The pope’s goal is to make the structures and mentality of the Church more reflective of the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ and to liberate it from a codified system of rules and philosophical ideas still deeply wedded to the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Through the process of synodality, he is opening up spaces for dialogue and discussion that involve all the Holy People of God and not just the male clerics. He is not democratizing the Church, but he is creating a large and indispensable forum for all voices to be heard through the classic, but too often forgotten, process of discernment.
Nearly nine years I spoke to a civic group in Cleveland, Ohio, about the “Vatican implosion” and, as a result, the long and gradual collapse of the Catholic Church’s monarchical structure of governance and ministry.
I argued that as the last absolute monarchy in the West (and almost anywhere else in the world) the organization of the Roman Church has become an anachronism.
It made sense when monarchies were a fundamental feature of human society. But no longer.
This outdated model of the Catholic Church’s structure no longer incarnates the reality of the lived experience of believers, the staggering majority of whom live in societies that are becoming more and more, and to varying degrees, participatory and representative democracies.
A Church where the most important decisions are made almost exclusively by a celibate male clergy, and where bishops are held to little or no accountability, is unsustainable in a world where patriarchal and monarchical societies – begrudgingly, but steadily – are ceding rights and duties to those who are not part of the nobility, the clergy or one specific gender.
My talk in November 2012 came during the height of the so-called VatiLeaks scandal. For more than a year the leaking of sensitive Vatican documents and the private papers of Benedict XVI had caused deep embarrassment to the still-reigning German pope and his top aides – especially Tarcisio Bertone SDB, the Cardinal Secretary of State at the time.
Pope Francis hastens an inevitable collapse
It was a mess. And today one could look back and say: “Sure, it was easy back then for someone to spout off about a supposed Vatican implosion.”
Indeed, some people have since told me that the election of Pope Francis has revealed that my analysis was way off base.
But nearly a decade later, I’m convinced that the thesis argued on that November morning on the shores of Lake Erie still holds. Because it was not based on what did or did not transpire in Benedict’s pontificate.
Even despite the kairos – the special, providential moment – that many Catholics believe we’ve been experiencing since the election of the first-ever Jesuit pope, the Church continues to implode.
In fact, in some ways, Francis seems to be deliberately hastening its inevitable collapse by implementing the principles and methods outlined in Evangelii gaudium (EG), his vision and blueprint for Church renewal and reform.
Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about the demise of the Catholic Church.
God is not dead and the Holy Spirit will never leave Christ’s faithful people. This we all believe.
Changing structures and mentalities through synodality
No, it’s about the crumbling of the present governing and organizational structure, which continues to mirror certain features of the Roman Empire more than it reflects the organizational model of ecclesial life that is found in the New Testament or was experienced in the first couple of centuries of the Christian Church.
Francis is effectively laying the foundation for the “deconstruction” of the current model by patiently planting the seeds for the Church’s structural conversion by “baptizing” and employing four, key sociological principles (EG 222-237):- Time is greater than space- Unity prevails over conflict- Realities are more important than ideas- The whole is greater than the parts
Ultimately the pope’s goal is to make the structures and mentality of the Church more reflective of the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ and to liberate it from a codified system of rules and philosophical ideas still deeply wedded to the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Through the process of synodality, he is opening up spaces for dialogue and discussion that involve all the Holy People of God and not just the male clerics. He is not democratizing the Church, but he is creating a large and indispensable forum for all voices to be heard through the classic, but too often forgotten, process of discernment.
Most of what I’ve written up to this point was actually published in a July 2017 column titled, “The Roman Catholic Church continues to implode”.
Opening up spaces for women
Since then, there have been two further assemblies of the Synod of Bishops — one on young people and the faith (2018) and another on the Amazon region (2019).
Each gathering opened up further questions, even if not explicitly, about the sustainability of the current paradigm of the governing and ministerial structure of the Roman Church.
And since those gatherings the pope, now 84, has appointed a religious woman as a top official in the Synod’s secretariat. Apparently, he will allow her to vote at Synod assemblies.
