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• The correct diagnosis (Greek: diágnosis = ‘discernment’): there must be no trivialization of the symptoms (‘It’s not as bad as it looks’) but no alarmist dramatics either (‘There is no cure!’). Instead, what is needed is an analysis of the history of the disease based on historical facts, a real pathogenesis which explains precisely how this centuries-old institution, the Catholic Church, got into such a lamentable condition. The medical term for this is aetiology: the search for the aitía, or cause.
• Effective therapies (Greek: therapeía = ‘service, care, medical treatment’): what is necessary is not therapies which merely treat the symptoms or isolated aspects of the disease; antipyretic medication alone will not get the Church back on its feet. What is required is a therapy that goes after the root causes, one which penetrates through all the layers of forgetting, repression and taboo to reach the true causes of the disease and fight the pathogenic factors or processes at work. Maybe even surgery will be indicated in certain areas to root out specific cancers.
At this point, many people will probably demur that this will take too much time and effort and is not worth the trouble.
Medically Assisted Suicide or Reanimation?
No doubt, many people are of the opinion that the Catholic Church is irremediably, terminally ill and that it does not deserve to be saved. They believe that it cannot be reanimated. Recently, this erosion of faith in the Church’s ongoing vitality has even begun to affect traditional Catholic circles. It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.
In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent. Similar developments have been noted in such bastions of Catholicism as Spain, Ireland and even to some extent Poland. Three-quarters of American Catholics believe it is possible to be a good Catholic without submitting to the pope’s authority.
Such a development of ‘popular Catholicism’ is not surprising, considering the restoration course of the hierarchy described above. In the last few years, numerous Catholics, including wrongfully penalized and marginalized theologians such as Eugen Drewermann and Gotthold Hasenhüttl, Matthew Fox and many others, have had enough of appealing in vain against the course charted by the church leadership and have left the Church: not, indeed, the Catholic community of faith as such, but the public corporation known as the Roman Catholic Church, the community of persons paying the church tax or otherwise conforming to church discipline. People who have left the Church in protest against the German church tax include the Freiburg professor for church law Hartmut Zapp and the Regensburg engineer Dr Andreas Janker. This can set a precedent and should serve as a warning to the church hierarchy – it is understandable that if you have lost your faith in the Church you do not want to continue paying the church tax.
What is more ominous is that a much larger number of Catholics have distanced themselves emotionally from the Church. They remain nominally Catholic, but they have lost all interest in the Church as an institution. I share the assessment of Thomas von Mitschke-Collandes:
Many church members are reading up on how to leave the Church. This type of crisis is unique and unprecedented. Things have not yet calmed down. The numbers of people leaving the Church in 2010 could explode.
And the numbers did indeed explode.
In addition to the loss of faith in the Church among Catholics, we are seeing a growing hostility to the Church within secular society. All too many of our contemporaries feel the recent revelations of abuse have simply confirmed their view of the institutional Church as an unregenerate and power-hungry church hierarchy; they are convinced that local parishes and society in general have suffered immensely from the authoritarianism and dogmatism of church teaching, from the climate of fear the Church has generated, the sexual neuroses and the general refusal to enter into dialogue.
Some Catholics will of course object. Has not Rome recently ‘asked for forgiveness’ for its failures, its mistakes? Yes, but, as pope, Ratzinger did not personally admit his own wrongful involvement in the cover-up, and there were no practical consequences for the present and the future. The cases of sexual abuse and their cover-up have confirmed many people’s impression that the church administration and the Inquisition continue to create new victims and new suffering.
It cannot be denied that hardly any major institution in Western democratic countries treats dissenters and critics within its own ranks so inhumanely. And none of them discriminates so strongly against women, for example by prohibiting birth control, forbidding priests to marry, by prohibiting the ordination of women. No other institution polarizes society and politics so strongly with its rigorously divisive positions on issues such as homosexuality, stem cell research, abortion, assisted suicide and the like. And while Rome no longer dares to proclaim formally infallible doctrines, it still envelops all of its doctrinal pronouncements with an aura of infallibility, as though the pope’s words were a direct expression of God’s will or Christ’s voice.
