The recent PBS documentary from Frontline, “Secrets of the Vatican,” was an artful mix of baroque music, sweeping cinematography, imaginative speculation, and recycled conspiracy theories. It contained a gelatinous mixture of truths, half-truths, and no truths. Still, it left me feeling like nobody will ever know why Pope Benedict resigned his office, why the Vatican Bank is such a mess, why canon law is evidently hard to enforce, and why the Church hierarchy can’t be more open and transparent about its inner workings.
By drumming on the fact that the Vatican is a City State, as if its geography is evidence of an inherently insular mindset, the Frontline documentary wanted viewers to feel outrage at the arrogance, pride, and hubris of the Vatican. I felt some of that, but mostly I just felt sad that the Church does not do a better job of listening to its critics, no matter how unfair they are. The source of complacency in any large organization is usually too much self-satisfaction, as well as an overburdened and overly complex bureaucracy, and there is a lot of that in Catholicism.
Kant once wrote a book criticizing a “newly raised superior tone in philosophy,” and I think a similar book could be written about a “very old superior tone in Roman Catholicism.” Catholic priests, theologians, and apologists too often have a triumphal tone that grates on Protestant and secular ears alike. There is an assumption of correctness, of moral rightness and theological certainty that oversteps the virtue of humility, the all-too-human history of the Church, and its own teachings.
The great intellectual and moral riches of the Church make it an easy target for scoffers and cynics, but that wealth can also insulate it from its own rank and file. The Church is so defensive on internal matters that it is not surprising that it often seems unable to listen to more serious charges from the outside. The result is a program like “Secrets of the Vatican”lurid stories aimed at people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Church is too self-important to admit its weaknesses and mistakes.
Every Catholic knows what these internal problems are, even if they won’t admit it. Parish life is ailing. Music in masses is still barely tolerable. There is very little effort to get the laity involved in the mission of the Church beyond fundraising. The lackluster role of the laity is symbolized by the announcements they are allowed to make at the end of the mass. Who is listening to them?
The problem stretches beyond the uninvolved laity. Priests are often good administrators, great counselors, and inspiring moral examples, but many priests are not good preachers and most, it seems to me, are not really theologically inclined, no matter how long their schooling. And too many Catholic parishes have ridiculously low standards for Christian education, whether it is the RCIA program or confirmation classes.
Catholic theology itself is an insider’s game with little fiefdoms and big lords. The Catechism is treated as an end in itselfas a serious theological work that answers all questionsrather than as a means to good discussion by raising all the good questions. The creeds are used to shut down important theological debates. Too many theological topics are assumed to be closed that are still open to anyone who has examined them. We seem to be entering into a new period of Scholastic Thomism, which will result, no doubt, in another cycle of radical calls for theological renewal and defensive echoes of Thomas.
The Church does not need a renewed anti-clericalism based on individualism and relativism, but it does need a new appreciation for the laity and a more open attitude toward the ongoing life of the mind. It needs to wear its moral and theological authority with a little less ostentation. With so much truth, what is there to hide? It needs leadership that is curious, flexible, humble, and energized. That suggests to me that it needs, during this sad time, precisely what God has given it, and that would be Pope Francis.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
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