Disempowerment in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1998

The dramatic speed of the Catholic clergy’s loss of power and influence in Ireland in the past decade is at once a great upheaval and a great opportunity. Disorientation causes anxiety, but makes us also open to the possibilities of new directions. There are aspects of ‘Catholic Ireland’ that we would be foolish to try to resuscitate (chiefly clerical supremacy), and aspects of western secularism we would be unwise to adopt (the shopping mall as Holy of Holies). We are at once passionately aware both of the valuable aspects of our culture that are in danger of dying, and of the meretricious nature of much of what threatens to replace it. We are at a moment of supreme crisis and opportunity.

Inevitably there will be those who will wish to row Ireland back to clericalism – the ideology supporting clerical power – as though it were synonymous with Christianity. For these, Christ is essentially a cleric in love with clerical power, so the solution must lie in the restoration of a pyramid of clerical influence.

I would chart a different direction, based upon an understanding of Christ as layman
– subversive of pyramids in general, and therefore entirely in tune with the one of the great ideals of the modern age – the equalisation of human dignity. Christianity, I believe, is about the virtue of disempowerment rather than empowerment – understanding ‘power’ as domination, control of others.

Jesus disempowered himself

It is unnecessary to reproduce here the scriptural passages that illustrate Jesus’ self-disempowerment: his rejection of the temptation to worldly power by Satan (Matthew 4: 8-10) ; his refusal to be made king following the miracle of the loaves and fishes (John 6: 14,15); his rejection of the path of messiahship as understood by Peter (Matt 16: 21-23); his declaration that the apostles must not ‘lord it over one another’ as the gentiles do (Luke 22: 24-27); his self-abasement in the washing of the feet (John 13: 3-8); and finally his submission at Gethsemane and crucifixion on calvary. Jesus rejected the option of worldly power, deliberately making himself vulnerable to the power brokers of his time. This is not just part of the story – it is the story.

Traditionally – that is to say clerically – this is all explained in terms of the necessity for the crucifixion as a means of buying back or redeeming humankind after the fall. Yet this simply moves the question somewhere else. Why did the Father charge such a high price? Could it be to idealise a life lived without ambition to self-advancement, in a world where this ambition creates injustice and destroys community? This, after all, is the problem of every age – particularly our own. Clericalism has always advocated that we follow Christ – except in this central dimension of disempowerment. The reason for this exception is simple – clericalism is about empowerment, not disempowerment, and therefore cannot ‘image’ the latter.

It seems to me that we would all do well to ponder John 13: 3 – in which God’s power is associated not with the glorification of Jesus, but with his washing of the feet of the apostles, in the role of the domestic servant or slave. God’s power is here defined not as supremacy, but as service. Here and now in Ireland we are at a moment when the meaning of this can strike home with great effect. If divine power is in fact to be expressed in terms of service, then the Church in Ireland still holds divine power, not by virtue of clericalism, but through the unconditional service it still gives in many spheres, through both religious and lay people.

Something else we must notice: it is to the suffering, vulnerable Jesus that we humans are drawn in times of trauma, not to the image of Christ as King. It is the image of the cross that binds the church together, not the clerical pyramid that the church became in the fourth century. In fact that pyramid has always been a source of scandal and division, as Balthasar acknowledged in his work ‘The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church’. Worldly power can corrupt, and has corrupted, the church – but the church of service survives.

Understood in this way Christianity can resolve the great conundrum of our time: how to harness the creative power of individualism to the needs of community. If we invert in our minds the normal social pyramid of respect, placing the powerless at the summit of it, we redefine ‘success’ as service and low consumption. Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who consume least and do not think highly of themselves. Suddenly the Sermon on the Mount becomes a formula for saving the world, including the environment, from human selfishness.