Given this situation, it comes as no surprise that the more or less benevolent indifference to the Church that began some fifty years ago has in many cases slipped over into outright hostility, cynicism or even open enmity. Some would like to facilitate the demise of this terminally ill Church, to offer ‘assisted suicide’ so to speak. The media are continually serving up topics from the Church’s ‘criminal history’ calculated to appeal to a mass audience, many of which had been described decades ago in the books of the formerly Catholic author Karlheinz Deschner. While we cannot deny that such portrayals may be correct, it is all too easy to forget that a similar method would make it equally possible to write a sensationalist criminal history of Germany, France, Britain or the USA – to say nothing of all the monstrous crimes committed by modern atheists in the name of the goddess of reason, the nation, the race or the party.
However, even in modern-day secular France, Voltaire’s hate-filled dictum about the Catholic Church ‘Écrasez l’infâme’ (‘Crush the infamous thing’) – no longer finds expression in overt persecution; instead, there and elsewhere, it leads simply to the marginalization of the Church. The European Parliament caused quite a stir when the majority refused to include any reference to God in the preamble of the European Constitution; an understandable decision, given the numerous non-believers and believers of other faiths in Europe. But the unwillingness to include any mention of Christianity at all as constituting part of Europe’s cultural heritage alongside the legacies of antiquity and the Enlightenment is symptomatic of the growing malaise, and is incomprehensible in view of the undeniable epochal cultural achievements and humanitarian contributions of the churches in the past. Another example of such marginalization is the advertising campaign on London buses sponsored by militant atheists (admittedly in response to the threats of hell-fire flung at atheists by Christian fundamentalists): ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Often, such reactions simply mirror the Church’s own scaremongering, un-evangelical pronouncements, and the Church would do better to reflect on them critically as warning symptoms, instead of simply rejecting them out of hand.
A Case History of the Church’s Pathology
The illness of the Catholic Church did not begin yesterday; it started long ago. The Church’s medical history is so old and complex that a detailed anamnesis (Greek: ‘remembrance’) is required. It will be necessary to enquire into the preliminary events leading up to the outbreak of the illness. Just as the doctor, psychotherapist or counsellor attempts, in conversation with the patient, to uncover significant moments of the progress of an illness, so the theologian and historian can discover root causes of the present illness in the history of the Church’s ailing body. However, for this anamnesis he or she will need a non-ideological, carefully diagnostic approach to history.
In any event, the optimistic, harmonious interpretation of church history created by theologians in the nineteenth century is not at all helpful for a serious diagnosis and therapy, although this, of course, is the version preferred and put forward by the church authorities to immunize themselves against all criticism that might suggest pathological developments. According to this version, the Church’s 2,000-year history represents an organic growth of teachings, laws, liturgy and piety. This view allows the Church to justify novel Roman dogmas which in fact were only enforced in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century: the doctrines that the pope enjoys immediate and absolute authority over the Church in all its parts (universal jurisdiction), and that he enjoys guaranteed freedom from error when he solemnly pronounces on matters of faith and morals (infallibility), are specific examples. Further examples are two doctrines on the Virgin Mary, namely her freedom from sin from the moment of her conception (Immaculate Conception), and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life (Assumption). And at the same time, this harmonizing approach to church history makes it possible to explain and take for granted the personal foibles and systematic abuses of power on the part of iniquitous holders of office. According to this approach, the Church is an enormous healthy tree in a state of continual growth, development and refinement, even though it occasionally carries dead branches and discards rotten fruit.
Such an idealized historical account can serve as a palliative, helping to make the disease of the Church psychologically endurable, but it does not face up to the causes of the illness. Often it simply serves merely as a placebo, as pseudo-medication, useful because of its calming effect on pious churchgoers and rebellious reformers. Those who share the lopsided view of the history of the Catholic Church as an organic process of maturation are unable and unwilling to take note of obvious abnormal, pathological phenomena, even when they clearly infect the whole body of the Church. Because the official representatives of the Church have been the ones mostly and primarily responsible for these phenomena and because the Church’s representatives cannot and do not want to admit their existence, over the centuries alarming relapses have occurred time and again, despite intermediate, quasi-miraculous improvements. And the popes in particular have been far from innocent in contributing to these relapses. Instead of admitting the papal involvement in such relapses, the Holy Fathers prefer to canonize even their quite ‘unholy’ predecessors such as Pius IX, Pius X, and perhaps also Pius XII – canonizations which at best can be viewed as a confirmation of the simul iustus et peccator (of the saint and the sinner in one)!
