The estimable Rick Hertzberg leads the current New Yorker with a
on the current Catholic crisis. The kicker packs a wallop:
extent that the Church manages to purge itself of
sins, its crimes–it will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the
journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the
courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to
account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of
children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist,
liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often
set its face, turns out to be its best teacher–and the savior, you
say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants.
Those who conceive of religious institutions as the unique stewards of moral values in contemporary Western society need to think about that. But Hertzberg also makes an historical misstep that’s important to correct:
The Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution, modeled on the
political structures of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. It is
better at transmitting instructions downward than at facilitating
accountability upward. It is monolithic.
In the Middle Ages, the papacy did turn itself into a universal court of ecclesiastical appeals, and took charge of such matters as making saints and promulgating canon law. But bishops remained powerful, autonomous figures, chosen locally and running their dioceses without instructions from Rome. To be sure, popes (as well as secular lords) liked to get involved in episcopal elections–and complicated compromises were always on order. But though the Reformation (and beyond), the Church was a big, diverse, complicated, feudal entity, with lots of power centers and sources of influence and authority.
The model for the Catholic Church today is actually the modern authoritarian state. Doctrine and appointments are made at the center, and anyone who wishes to rise to the top knows that the curia must be cultivated. Sure, the wheels often don’t run smoothly or efficiently–that’s what modern authoritarian states are like. Think Kafka.
As the Benedictine regime struggles to get its act together, eyes are turning to the new norms being put forward to tell bishops how to handle abuse cases–notably a mandate to inform the civil authorities when abuse is reported. Over at In All Things, Austin Invereigh sees this as representing another step towards weakening bishops’ authority and centralizing power in Rome. I’m not so sure. The new norms do represent another assertion of papal power. But the reporting requirement serves to connect bishops to local civil society. And it’s local connections that, historically, have always enabled bishops to push back.