Curialism, not clericalism


As interested parties conjure with the current Catholic crisis, the prevailing diagnosis in progressive circles is that the guilty party is clericalism–the culture and ideology of the celibate male priestly class that treats the Church as its own property and protects its prerogatives by all means necessary. And thus the solution lies in an enhanced role for the laity.

Far be it from me to defend clericalism as such, but the diagnosis elides the role of curialism–the increased centralization of ecclesiastical control in the Roman curia that has occurred over the past 30 years. To be sure, the monarchical impulse in the papacy has been around for a long time–since the 12th century, to be exact. It was then that the papacy, having failed to establish itself as the sovereign of Western Christendom, began subordinating the Church to its sole authority, from the resolution of legal disputes to the making of saints to (ultimately) the appointment of bishops.

Over the centuries, the principal counter-force to papal monarchy has been conciliarism, by means of which other prelates might, from time to time, join together to set the Catholic agenda. The Church’s last conciliar moment was, of course, Vatican II, but with the accession of John Paul II, monarchy was back in the saddle. One has only to observe bishops leaping to defend Benedict like worker bees protecting their queen to realize how far things have come. Once the pope’s colleagues, bishops and archbishops have been transformed into curial minions.

Much has been made of the fact that in 2001 Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, brought all abuse cases under the purview of his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Critics have argued that this was done to assure greater secrecy; defenders, in order to assure swifter and surer justice. Either way, in a billion-member church with hundreds of thousands of priests, there is something bizarre about having to depend on a single office in Vatican City to permanently remove an offender from the priesthood. Is it any wonder that cases take a long time to resolve?

Would a less centralized Catholic Church have done a better job of stopping abuse and disciplining the abusers? We cannot know for sure. But I would expect better of a hierarchy more embedded in, and beholden to its local spiritual and secular community. What if Bernard Law had to live out his days in disgrace in Boston rather than as archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and titular Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome?

Update: NYT’s Rachel Donadio is sort of on the case this
morning–but she casts the situation as a management problem; i.e. an
antiquated Vatican bureaucracy now headed by a second-rate
administrator. Here’s the kicker:

Both critics and supporters are waiting to see how — or if — the
Vatican’s slow gears engage. Observers say there is a growing awareness
inside the Vatican that the number of cases made public is certain to
multiply — even in its own once untouchable backyard, Italy.

The prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William
J. Levada
, acknowledged last week that his office devoted
a third of its time to handling abuses cases and that it would probably
need to expand its staff as new cases arrived.

Few personnel and bureaucratic decisions have had so much riding on them
— the legacy of Benedict’s papacy high on the list.

So the legacy of the leader of the world’s largest religious body depends on a bunch of bureaucrats at headquarters handling sexual malfeasance cases committed under the authority of hundreds of religious leaders who themselves are understood to hold office in direct succession to the Apostles. What’s wrong with this picture?