Centralization and tradition in the Church

A disturbing thing about the bishops’ response to the scandals resulting from entrenched homosexuality in the priesthood is that it illustrates the extent to which institutional orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church has become dependent on one man, the Pope. The other bishops, it appears, aren’t much interested—certainly not enough to break “collegiality,” which appears to be mostly another form of clericalism. The situation is antitraditional, since tradition is much more a matter of the way of life of a community than the explicit teachings of the community’s highest authorities.

For a long time in Western Christianity the tendency has been for common understandings based on tradition to become less important and centralized authority more so. In the early church bishops were often chosen by acclamation—everyone recognized that a man was meant to be bishop, so that’s what he was. Saints were created the same way for half of Christian history. Various developments—the rise of national states, protestantism, the French Revolution, modern ideologies—seemed to create an ever-greater need for centralization. That tendency reached its peak in modern times. Direct papal appointment of bishops became the rule in the late 19th century, the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined in 1870, and the Oath Against Modernism was imposed on all clergy from 1910 until after Vatican II.

Eventually there was a reaction to centralization, and Church discipline was relaxed. Unfortunately, the conditions that had given rise to the need for centralization were still there. The result is that while Rome’s theoretical authority remains everyone has gone his own way, with consequences we see most vividly in the current scandals. Today we have a super-active Pope churning out encyclicals, visiting continent after continent, and making hundreds of new saints. He makes very little attempt to enforce his views, however, and they are generally ignored when inconvenient.

Something’s obviously gone radically wrong. Loyalty to the Pope and to current magisterial statements is proposed as the remedy, but that seems inadequate if the problem is that the continuity of tradition has been lost. So the restoration of tradition, however difficult, is what’s needed. Without that formal directives from the Vatican are unlikely to be understood, and even if attended to will have nothing to work on.
Posted by Jim Kalb at June 21, 2002 03:59 PM | Send


Some thoughts:
Centralism has colored Catholic administrative thinking to the point of it all becoming rather grotesque. Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, is perplexed about the lack of centralization in his dealings with the Orthodox Church. “We are increasingly conscious of the fact that an Orthodox Church does not really exist.” he said, “At the present stage, it does not seem that Constantinople is yet capable of integrating the different autocephalous Orthodox churches.” Now, I’m quite willing to grant that the Orthodox bicker frequently about who has what authority and that this is neither helpful nor appropriate. However, the notion that a singular Orthodox Church doesn’t exist due to lack of a centrally wielded authority is patently absurd. The concept of a Church united in belief, doctrine, and liturgy but not in administration is alien to the Cardinal’s mind. This gives the appearance that the good Cardinal thinks the administration IS the church. Tradition needs no singular authority to wield it or protect it from corruption.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the bishop in RCism does not serve a useful function other than financial administration. The papacy holds too much power over each diocese and in the absence of papal oversight the bishops do nothing. When problems arise, the bishops at all levels defer until it reaches the pope’s desk. By that time most troubles have already metastasized into a cancer that threatens the church. The episcopate of the church cannot or will not take action without papal micromanagement. If that’s the case, then why are they there? Why not make the Pope the only bishop and rid the church of these superfluous characters?

The Vatican needs to confine itself to doctrinal matters and disciplining bishops who are clearly out of order. Turn the other bishops loose to correct or defrock rebellious or unorthodox clergy and excommunicate insurrgent laymen. Then support the bishops if their actions are just. The present situation of a bishop too timid to do anything without the Pope’s directive cannot long remain tolerable.

Posted by: Jason Eubanks on June 22, 2002 12:19 AM

It is interesting the extent to which counter-reformation (and specifically the RC Counter Reformation) is its own worst enemy. Allowing the radicals to frame debate and countering on their terms may be sometimes tactically effective, but it guarantees an ultimate loss — rather like fighting liberal democracy by voting.

Posted by: Matt on June 22, 2002 1:27 AM

I agree, that the Vatican should focus on doctrine and administration of prelates. The problem is that, as stated, the bishops are timid. The fact is they are afraid to even excommunicate people who teach a multitude of errors, while claiming to be Catholic.

