The subject matter of Dr Anthony Lowes examination of the bleak state the institutional church today echoes so well with that short, 10 minute excerpt from Edward Stourton's BBC documentary, Absolute Truth, that we are including it again at the conclusion of the commentary. Where did this institution begin to run off the rails to the point where 86% of the flock in the educated parts of the world have simply walked out the door?
Who is left among you
Pre-Vatican II nostalgics -vs- Vatican II loyalists
More significantly, almost immediately after Vatican II the forces of conservative retardation began to be applied by many in the curia who saw their centrist governance losing its stranglehold. Hans Küng wrote in his memoir, My Struggle for Freedom, that while he rated John XXIII and Paul VI highly as popes, he lamented their failure to address curial reform with sufficient despatch.
One tragic outcome of this failure of nerve is to be seen in Paul VI's capitulation before the harangue of Cardinal Ottaviani who urged that the minority view of the commission on birth control be upheld and therefore the status quo in Catholic teaching. This led to many ordained clergy resigning from their ministry, many laity leaving the church and many more simply ignoring it to practise some form of artificial birth control while at the same time being active members in local eucharistic communities.
This crisis led in part to a firming up of the divide between conservatives and progressives, pre-Vatican II nostalgics and Vatican II loyalists. This gulf has manifested itself in the iron-fisted if charismatic conservatism of John Paul II. Though compelled to accede to the form of collegiality in presiding over a number of Episcopal Synods, he is said to have been so receptive to their proceedings as to sit through sessions simply saying his rosary.
Attempts made by national bishops conferences and by individual bishops to have issues put on the table for discussion such as: the plight of divorced and remarried reconsidered; the case for ordination of women to some form of ministry and greater leadership involvement in the higher levels of church governance; the ordination of married men nominated by their local communities and ordained by bishops; the morality of condoms when used not primarily as birth control but as at least a partial solution to the spread of aids (though see the latest controversial papal pronouncement in this regard!) — have been summarily quashed. Much to the bitter but silent frustration of many bishops whose collegial dignity has been sidelined by curial tyranny. As one bishop observed, "The trouble with the church is the curia; until its strangle hold is broken we won't get anywhere."
Fertile theological and spiritual movements such as Liberation Theology were condemned, after flourishing to the point of providing inspiration for the exploited population of the whole continent of South America and indeed the developing countries of the world. Their champions were academically and publicly humiliated, through pressure put on religious superiors to ensure recanting. Even the cause of their hero, Archbishop Romero, martyred for the faith and for justice, has been treated with reluctant suspicion, while he has been effectively 'canonised' by the Anglican church.
By contrast, conservative movements such as Opus Dei and the Neo-Catechumenate have received curial patronage often in the face of episcopal protest at the local level. This has culminated most scandalously in the case of the Legionaries of Christ and their founder Marcial Maciel Degollado. Despite numerous protests about the immoral life of Degollado, John Paul II refused to take any action whatsoever. It was left to Benedict XVI to banish Degollado to monastic solitude and to effect the restructure of the Legionaries.
Humanae Vitae and creeping infallibility...
Adherence to anti-artificial birth control teaching became more intensely urged in papal encyclical and motu proprio. But as Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has pointed out, it is the case of simple repetition lacking additional supportive reasoning. Reliance upon such repetition, according to him, has been advanced as a kind of 'creeping infallibility', whereas in the first instance no claim was ever made for it being an ex cathedra decision. Only lone authoritative voices now, such as that of Cardinal Martini in an interview in 2009, are bold enough to label the decision of Paul VI in this regard as a mistake.
Once it was different, before being silenced or being expelled as catholic theologians, there were world famous moralists who were trenchant in their criticism of Humanae Vitae and its blinkered basis for framing moral decision-making. There have been many voices since which have questioned whether, whatever its intrinsic merits, such a teaching so blatantly ignored by the vast majority of the laity could possibly be regarded as having been received. And this sort of reciprocation, it has been claimed, is surely an integral quality of authentic church teaching.
©2011Dr Anthony Lowes