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How Authoritarianism Created the Crisis Engulfing the Roman Catholic Church

A half century ago, the Catholic Church had a chance for reform in the Second Vatican Council, with a young advocate in Joseph Ratzinger. But reactionary popes shunted reform aside, with Ratzinger later joining them as Pope Benedict XVI.

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A Church with a “disfigured” face. That is Pope Benedict XVI’s description of how the Catholic Church sometimes is seen because “of sins against the unity of the church.” He said this in his last public Mass, but he offered no reflections on the role he himself played in this disfigurement, especially by his consistent refusal since around 1968 to embrace the structural changes and progressive teachings endorsed for the Church by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Benedict, as Joseph Ratzinger, an expert at the council, explained and enthusiastically endorsed the reforming trends of the council. After each of the council’s four sessions, Dr. Ratzinger wrote a pamphlet-length account of what had transpired during the preceding session and these reflections were subsequently collected in a book,  Theological Highlights of Vatican II.

Long out of print, the book was republished fairly recently by Paulist Press and it provides us with  an excellent guide to the council’s teachings from which unfortunately Dr. Ratzinger has retreated. He conveniently ignored the fact that an ecumenical council canonically exercises “supreme power over the entire church,” as he himself expressed it.

One of the great structural changes envisaged by the council was a transition from a centralized, monarchical papacy where one person, the pope, assisted by the curial cardinals, has absolute power over the universal church to a church that would be governed by the bishops of the entire church in union with the pope. As the twelve apostles were with and under Peter, so the bishops should be with and under the pope. And, according to the council’s vision, the wisdom of the People of God, i.e. rank-and-file members of the Church, should always be consulted.

As part of collegiality it was intended that a synod representing the bishops of the universal church would be permanently in session and involved in church governance and would control the Curia, which would be forced to serve the pope and bishops as a civil service. However, the Curia reasserted itself after the council and now plays a dominant role in the universal Church.

A Failure at Reform

Vatican II’s deep structural changes have yet to be implemented, witness recent reports of corruption in the Curia. Fortunately, what these changes should entail is laid down in the section on collegiality in the Constitution on the Church (#22), in the formulation of which Dr. Ratzinger played a notable role.

A truly collegial church might well have avoided scandals and episcopal malfeasance in transferring priests guilty of sexual abuse, especially of minors, to conceal the wrongdoing, but unfortunately implementing collegiality and an independent synod of bishops is still a dead letter.

Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) made it clear at the outset of his papacy that the role of the bishops was to assist him in his ministry, not to exercise any sort of independent governance with and under him as the council envisaged. Coincidentally, the emphasis on reasserting absolute obedience to Paul VI’s condemnation of the use of contraceptives was as much about vindicating papal power as it was about the actual use of contraceptives.

Some national conferences of bishops reacted to dissension from Pope Paul’s teaching by stressing that decision-making about contraceptives was a matter of conscience for married couples, not simply one of unquestioning obedience. Even a controlling pope like John Paul II could not cause lay people to veer from a course on which more and more of them had begun to embark in the early 1960s. Still it appears that he deeply resented those episcopal conferences which endorsed the right in conscience to disagree with papal teaching.