However, in no way should there be ‘Collegiality’ which many liberals favour. As that would put at risk the doctrines of the Faith. We all know what Cardinal Mahony would do if he had more power…

Posted by: Matteo on June 22, 2002 10:07 AM

So far as I can make out, “collegiality” means:

1. Don’t rock the boat.

2. It’s great to be a bishop, and we ought to stick together to make it even better.

2. It’s the organization and not the person that matters. Being a bishop is not personal leadership or care of souls, it’s maintaining a smoothly-running organization that’s comfortable for the staff and makes them respectable. If any religious problems come up the experts can take care of them in accordance with current professional standards. No fuss, no muss, no bother. How could anyone have a problem with that?

For an example of collegial thought, here’s The Pilot’s criticism of Bp. Bruskewitz:

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 22, 2002 10:33 AM

I’m struck by how the Church in Mr. Kalb’s description resembles the ancién régime.

But isn’t the corruption of the Church in America due to the fact that the Vatican has given the bishops too much leeway, rather than too little?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 22, 2002 4:12 PM

It seems to me that that is what happens when tradition gets marginalized as an authority, though: you have an increasing centralization of power on the one hand, deemed necessary in order to keep things in line, and increasing arbitrariness at the periphery as the princes exercise their newfound autonomy. The two gradients are not opposed: at both ends of the spectrum the will of actual persons gains increasing power as tradition’s power decreases. You saw this in the protestant schism as both princely and papal power increased simultaneously in reaction to Hegelian conflict. The modern world has the hubris to believe that it has transcended such conflict, of course.

Posted by: Matt on June 22, 2002 4:21 PM

The proposal to give the bishops responsibility and hold them to it is a good one. Why bother arguing with Rembert Weakland over what kind of cathedral he builds when it’s an outrage he was a bishop at all?

Here’s a random snippet a quick web search turned up:

“In November 1990, the Vatican blocked the Catholic faculty at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, from giving Archbishop Weakland an honorary degree. The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education said the action was taken because the archbishop’s statements on abortion has confused U.S. Catholics. The Vatican was able to block the degree because this university has a pontifical charter.”


If the Vatican thinks he’s so bad they intervene to keep someone from honoring him, how can they keep him on as a shepherd of souls?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 22, 2002 4:45 PM

It could be that the view from the outside of the Vatican (e.g. having dictatorial powers) looks rather different from the inside. Formal arrangements are important, but not nearly so much so as moderns believe.

The middle class have a horrifically skewed view of the rich, the janitor has a horifically skewed view of the CEO, the peasant has a horifically skewed view of the prince, etc. All the more reason to be respectful of tradition. A part of me would love to see purgatory on earth to be sure, but I’d rather see the See of Peter giving of itself to tradition than to the modern model of individuals, kings, princes, and popes who rule their domains absolutely by divine right.

Posted by: Matt on June 22, 2002 4:57 PM

Collegiality, is making the Church more ‘democratic.’ Tries to make Bishops have much more of a say. Perhaps some want to take it far enough to make collegiality as voting for doctrine, which is downright heretical.

Basically, Traditional Catholics, such as me, reject Collegiality as an attempt by Modernists.

Posted by: Matteo on June 23, 2002 12:13 PM

Don’t mistake my posts as support for ‘collegiality’, or more lay participation, or church democracy, any of that nonsense. My basic contention is that for Rome to effectively purge the Church of modernism a first step is to return — internally — to a pre-reformation view of the relation between politics and the Church. The notion of dictatorially absolute temporal power — even of the individual over himself, which is really a modern fiction that denies man’s social nature while affirming his will-to-power — is intrinsically anti-Catholic. Sure, the world won’t ‘get it’ — but until the Church rejects the modernism within herself, which ironically she ingested in reaction to protestantism by engaging protestantism on its own terms, she will be tormented by it. Redemption is not possible without repentance.

Posted by: Matt on June 23, 2002 2:43 PM

I am not saying you support collegiality.

Also, I am strongly against the idea that the Pope should be followed blindly, like some ‘conservative’ Catholics say. Note, I am a Traditional Catholic, not a ‘conservative.’

Indeed, Protestantism has really led to problems, such as Liberalism and Modernism. It has also affected the Catholic Church.

Posted by: Matteo on June 24, 2002 4:27 PM

I am not saying you support collegiality.

Also, I am strongly against the idea that the Pope should be followed blindly, like some ‘conservative’ Catholics say. Note, I am a Traditional Catholic, not a ‘conservative.’

Indeed, Protestantism has really led to problems, such as Liberalism and Modernism. It has also affected the Catholic Church.

Posted by: Matteo on June 24, 2002 4:27 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):