On the one hand, while I reject the optimistic, harmonious view of the Church’s history, I also reject the hate-filled denunciatory interpretation, which does not have a single good word to say about the Church. I agree neither with the uncritical admirers nor with the resentful critics, as both groups see only one side of the Church. Because the history of the Church – like that of all other big institutions – is mixed, I propose instead to make the effort to differentiate.
A detailed anamnesis will start with the historical causes of the illness and at the same time explain how things could come to such a pass. Non-historians may also observe many things on the surface, but cannot explain them. Often, behind the efficient organization stands a powerful financial machine making use of quite worldly methods. The impressive mass celebrations of Catholic unity all too often manifest only a superficial form of Christianity lacking in substance. The conformist hierarchy often consists mainly of clerical functionaries always keeping an eye on Rome for orientation, servile to those above them and autocratic towards those below. Embedded in the closed system of doctrines and dogmas is an obsolete, authoritarian, unbiblical, sterilely orthodox theology. And even those proudly acclaimed Western cultural achievements ascribed to the Church have often been accompanied by excessive worldliness and a neglect of real clerical duties.
Already I can already hear the objections of the apologists of the church establishment: Quo iure? – what right have you to sit in judgement on the institution of the Church? I can only repeat: I am not a judge but a theologian–therapist; I do not wish to sit in judgement but to provide a diagnosis and suggest remedies like a doctor, a psychotherapist or a counsellor. Admittedly, my recommendations, expounded at length in so many books and substantiated there in detail, have not been appreciated by the authorities to whom, along with a larger public, they are addressed. The authorities have found my recommendations so uncomfortable because many of these people are themselves caught up in the pathogenic structures. And they do not want to hear about necessary surgical operations and reforms in the body of the Church.
But, the apologists exclaim, surely it is not just a matter of historical changes within the institution? No indeed, it is a question of something far more permanent, a question of the truth, of the eternal truth. And the question is: what must endure in the Church, what should be the criterion for the truth?
Is Tradition or Progress the Criterion of Truth?
Two opposing attitudes to the truth can be seen not only in the concerns about the physical well-being of an individual but also in the concerns regarding the welfare of a society. For one group, it is the ‘old ways’, the things that have withstood the test of time, tried-and-true knowledge that counts; in short, it is tradition that must take precedence. For the other group, it is instead what is new, up-to-date, scientific, innovative, progressive that counts. Which of them is right?
I value tradition but I am not a traditionalist. Yet, in the Church, and not just in Rome, there are people who swear by the old ways. While the ‘good old ways’ may often be a stimulus, they should never be a model per se. Such thinking assumes that God would have been present only at certain periods in the past, for example during the time of the Church Fathers (the era of patristic Greek and Latin theology and culture) or during the Middle Ages (the era of scholasticism, Romanesque and Gothic art) but would have had nothing to do with subsequent ages, in particular with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. These modern eras, the traditionalists believe, were times of ‘decline’, which they often describe in veiled, umbrella terms like ‘de-hellenization’, ‘de-churching’ (= secularization) or ‘de-Christianization’. But this approach means surrendering to the debilitating myth of decline, which is averse to any form of progress.
Along these lines, Benedict XVI saw his task as consisting primarily in preserving rather than unfolding the truth, which, for him, meant preserving tradition. But, in asserting his supreme authority over all church teachings, he claimed to determine by himself – at best with reference to his more recent predecessors – what belongs to tradition and what does not. In this vein, his predecessor Pius IX replied to the bishops who challenged his impassioned insistence on his own particular definition of papal infallibility, which claimed to rest on the Bible and tradition, with the notorious riposte: ‘La tradizione sono io’ (‘I am the tradition!’) In reality, this papal dictum represents an absolutistic understanding of truth not unlike the absolutistic understanding of the state expressed by Louis XIV’s dictum: ‘l’État – c’est moi!’
And so, in the Catholic Church of the nineteenth and twentieth century a typical Roman Catholic traditionalism or fundamentalism developed, which believed that everything should and could be left as it was – or must be restored to what it once was. That the Church continually needs to be renewed, they understand, at best, only as a moralizing truism used to discipline individual believers, for instance, in calling them to adhere more closely to papal doctrines on sexual morality and to defend the privileges of the Church. This kind of traditionalism survives into our own day. Moralizing papal platitudes are given a cheering reception by the young people at the huge youth rallies with the pope, even as these same young people continue using the pill and condoms, leaving the vestiges behind on the very grounds where the day before they had so enthusiastically cheered the pope.
