Does the Roman Catholic Church Need A New Council?

The Catholic Church is in serious trouble. That much is clear if only from the never-ending series of revelations of priests’ abuse of children put in their care that have sprung up in a number of countries. The situation cries out for someone willing to think clearly about finding an appropriate and effective response, above all one that could in some way work against such abuses ever happening again. Unfortunately, so far such a reaction has been forthcoming only from outside observers, such as from the (non-official) theologian and priest Hans Küng, and in an earlier blog-post I discussed his suggestion about abolishing the centuries-old requirement that priests stay celibate.

That was back around the beginning of March, but in the meantime even more abuse-revelations (from Germany, from Norway, etc.) have surfaced in the world’s press, and Küng has apparently felt the need to radically re-think – with the emphasis on “radical.” Yes, the occasion of the five-year anniversary of Benedict XVI’s accession to the papal throne earlier this month has clearly concentrated his thoughts, but what has clearly moved him even more to write publicly again is his sense of the Catholic Church now “in the deepest crisis of confidence since the Reformation.” The result is his recently-published open letter, addressed to all Roman Catholic bishops – thus going under the Pope’s head, so to speak, to appeal instead to his direct constituency within the Church hierarchy. That’s a rather audacious approach to take when the head of that hierarchy is held by official dogma to be infallible, even more so when what you’re advocating is a far-reaching reform program that goes far beyond the sexual abuse of children. (Kung nonetheless does term those abuse revelations himmelschreiende Skandale, or “scandals crying to Heaven.”)

In Kung’s view, the Church’s current problems do encompass much more than just that. He provides his own extensive summary of what he calls its “missed opportunities”; I’ll just list the most prominent ones here:

  • Reconciliation with Protestant churches; the Catholic attitude here seems to be “they’re not really churches anyway”;
  • Reconciliation with the Jews; and to the anger prompted by Benedict XVI’s efforts to further the beatification of Pius XII, the pope during World War II (who did little to support the Jews in their plight), we now have in addition the statement by the pope’s spokesman at the last Good Friday services that the current criticism of the pope for the sex-abuse scandals was like anti-Semitism;
  • Reconciliation with Muslims; we all remember Benedict’s speech, early in his pontificate, in which he characterized Islam as a religion of violence;
  • Reconciliation with the Anglican Church; recall how the Vatican not long ago tried to lure away an Anglican priest by promising that celibacy would not be required of him if he defected to Roman Catholicism;
  • Helping Africans in their struggle against AIDS, by permitting condom use;
  • Coming to terms with modern science, by accepting evolution and permitting stem-cell research.
Küng also levels the general charge against Benedict XVI of steadily working to reverse the reforms brought in back in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council. Those were supposed to bring the Church closer to the people, and the Pope closer to the bishops and cardinals who help him run that Church; they were also something Küng himself worked to bring about, since at the time he served as an advisor to the Second Council along with the then Father Joseph Ratzinger (known today as Pope Benedict XVI, of course). But now Benedict has gone back to celebrating the Holy Eucharist solely in Latin, for example, his back turned to the congregation. And he has accepted into the Church bishops who were illegally ordained by the right-wing reactionary Society of St. Pius X, something that the Second Vatican Council reforms were supposed to outlaw. (Note that one of those illegal bishops, Richard Williamson from England, was sentenced just last week by a German court to pay a fine of €10,000 for Holocaust-denial.) It all adds up to one unholy mess, and according to Küng has resulted in an acceleration of long-present and portentous institutional trends, namely abandonment by parishioners of their local churches and by priests and priest-candidates of their Church.

Something must be done, something far more comprehensive than merely removing the celibacy requirement for priests. Indeed, Küng now approaches the Church’s travails through a wider perspective which concentrates on the institutional question of how any reforms can be enacted, rather than what those reforms in particular should be. That question is nonetheless a daunting one when the Church is headed by a pontiff who has worked to concentrate all authority within the small circle of himself and his top advisers, many of whom are directly implicated in covering-up the sexual abuse scandals (including Benedict XVI himself, as Küng states directly here), and none of whom has shown true remorse involving any sincere desire to investigate and punish those responsible.

Hey Party People!

Well, Tea Party people, what do you do when things are going to Hell in a handbasket yet Government remains unresponsive to demands for reform? Outside of violent rebellion – which is not cool; and there’s really no analogue to that in Roman Catholic terms, other than breaking apart to start your own church, which has been tried repeatedly – you call a Constitutional Convention, of course. That’s the way for the broad, incensed masses to circumvent those who exercise authority under the current rules of the political game by changing those very rules. The Catholic equivalent is that idea of a “Council,” in which the Pope and all top Church authorities meet (over a period spanning years) to consider and enact broad reform measures. These don’t happen that often, although that Second Council in the sixties was only the “second” to take place in the Vatican proper; there were other ones in history before the First Vatican Council (1869-70, where the notion of papal infallibility was instituted), most notably the Council of Trent (1545-63) which spent nineteen years making changes designed to strengthen the Catholic brand after the surprise emergence a few decades earlier of a competing Protestant spiritual product.

That’s what Hans Küng ultimately asks the bishops to do in his open letter: convene a new Council. Actually, that is but the sixth and final point of the reform program he outlines. But it’s easy to see how reforms #s 1-5 are destined not to go down well at all with papal authority: numbers 1, 3, and 4 (respectively “Don’t be silent,” “Embrace collegiality,” and “Bear absolute allegiance only to God”) clearly constitute a call to the bishops not to let themselves be intimidated by the Vatican, while numbers 2 and 5 (“Reform however you can” and “Try regional solutions”) amount to a call not to wait on the Pope to institute reforms but to just go ahead and do it in your own local jurisdiction. Then again, it’s difficult to envision any meaningful reform not authorized by the Vatican (e.g. abolishing priest celibacy) coming into force in any local Catholic jurisdiction without there also being a big fuss and even a threatened “civil war within the Church” – which, if those enacting the reform(s) in question do not back down, would probably have to lead to the sort of Council that Küng is calling for anyway.

Believe it or not, Hans Küng has remained a Roman Catholic priest “in good standing” (in his own words, as expressed in one of his many books) since his ordination in 1954. He simply has not been allowed to teach as a Church theologian since 1979, following (by some years) publication of his book Infallible? An Inquiry, in which the subject was the Pope and answer was “no.” With this latest open letter he is at least being quite consistent; he clearly sees his old colleague Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, as the obstacle to saving the Roman Catholic Church as a necessary, relevant, and morale component of present Western society, and in effect is calling upon the body of bishops to circumvent him to pass needed reforms. It remains to be seen whether (at 82 years of age) he will go to his death still as a priest; and it remains to be seen whether his call will be heard.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.