Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the Dominican order, is by so many accounts one of the finest priests in the church today and one of the church’s most gifted leaders.
That is why anything he has to say about the priesthood and the state of the Catholic Church is worthy of our greatest attention and respect. We can convey the latter, however, not only in the form of accolades, but also in constructive criticism.
Father Radcliffe’s recent talk on the priesthood and the crisis of hope in the church, delivered at the annual convention of the National Federation of Priests Councils in Atlanta (Origins, 5/27/04), identifies three causes of demoralization among priests: the gap between the church’s official teachings and their reception by “ordinary Christians,” polarization of the church, and the sexual-abuse scandal.
The concern expressed in last week’s column was that his analysis of the first cause does not go deeply enough. Why is there any gap at all between the hierarchy and the laity (and many priests as well) on moral teachings? Is it possible that the teachings themselves are defective?
This week’s column addresses the second of the three proposed causes of demoralization, namely, what Father Radcliffe calls the “acute” polarization of the church.
He points out that priests “are called to be the focus of unity. But how can [they] do this when the Church is divided by deep mutual suspicion?”
He highlights the Pauline complaint about factionalism in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12-13), but updates the references to include such lines as: “I am for Cardinal Ratzinger,” “I am for Hans K√ºng.” He notes that each side today has its own seminaries, periodicals, newspapers, faculties and even dioceses.
Father Radcliffe acknowledges that the church has always been riven by divisions, ever since Peter and Paul clashed at Antioch. But “what is new today,” he suggests, “is not so much that we fight. That has always happened.”
“It is the failure to argue across boundaries. We talk about each other rather than to each other.”
“Where in the Church,” he asks, “do we really talk to each other across the trenches? Where are the places of a common search for the truth?”
Father Radcliffe inches close to identifying one of the deeper causes of polarization itself when he observes: “Those who have the power might not consider it necessary for such dialogue, and those who do not have it might despair of its possibility.”
One needs to push his point one step further. Polarization occurs in the absence of dialogue, but dialogue, he correctly implies, presupposes some measure of equality. Why, then, is there such an unequal distribution of power in the church today, making real dialogue all but impossible?
Such dialogue cannot happen if one side controls the agenda, the invitation list, the microphones and the decision to meet or not to meet, and also has the power to reward or punish participants.
It is hardly a level playing field.
But how did this unequal distribution of power come about? For a truthful answer, we need to speak openly about the proverbial elephant in the living room.
From the beginning of the second Christian millennium the Roman Catholic Church has been institutionally dominated by the papacy and Roman Curia. Except for certain favored ones, diocesan bishops have been increasingly regarded as quasi-vassals of Rome, from which they received their initial episcopal appointments and depend for subsequent promotions.
The laity, who once had a say even in the election of popes, were consigned to the lowest level of the ecclesiastical pyramid — passive recipients of spiritual benefits and moral direction from on high.
This system was reformed in principle by the Second Vatican Council, particularly with its doctrine of collegiality, but collegiality has become increasingly inoperative over the past 25 years, except in superficial ways. This has been especially evident in the appointment of bishops.
Many appointees would have been allied with the minority at Vatican II, in opposition to the conciliar reforms. By contrast, previous pontificates — Pius XII’s in particular — named the very bishops who became the leading proponents of reform at the Council: Suenens, D√∂pfner, Frings, K√∂nig, Alfrink, Montini (later Paul VI).
Today’s polarization (and consequent demoralization) did not just happen. It is, in large part, the result of a deliberate pattern of episcopal appointments that has not only shifted the balance of power disproportionately in favor of one faction in the church, but has at the same time consciously and deliberately withheld it from those in the church’s broad center — pastorally adept moderates of right and left alike.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.</P>