Unquestioning devotion to the past results in enfeebled creativity, mental impotence and anaemic scholasticism. No, traditionalism cannot be the Church’s top priority. Rather than an unreserved commitment to some version of the past, the Church needs freedom, a freedom that also manifests itself in a critical sifting of the Church’s own history. And such a critical attitude will therefore dissociate itself from the equally extreme alternative of fanatical Modernism.
I love what is new but I am not addicted to novelty as such. In modern society, many people swear by everything that is new. They demand an unconditional orientation towards the future, setting their sights on Utopia. In the twentieth century there were those who proclaimed the advent of a 1,000-year Reich (which perished in 1945 after only 12 years); others who proclaimed the emergence of a classless society (it had run its course and collapsed by 1989). But even in the twenty-first century, many still dream of a new shape that humanity could take as a result of technological or ecological evolution, or political and social revolution. But neither black, nor brown, nor red, nor green Utopian visionaries have succeeded in bringing forth the ideal ‘new humanity’ of which they dream.
The Catholic Church has also had its share of individuals, groups and movements who were so fascinated by modern Utopias that they demanded a modernization of the Church by conforming to the spirit of the age. Alongside such modernizers, there also exists an odd Catholic mystical fanaticism paired with an apocalyptic belief in the future. The adherents of this type of apocalyptic thinking invoke higher revelations, mostly of more recent date, which go beyond those given by the historical Jesus Christ: precise prophecies about when and how the world will end, about a coming great war, about the conversion of Russia and the like, and they often underpin these prophecies with intricate numerological calculations. In his latest book, Benedict XVI himself gives an example of this kind of apocalyptic mysticism in referring to the strange ‘Secret of Fatima’. In short, these modern-day mystical prophets offer a medley of superstition and obscurantism – widely disseminated by the modern media – to satisfy the craving for miracles and religious sensationalism of people both educated and uneducated in religious teachings. But is this true Christianity? Surely not!
Christian Churches Need to Be More Christian
Catholicism, as it evolved historically, and particularly modern Catholicism in its current form, cannot be the yardstick by which the Church measures itself. Many within the Vatican and many external ‘supporters of the Vatican’ want to commit the Catholic Church to a status quo which is both comfortable and profitable to them. And so they reject – always with reference to a ‘higher’ (i.e. papal) authority – any proposals for change in the pathogenic course they have adopted for the Church, and they rule out any serious reforms to the Church’s teachings and practice: if it is not Roman (i.e. does not toe the Vatican line), it is not Catholic.
But more and more Catholics are seeing through the knee-jerk reactions that have brought Rome more and more power and only worsened the Church’s pathological condition. No one who has even the slightest idea of the real history of the Church can either ignore its flaws, ruptures and cracks, deny the many contradictions and inconsistencies in its history, or gloss over and excuse them.
Conversely, however, the question arises: can such things really be reformed and transcended? I admit that I have become increasingly sceptical, not just in view of the current, lamentable situation in the Catholic Church, but also in view of the epic upheavals and paradigm changes that mark the history of all three Abrahamic religions, and particularly the history of Christianity, which I have analysed in two decades of laborious research. Neither Catholic leaders nor church historians have taken seriously the consequences of such shifts for our present-day Church.
I will return later to the topic of paradigm change, those epochal changes in the overall mindset and way of doing things that, in the history of the Church, have led to the formation of separate confessional traditions and churches. But here, I want to highlight at least briefly some of the problems facing the Church as a result of such changes.
Anyone who knows the Church’s history will ask themselves: can one seriously expect a Church so deeply rooted in a Medieval paradigm (‘P III’ in my terminology – see Editor’s Note (#litres_trial_promo)) to embark on a new course in the future? Can one expect this of a Church which has largely forgotten the original Jewish–Christian paradigm of the Apostolic Church (‘P I’) and which only selectively accepts the early Christian–Hellenist paradigm of the first millennium (‘P II’)? Can one expect an adequate response to the current problems facing the Church from a Church that sees both the paradigm of the Protestant Reformation (‘P IV’) and the paradigm of Enlightenment and Modernity (‘P V’) only as a falling away from the true path of Christianity? How can such a Medieval, Counter-Reformation, anti-modernist Church manage the transition to a new, more peaceful, more just, ecumenical paradigm (‘P VI’) appropriate to the twenty-first century? Given the fact that, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church only partly managed to integrate the Reformation and modern paradigms and that currently a restoration of the pre-Vatican II paradigm is well under way, is such a Church at all capable of steering a path into the future that allows it both to preserve the original message of Christianity and express it anew?