Who could have imagined? We’re not just talking about a lay person — but a lay woman (yes, in religious vows) — voting at an assembly of Catholic bishops.
This is only the beginning of a process that is likely to further open up key decision-making positions to women in Church governance and ministry. We are already seeing movements in this direction. The Catholic bishops of Austria just this past week invited 14 female officials from various dioceses to the national episcopal conference’s plenary assembly.
And a bishop in Switzerland last May appointed five laypeople — two of them women — as his personal representatives to replace the priests who had been his episcopal vicars.
Restoring a married presbyterate
Meanwhile, Catholics in Germany continue, full steam ahead, along the nationwide Synodal Path. This ongoing assembly of clerics and non-ordained baptized is opening up discussions on issues that could directly affect the Church’s current anachronistic paradigm and structure. For instance, there are calls for the presbyteral ordination of married men (not the outright abolition of celibacy, as some have claimed).Some Church traditionalists (and those who are merely nostalgic) have condemned the idea as heretical, saying it’s a violation of Catholic doctrine and tradition. Total nonsense!
Married clergy are part of our most ancient tradition.
The Catholic Church has always had married priests, a practice its Eastern communities have never broken. And there were even married bishops for many centuries.
A number of popes (beginning with St. Peter!) were legitimately married, too, right up to the end of the first millennium.
One of the most notable was Hadrian II (867-872) whose wife and daughter continued to live with him in the Lateran Palace after he was elected Bishop of Rome.
The restoration of married presbyters — and eventually married bishops — is only a matter of time. And the admission of women to holy orders will one day follow.
A shallow and unimpressive pool of celibate male candidates
In fact, it is in the area of Church governance and ministry where the Church’s implosion is most glaring.
The all-male, celibate episcopate has refused to seriously address the steady and alarming decline in vocations to the presbyterate. Instead, the bishops have resorted to ordaining any man who promises to be obedient to Church authority and observe celibacy.
Thus, they have drastically lowered the standards of intellectual, psychological and personal acumen among eligible candidates.
This has led to one disaster after another. And one of the more catastrophic consequences has been that this has provided an even shallower pool of talent from which to select men for the office of bishop (overseer). No wonder Pope Francis refuses to allow bishops like Cardinal Reinhard Marx to resign and why many dioceses around the world are currently without a bishop or are being led by someone past the age of retirement.
Who are suitable to replace them? Indeed, the theological and pastoral qualities of many of the bishops currently in office are embarrassingly thin. This week’s online plenary assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was an extremely disconcerting display of mediocrity. That’s about the most charitable way of stating it.
“In this rapidly changing world, take God on the journey”
Simply put, the entire enterprise is falling apart. As it must.
The world is changing today at a more rapid pace than at any other time in human history. Women are quickly becoming equal partners with men in almost all professions and in an increasing number of countries.
This will force the Church to re-evaluate its sexist and misogynist structures and “teachings”, if only to prevent it from becoming a tiny, all-male sect.
Then there is the digital revolution (which allowed the US bishops to “meet” electronically), which is also hastening moves towards gender equality and other still unforeseen developments in society.
This has only just begun and will continue to shape the way we interact with each other and ushers in societal changes that no one can predict. Impressively, the pope seems to understand — or at least intuit — this better than most men in positions of authority in the Church.
And his aim appears to be to help Catholics, indeed all Christians, navigate this ongoing colossal transition with great spiritual/religious agility.
His insistence that the Church focus primarily on preaching and living the kerygma — that basic creed that Christ is Risen — is as if he is saying: “No one knows where all this change is heading but let us make sure we take God on the journey.”
Other Church leaders are, instead, worrying about propping up the same old, crumbling structures. If the whole is greater than its parts, the Church will not splinter any further if one section of it should decide to revive the ancient tradition of married priests – or to ordain women deacons or find other pastoral/doctrinal solutions to particular problems.
The most important issue is that these “creative” solutions, as the pope likes to call them, do not stray from the kerygma – the essential kernel of the Christian faith.
And that will be the place where the rebuilding begins once the current edifice of the Church eventually collapses… as, surely, one day it will.