There have been a few blurbs recently on Church structure and governance from the news services in the Vatican, including this quote from the pope: “The structure of the Church cannot be conceived according to simple human political models,” the Pope said. “Its hierarchical constitution is based on the will of Christ and as such forms part of the deposit of faith, which must be preserved and totally transmitted through the centuries.”
That is one potent sentence, probably intended as a stern papal shot across the bows of my little rowboat, while the barque of Peter lumbers along slowly sinking in the choppy waves of clerical sexual abuse, abuse of power by bishops, and the grasping for even more power by pope and papabiles. Every single word in that sentence has the ringing tones of infallibility clinging to it, along with the thump of the papal fist hitting the desk for emphasis.
My first comment is that the pope just doesn’t know the history of the Church. Any historian will tell us that the Church has been borrowing from human political models for two millennia now. The word “simple” as used by the pope is a pejorative to make us think that the structure of the Church is somehow sophisticated and superior to those structures conceived by mere human beings.
There just wasn’t any structure at all in the infant church: an apostle here or there for real authenticity, outstanding Elders who as in any group stand out, and after a hundred years or so some people called “bishop.” I think it was three hundred years before they stopped calling all bishops “pope” and reserved it for the one in Rome. By that time the civilian emperor Constantine was setting up and running the structure of the Church, calling the first ecumenical council of Nicea, without inviting the Bishop of Rome to attend, in 381 AD.
We all know that the early structure of the Church was based on the Roman Senate and on Roman law. The struggles for power and control were among the apostolic sees, the ones claiming descent from the Twelve, or between the Bishop of Rome and the Emperor of the Roman Empire – one of those “simple” human models.
The old Roman borrowings grew stale as feudal entities began arising in the dark and lighter Middle Ages – with cabbages and kings and dukes and things – which of course from whom the Church had to emulate by calling bishops and cardinals “princes” of the Church. One thing that the Church did very well (up to Pius IX and Vatican I) was to ape and imitate the governing structures of those feudal lords and other entities, even up to the historical development of nations and states and countries. The intertwining relationships of cardinals with kings, bishops with princes, and popes with emperors are one of the capsules of the history of civilization. Back then it was very hard to distinguish the Church from one of the empires or kingdoms it was imitating and doing business with and rivaling in the search for more and more power.
There is however one simple, human, political model that causes popes, cardinals, archbishops and bishops to gasp, clutch their breasts and sigh (in the best display of holiness they can muster at that moment), and that is democracy. The American Revolution was too far away to bother Rome very much; but the French Revolution damn near toppled the Church out of the power game forever. Napoleon told the pope when to kneel and when to stand; and the pope obeyed.
In 1870 Vatican I let it be known that not only was the pope infallible but also an absolute ruler beyond appeal, beyond checks and balances; and the Church by the will of Christ was and is the pope! A few brave and stouthearted men and women said, “Huh?” Those of us now alive and able to read papal quotations like the one in the first paragraph above, continue the “Huh?” But we add to it: the Church is the people of God!
What is wrong with the structure of the Church today is the extreme to which Pope John Paul II and his Curia have pushed the envelope of power to the most absolute and dictatorial enslavement of the “people of God” in the two thousand years of the existence of the Church. It is not the will of Christ that so many of God’s children are suffering for life from the horror of sexual abuse by priests. It is not the will of Christ that so many bishops have so far been able to bob and weave (as if they were entertainment celebrities accused of a crime) to avoid accountability and justice. It is not the will of Christ that so many of God’s people – whether they be married priests, women priests, gays, lesbians, theologians who can think and write clearly and persuasively, elected politicians – suffer from the tortures inflicted upon them by hierarchs… Sometimes I’m tempted to think of our hierarchical leaders as if they were Captain Queegs.
The structure of the Church can be conceived according to simple human political models. Its current hierarchical constitution has failed utterly and it must be replaced. We turn to those human political models most in tune with the will of Christ and as such a part of the deposit if faith, which must be preserved and totally transmitted through the third millennium. The Catholic Church in the twenty-first century, the third millennium, is the people of God – all of us.