the ''Truce of 1968''.

'Humanae Vitae'

After Humanae Vitae was published there was strong dissent, with one of its focal points the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. After several warnings, 19 priests were disciplined by the local Archbishop, Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle.

The priests involved appealed to the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome. The appeal succeeded in drastically minimising the nature of the dissent involved and gaining a recommendation that Cardinal O'Boyle lift the sanctions against those priests who would agree to the "findings" of the Congregation's report.

Those findings did not include either the obligation to repudiate previous dissent or affirm the moral truths taught by Humanae Vitae. The report was the result of a long negotiation and was, according to the recollections of some who were present, based on a clear understanding that Pope Paul VI did not want a public retraction from the dissidents because he feared that this could lead to a schism in Washington and perhaps beyond.

The Pope, evidently, was willing for a time to tolerate dissent hoping that time would calm the situation and that then the teaching of Humanae Vitae could be appreciated.

Unfortunately, Pope Paul VI's failure to back his local bishop, like many compromises, only made matters worse.

To the dissenters, it appeared they could, in effect, throw a papal encyclical back in the Pope's face with impunity.

As a result, the culture of dissent was consolidated and grew, with a generation of bishops coming to think of themselves less as authoritative teachers than as moderators of an ongoing dialogue whose primary responsibility was to keep everybody in the conversation. That, it seemed, was what Rome wanted at the time. And from the viewpoint of many lay people, if the Church could tolerate rejection of encyclicals then surely everything was open to question. They thus learned to pick and choose among teachings and practices.

The "Truce of 1968" was extraordinarily ironic given Vatican II's emphasis on the important role of bishops. Paul VI's failure to follow through and support an American bishop undermined in part a major outcome of Vatican II and gave the Church a lesson on what results when discipline breaks down.

Pope John Paul II, however, did not make the same mistake, demonstrating the benefits of strong leadership, while supporting and encouraging bishops to do the same.

The structure Christ created for the Church makes sense. It just requires the leaders to exercise their authority in faithfulness to Christ, and the members to be obedient in faithfulness to Christ. It is after all Christ's Church, no-one else's. The Truth is Christ, it comes from him, it doesn't come from us.

Fr Paul Stenhouse MSC has commented: "To Paul Collins' demands for change in the Church one can only reply in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. When asked by a reporter what she thought should be changed in the Church, she answered: 'You and I, dear Sir'."

A typographical error in the print edition of this article was brought to the attention of readers in the July edition by the author, and has been corrected above.

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