Reclaiming Secularism

In this analysis Christianity is not the inevitable victim of secularism, but its eventual fate. The Judeo-Christian perception of the individual as supremely precious to God (as in the parable of the lost sheep) is brought to full fruition in Jesus, the immensely gifted individual who chose to die in service, rather than live in ambition. Liberalism is inadequate, because it takes us only as far as self-indulgence (the prodigal son). Christianity takes us further – into love of the Father which expresses itself as obedient service. This, and this alone, is true freedom.

Understood this way, rampant secularism does not demand the restoration of its social antithesis, clericalism, but its reclamation as lay service and generosity. In fact, as we know, there are many secularists in Ireland who already show this spirit while wanting nothing to do with clerical Catholicism – in St Augustine’s words they ‘belong to God but not to the church’.

In this analysis also, clericalism becomes a hindrance to the development of the church – because it associates Christ with a struggle for power rather than with self-denial and service. What the world needs is not clericalism but a secularism that goes beyond self-indulgence.

It follows that the nature of Christian authority also needs to be redrawn for the global church.

Rethinking authority and obedience in the Church

The decade of disempowerment of the Irish Catholic church coincides with a story of declining influence for the papacy in the west generally. Seeking to stabilise the Tridentine pyramid by a succession of edicts on contentious matters such as priestly celibacy and female ordination, the latter end of the papacy of John Paul II has attempted to place such matters within the scope of papal infallibility, and to silence dissent by making it an object of canonical sanction. It has also attempted to restrain those influences tending towards the expansion of the role of the laity in the church into areas once the monopoly of the priest.

As for matters that have transfixed ordinary catholics in countries as far apart as the USA, Ireland and Austria – the clerical sex scandals – the Vatican has presented an appearance of total indifference.

This stoical defensiveness may be seen as the culmination of a long-term historical trend of reaction against the weakening of the papacy throughout the past five centuries of modern history. Before the Reformation the Popes were the rulers of sizeable territories in Italy, could still wield very considerable influence over western European states and were virtually sovereign in defining truths of all kinds. Now the Papacy clings to a miniscule territorial residue in the city of Rome, has completely lost its control of most branches of knowledge, and has difficulty in enthusing even its bishops for the minute control it now seeks to exercise over discourse within the church. It has experienced gradually the kind of disempowerment which has come so quickly and recently in Ireland.

However, that disempowerment is a loss of the kind of power that Christ deliberately renounced and never used – the power to compel, to silence and to subordinate. That power had been denied the church during its years of most dramatic growth in a Roman empire that often persecuted it. It was acquired as a gift not of God but of a declining secular empire, and it transformed what had been intended as a vehicle for the promotion of the kingdom of God into an ally of dynastic power, aristocratic hierarchy and educative monopoly. The contradictory society advocated by Christ became just another power pyramid mimicking the social hierarchy of the world. The papacy spoke, of course, of the uniqueneness of the kingdom of God, but contradicted that kingdom in its own culture. (The Vatican’s recent search for a replacement for the murdered commanding officer of the Swiss guard reminded us that candidates are still specifically sought for their connections with aristocratic families!)

Vatican II was, of course, supposed to put an end to this kind of disintegrity. The church’s present condition results from a conflict between the libertarian culture proposed by Vatican II and the authoritarian culture of the Vatican itself, fighting the last rounds in a centuries-old battle for survival as apex of an authority pyramid. The papacy’s present problem is that it confuses authority with control. Intent upon safeguarding what it defines as orthodox belief, it silences theologians for dissent and attempts to place certain issues – notably female ordination – beyond discussion and debate.

The nature of authority today

Implicit in these actions is a perception by the magisterium that the authority of the church rests upon the purity and internal consistency of its teachings. In fact, authority today rests upon something entirely different – the perceived integrity of the truth claimant – the degree to which the claim is validated in the behaviour of the person or institution making that claim.