And this brings us to the crucial point; the challenge to reform is addressed not only to the Catholic Church but to every church that considers itself Christian: the Protestant and the Orthodox churches are likewise not sanctuaries immune to similar criticism. The crucial question is always the same: Does one’s church faithfully incorporate and reflect the original Christian message, the Gospel, which to all intents and purposes is Jesus Christ himself, to whom each church appeals as its ultimate authority? Or is it mainly a church system with a Christian label, be it Early Christian/Orthodox, Medieval/Roman, Protestant/Reformed or Modernist/Enlightened?
Without a concrete and consequent return to the historical Jesus Christ, to his message, his behaviour and his fate (as I described it in my book On Being a Christian ), a Christian church – whatever its name – will have neither true Christian identity nor relevance for modern human beings and society. For Catholics, that means that all the many Roman Catholic institutions, dogmas, doctrines, ceremonies and activities must be measured according to the criterion of whether they are ‘Christian’ in the strict sense of the word or, at the very least, not ‘anti-Christian’, in short, whether or not they are in agreement with the Gospel.
This is what so many people in the Church are hoping for when they say to themselves: our Church must become more Christian again, must once again model itself on the Gospel, on Jesus Christ himself. And to ensure that such hopes are not dismissed as an unrealistic theological agenda, I want to illustrate this point so crucial for the survival of the Church with an – admittedly drastic – image.
An Ominous Snapshot
Few scenes in the recent history of the Catholic Church have troubled me as much as the one that took place on 8 April 2005 in St Peter’s Square in Rome. The occasion was the opulent funeral for Pope John Paul II, staged with a degree of pomp and circumstance that would have befitted a Roman emperor. As always, the camera work had been pre-arranged between the Vatican and Italian television, ensuring that the ceremony was impressively broadcast to an audience of many millions all over the globe. During the ceremony, Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Dean of the College of Cardinals, and vested in festive crimson, came down the steps and took his place next to the deliberately chosen plain wooden coffin. Next to the coffin – placed there equally deliberately – stood a huge crucifix realistically representing the cruelly tortured body of the suffering and crucified Christ. I could not imagine a greater contrast. On the one side, one saw the opulently clad head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern name for the notorious, former Sanctum Officium of the Inquisition, which, with its authoritarian teachings and secret inquisitorial proceedings, has for centuries been responsible for the suffering of innumerable people within the Church and which to this day, more than any other papal institution, embodies the concentrated power of the new Imperium Romanum – a point underscored by the presence of 200 guests of state from all over the world, including, in the first row, the family of the war-mongering president of the United States, George W. Bush. On the other side, one saw the Man of Sorrows from Nazareth, who in his life had preached peace, non-violence and love, and who represents a last court of appeal for all those unjustly persecuted, tortured or suffering innocently.
Involuntarily, one is reminded of the figure of Christ in the famous chapter on the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. According to the tale, Jesus Christ has returned to sixteenth-century Spain and has been incarcerated by the Grand Inquisitor of Seville with the intention of burning him at the stake as a heretic because he dared to bring freedom to humankind, a freedom that, in the mind of the Grand Inquisitor, human beings are utterly incapable of living. Confronting Jesus, the Inquisitor demands to know: ‘Why have you come to get in our way?’ In response, the prisoner answers not a single word; instead, at the end of the Inquisitor’s reproaches, he gently kisses the wizened old man on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. Touched by this incomprehensible gesture, the Grand Inquisitor, instead of pronouncing sentence, shows him the door, opens it and sends him away, saying: ‘Go and do not come back … do not come back at all … ever, ever!’
