Big Ideas:
Second-Class Catholics
Thursday, 14 July 2011

Ordinarily, I reserve the “Big Ideas” heading for bright ideas, my own or someone else’s, that in my opinion, it would do everyone good just to think about. Today, however, I want to call attention to a big idea from a milennium ago. It has become a very bad idea for its host institution — the Roman Catholic Church — but, owing to a couple of other very bad ideas that have cropped up since (particularly the relatively recent notion of papal infallibility), it will be very difficult to pull the Church out of its pickle.

In the latest news about the Church’s ongoing pedophile crisis, critics are calling for the resignation of John Magee, the Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland. Magee admits that he may have failed to implement new anti-coverup policies in his diocese, but there’s more to it than that; he is said to have caressed a would-be seminarian. We’re not talking ancient history here. Meanwhile, in Germany,

[T]he Catholic Church’s decision to open its personnel files was an effort to restore some of the public trust in the church that the scandals have eroded. Record numbers of Catholics left the church in Germany last year after hundreds of cases of previously unreported child abuse came to light, including a case of a priest with a history of molesting boys who was returned to pastoral duties by the archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The priest was later convicted of molesting more boys.

Actually, I did have a bright idea, and it overlays the one that energized a series of popes at the end of the Eleventh Century. I asked myself, what does the Roman Catholic Church really stand for? What is the doctrine that it would be least likely to alter or abandon? I quickly discarded the possibility that this most vital tenet would be purely theological. The Magisterium might announce a new understanding of the Trinity tomorrow, and nothing would change. In fact, Catholic theology has undergone a largely healthy evolution during the past two thousand years. (Consider those Reformation bugaboos, Purgatory and Mariology.) There is only one matter that has not evolved, or that, rather, has devolved,  or done whatever recessive evolution would be called. If you think that “celibacy” is the answer to my question, you’d be largely right, but not right enough. Celibacy is just an aspect of the core Catholic doctrine.

Thanks to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity, I can cite this dogma as it was pronounced in a papal encyclical, Vehementer, issued by Pius X in 1906. It comes at the end of the following passage, taken from Christianity, that describes the first formal compilation of what we now call “canon law,” the Concordia discordantium canonum (known as the Decretum) attributed to the Bolognese jurist Gratian.

The Decretum and canon law in general also specifically embodied that principle of the Gregorian Revolution that there were two classes of Christians, clerical celibates and laypeople. Only a century ago, this could still be pithily spelled out in an official papal pronouncement: “The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful.

The Roman Catholic Church is, at heart, a confraternity of celibate males who subordinate themselves to a well-established hierarchy, with the Pope at the top. Nuns, and friars who have not been ordained as priests, do not, although celibate, figure in this scheme. Neither do the parishioners whose financial contributions support the organization. Why these churchgoers expect the Church hierarchy to put their needs (and the needs of their children) first is beyond me. What club has ever prioritized non-members over members?

We’d like to know more about where those “record numbers” of Germans went. We think that they’ll be having plenty of company.

The Gregorian Revolution took place less than half the Church’s lifetime ago. It seems eternal now, but a thousand years ago it bore no more than a bogus patina of venerability.