A recent example was the hilarious contradiction between the ‘back to basics’ claimed moral ethos of the last Tory government in GB and the tide of ‘sleaze’ – sexual and venal licence – that overtook the party itself in its last years. The correctness of the party’s verbal morality was not questioned. The party lost authority – the power to influence its hearers – solely by virtue of the fact that it had no perceived integrity. It lost the subsequent general election in 1997 to a party which had already embraced the ethos of the Tories but was perceived as less hypocritical, cynical and arrogant. Its authority rested, and rests still, not upon what it says, but upon the degree to which it is perceived to be faithful to what it says.

There are two reasons why this should concern the Vatican. First, Christ’s claim is threefold: he is not simply the truth, but the way and the life as well. His call to us is not just to believe what he believes, but to follow him. Were we to follow the magisterium, and do nothing else, we would simply become sources of complacent wisdom occupying grandiose real estate in the capitals of major cities – fountains of knowledge essential for salvation, but entirely unable to live the life that Jesus lived, to image the truth as he did. The Vatican images clericalism, not disempowerment and service, and is therefore culturally counter-evangelical.

Second, the information and media revolutions now ongoing create a raging torrent of information, of claims to truth relating to all intellectual disciplines and moralities. There is a global free market in wisdoms, and these too have become interchangeable and disposable. The scientific approach to truth – the building of conceptual models to explain phenomena, to be forgotten when a better model comes along – now influences the process by which we arrive at philosophies of life. Thus, Catholicism as truth system and culture is evaluated and compared, and even ‘tried on’, with everything else available. The authority of the Popes to silence theologians is entirely irrelevant when measured against the failure of the authoritarians to image what their truth advocates – a life of poverty, simplicity, self-sacrifice. Catholicism is not working today, not because the church is divided on matters of belief but because it has failed to discover and propagate a lifestyle which resolves the conundrums of Christian practice in the world. The truth is that we in the west do not clearly know how to be practical Christians today, and the presence or absence of a catechism, the silence or noise of a liberation theologian, is irrelevant to this problem.

It needs to be said forcefully also that clericalism is actually delaying the finding of a solution. It can survive only by fostering the infantilism and passivity of the laity.

One important source of this passivity is the clerical complexification of the faith, its transmutation into a vast textual mystery requiring years of study to master. The Spirit is entrapped in all of this, rather than released. The layman is thus made aware of his own incompetence, as a means of maintaining the clerical pyramid. There is an overwhelming need for prioritisation and elucidation of fundamental truths, so that the essential simplicity of the Christian challenge can be recovered, and the spirit catch fire. The rate at which pentecostalism is overhauling the Catholic church in Latin America, in terms of religious practice, should be a warning and an inspiration. Catholicism must become portable – a spirit informed by key truths, rather than an inert body of knowledge so vast that it intimidates and baffles all but the supreme owners of the mystery.

The significance of the Internet

In this context – the problem of turning theory into practice – the Vatican’s approach to the Internet is hilarious. Exhilarated by the power of the medium to broadcast information cheaply it has created a sumptuous website complete with renaissance buttons to all the news and instruction in the Holy See’s present stall. It revels in the number of ‘hits’ recorded. It simply doesn’t understand that the Internet’s most significant effect is to transform information consumers into information producers, all convinced they have a corner on the truth, all equipped to seek the rest of it, and to propagate their own truth. So the total of information available grows exponentially. The effect of this is a further diminishment of the power of any single voice, and the devaluation of all individual truth claims. With the commercialisation of the Web goes another sad fact: most of what we see is designed to exploit us in one way or another. In this company the Vatican site – associated as it is with a body of men intent upon selling us their minutely ordered brand of truth, but unable to prove in their lives the value of their product – is scarcely more impressive than an anti-dandruff shampoo advertisement.