But Jesus does come back – again and again. I have often thought how easy it would be to transpose this story from gloomy sixteenth-century Seville to the friendlier Vatican of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The subject of the freedom of Christians is as topical as ever. And this perhaps constitutes ‘the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism’, as Dostoyevsky conjectured when he had the Inquisitor say to Jesus: ‘It was all told to you by the Pope and so it is now all of it in the Pope’s possession, and now we should appreciate it if you would stay away altogether and refrain from interfering, for the time being at any rate.’ But then, to many people’s astonishment and dismay, Ratzinger – the head of the Congregation that today, although no less authoritarian than its predecessor, uses more subtle methods of repression – was himself elected pope. In an initial charm offensive, he presented himself as a humane and charitable shepherd, but time and again he revealed his old face as the merciless head of the Inquisition. And after a time, many people noted how Pope Benedict XVI was following a disastrous course not unlike that pursued by George W. Bush. It was no coincidence that, at Bush’s invitation, Benedict happily celebrated his 81st birthday in the White House, together with the autocratic president: both men, Bush and Ratzinger, proved themselves over the years to be incapable of learning anything, for example in their common stance on the issue of abortion. Both have exhibited an antipathy to serious reforms and a fondness for ostentatious public appearances. Both have ruled autocratically and without administrative transparency. Both have been intent on limiting people’s rights and freedoms and justify this with the need to maintain ‘security’.
As a corrective for poor or misguided leadership, the constitutions of democratic countries provide limited terms of office and regular elections. Unfortunately, the authoritarian papal monarchy makes no provision for such democratic correctives: not even the College of Bishops is empowered to curb an autocratic pope. The result is widespread alienation of a substantial number of believers and a moral dilemma for many of today’s most actively involved Catholics. As one prominent Catholic recently put it to me, ‘Ratzinger’s Church is not my Church!’ Many have already voted with their feet. Regularly, I receive suggestions – not just from indignant conservatives! – that I should imitate the many thousands who have left the Church in the last decades. Disappointed Catholics argue that in the eyes of the hierarchy and the conservative clergy and laity who increasingly set the tone in the Church, critical theologians are merely a ‘source of irritation’ to be ignored or silenced. In place of a truly broad, ‘Catholic’ Church reflecting the full spectrum of legitimate opinion and practice, Rome and its neo-conservative allies now dream of reducing the Church to a ‘small flock’ of ‘true believers’ unconditionally loyal to the pope and willing to follow Vatican directives.
But, then, before my mind’s eye, very different images of the Catholic Church take form.
The Other Church
These are images that have little to do with the triumphal demonstrations of power in St Peter’s Square, but instead reflect what can be experienced thousands of times over around the world. Everywhere I go, I meet deeply committed people in parishes and hospitals, schools and charitable institutions, who in their practical day-to-day involvement in church life are following in the footsteps and in the spirit of the man from Nazareth. They are people who – notwithstanding their personal foibles – do much good for their neighbours and for the community, both within and beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. When I look at these people, it becomes impossible for me to think only of the sexual abuse cases and their cover-up or of the other scandals that have recently come to light. All over the world, I have met clergy working on the front line, wearing themselves out in the service of others. I see innumerable men and women who offer support to young and old, to poor and sick people, to those who have been given a raw deal in life, to those who suffer under their own failures.
This is not an idealistic vision of the Church or a mere Utopian projection, but an empirical fact that is confirmed by many other Catholics and Christians generally, and that explains why they, too, do not wish to leave or do away with the Church. And this is the Church with which I can still identify: the global community of committed believers, a community that extends beyond the narrow boundaries of individual denominations. This community of faith is the true Church. Of course, I do not exclude popes, cardinals, bishops or all manner of prelates from this Church, nor do I exclude the dignitaries of other churches either. But, for me, all of these officeholders, who represent the Church as a concrete visible institution, are of secondary importance, since, according to the New Testament, they should only be the servants and not the masters: ‘not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy’ (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:24). After all, it was not without reason that, in its constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council deliberately placed Chapter II on the ‘People of God’ in front of Chapter III on the hierarchical structure of the Church, although it could not prevent the Curia from scandalously tampering with the text of that chapter. This priority set by the Council should not merely apply in theory but also in practice. In the current reality of the Catholic Church, unfortunately, this is seldom the case.