In fact the Internet marks the end of the influence of all authoritarian pyramids. Because it allows networking at all levels, and multi-directional communication, it permits individuals their own intellectual odyssey in their own time. In this context the notion that any topic might be ‘off limits’ is merely quaint and archaic – effectively an incitement to debate it all the more. And this is exactly what has happened with the topics so identified on all the Catholic mailing lists and newsgroups on the ‘net. The silencing of dissident voices is completely pointless. The CDF’s declaration of excommunication of the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya actually boosted the sales and intellectual currency of his books. Now reconciled with the church, he can reflect that the CDF’s only achievement was to make him something of a celebrity.

If the centre of the clerical church is genuinely to address the problem of evangelisation today it must reconcile itself to this global free-market in information, and stop pontificating. It must become streetwise without sacrificing the love at the heart of our faith – (become as wise as foxes and gentle as doves). Above all, it must realise that we live in a society in which nothing travels ‘down’ the network unless even more is allowed to travel ‘up’. St Peter’s square is no longer a microcosm of the world. There is no mass audience out there any more, mouths agape to hear the truth from on high. What we have now are millions of individual pilgrims, each reading from an improvised map and determined upon an individual journey. The survival of
Catholicism depends no longer (if it ever did) upon unanimity, but upon the validity of its own claims to truth and inspiration – the fact that this truth is the ultimate destination of all journeys, the omega that embraces everything.

So, today, the individual is ‘converted’ not by mass media or by institutions, but by collision with other individuals of like mind. It follows that the centralisation of authority in a single individual or agency actually deprives society of truth by denying those individuals their autonomy. In relation to spiritual authority the Papacy is where the Kremlin was in relation to economic authority in the mid 1980s – more an obstacle than an inspiration. This is the challenge and the opportunity for those concerned about the church’s authority – to close the gap between Pope and person in the same way Jesus did. Not by looking for the highest pinnacle from which to exhort and pontificate, but by dealing with individuals as individuals on the same eye level. This demands the deliberate abolition of the hierarchy of respect implicit in the present church, the centralisation of authority and initiative which paralyses and demeans both the laity and the God in whom we believe. Jesus was a layman in the most important sense. Far from setting out to empower an elite he accepted the baptism of John, for whom salvation was as free and achievable as Jordan water. In today’s world the church and its wisdom will either be laicised or it will perish.

Authority and the individual

For the individual human being the authority of Christ derives from the deliberate vulnerability of Jesus, not his remote kingship. His truth did not empower him – instead it caused his death and proved his unexampled integrity. This is elementary. It is through Christ’s death, as well as his word, that we are saved. Christianity can only be a heroic commitment to service out of love, and Jesus can only be loved for his submission to powerlessness and crucifixion. He inspires by virtue not of a sovereign kingship based upon military sanctions, but by virtue of his refusal to exercise that kind of power.

It is from this inspiration alone that obedience emerges in the church, not from simple submission to authority. Christ did not upbraid or fire or silence his fickle apostles after the resurrection. Of Peter he simply asked ‘Do you love me’? If this love is not present in the relationship between Christians at all levels in the church we are again like the gentiles who ‘lord it over one another’. This love cannot be inspired by an authority which seeks to monopolise initiative and lacks complete integrity – that togetherness of word and deed that closes the chasm between the two.

Christianity is an invitation to moral heroism, addressed to the individual. It cannot function properly as an educational, social or political imposition. That invitation cannot be clearly heard in a church whose authority system seeks to impose and maintain itself by unilateral edict from on high. That it is heard at all in these circumstances is evidence of the power of God in opposition to the declining influence of structures made impotent and irrelevant by His democratisation of knowledge.

The challenge in Ireland

Thus, in Ireland and globally, the church is faced with both the crises and the opportunities of clerical disempowerment. Led by clerics, it is still too inclined to bemoan the anticlericalism of modernity. Deprived of worldly power it has an opportunity to test the charismatic effect of offering service, rather than domination – through its laity. Nowhere is that opportunity more obviously on offer than in Ireland today. We are now fully involved in the Church’s western struggle to go beyond clericalism. We will either break new ground here, or wait for it to be broken elsewhere.

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