For the time being, we must wait and see if Pope Francis will prove to be a pope in the tradition of Pope John XXIII, who better fitted St Gregory the Great’s description of the papal office as ‘Servant of the Servants of God’ than the concept behind the customary titles of more recent origin, ‘Holy Father’ and ‘Your Holiness’, that set the pope above his episcopal confreres and give him a quasi-divine status. At the moment, Pope Francis is giving mixed signals. Although he has introduced a new, more simple and humble style into the Vatican, there are also indications that he will take the same hard line on dogmatic, moral and disciplinary issues that his immediate predecessors have taken. And, in the same vein, there are currently relatively few bishops who convincingly demonstrate that they are independent servants of their dioceses rather than compliant servants of the Roman Curia. In any case, I speak for myself and many others of like mind in saying that we are not Christians because of the church hierarchy and we are not Catholics because of the pope in Rome.
I give thanks to another and higher authority (and to many helpful fellow men and women) that my belief has remained unshaken: not my belief in the Church as an institution, but my belief in Jesus Christ, in his person and cause, which remain as the original core of the good traditions of the Church, of its liturgy and theology, and which, despite all of the undeniable decadence and corruption in the Church, have never disappeared and never will. The name of Jesus Christ is like a golden thread in the often torn and besmirched (and, therefore, constantly cleaned and rewoven) fabric of the Church in the course of its history.
And, therefore, at the end of this first chapter I will return to my initial question: ‘Can we save the Catholic Church?’ Yes we can, but only if the spirit of Jesus Christ moves our whole community of faith anew and endows the leadership of the Church with new credibility, understanding and acceptance. That, in turn, depends on those of us who together constitute this community of believers and who are open to the breath of the Holy Spirit, which moves where and as it wills.
Much of what prevents people from being open to the Spirit will be described in the next chapters. I will show how the church community is suffering under the Roman system of power. This system developed gradually, beginning in the first century AD, and was being claimed, theoretically at least, in Rome by the middle of the first millennium. Outside of Rome, however, it found little acceptance until around the end of the first millennium and the first centuries of the second millennium, and then only in the West – with fatal consequences for all of Christianity. It is necessary to soberly and precisely analyse this Roman system to discover whether the Catholic Church could not, perhaps, be saved if it ceased to be enslaved to this system.
Whether academic or popular, criticism of the Church often lacks historical depth. Some things are described as ‘fundamentally Catholic’, even if they developed during a later stage of Catholicism, and, conversely, other things are dismissed as being utterly ‘non-Catholic’ even though they had been present from the beginning and existed for centuries. What is urgently required, therefore, is a well-founded historical analysis that can shed more light on the matter.
To make an accurate diagnosis of an illness, one must not merely look at the symptoms; one must get to the causes. A diagnosis of the Church’s illness, therefore, must take into account the most recent scientific research: Catholic and non-Catholic historians alike now agree on many points that were once debated between Catholic apologists and non-Catholic critics. The no-longer-contested findings of modern historians make uncomfortable reading for the Roman Curia and their supporters, and so they continue to ignore them, not just in theory but also in practice, a fact eloquently documented by the many unheard, historically well-founded demands for reform. Hence, a comprehensive anamnesis – a re-membering – of the Church’s history, seeking to understand the origins and development of the Church’s illness, is imperative. Without such an anamnesis there is no question of a cure.
During my years as a student in Rome, I dutifully listened as a tame, domesticated history of the Roman Catholic Church was recounted, and this left me unsatisfied. Since my early days as a young professor, I have repeatedly turned my attention to historical studies. My long project of anamnesis is reflected and documented, with abundant references and concrete details, in many of my books.
Many conservative readers, after reading this highly critical book, will no doubt object that I have not dealt with the positive sides of the Church, but the positive aspects of the Catholic Church have all been set forth at length in my previous books. To repeat them here would only distract from the problem at hand. In particular, my book The Church, published over forty-five years ago, is still considered topical and relevant and, translated into many different languages, is still used as a classic textbook in universities today. My books Christianity: Its Essence and History (1995) and The Catholic Church: A Short History (2001) present detailed, systematic accounts of the Catholic Church’s overall historical development. The present book, therefore, does not deal with the history of the Church in general, but with the Church’s specific medical history, and the causes of the illness of the Church. As already discussed, I will concentrate here on problems with the Church’s constitution and with the central Roman institution of power, the papacy.
It is time to investigate a long and chequered history. Let us start at the beginning.
1. Peter – the First Pope?
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