Saturday 27 December 2014

Garry O’Sullivan: Papacy needs a Gorbachev to confront tired empire

Published 26/02/2013 | 17:00

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message concluding a weeklong spiritual retreat at the Vatican over the weekend. But can the Church afford to cling to such pageantry and ceremony if it hopes to survive and prosper?

'BE not afraid' was one of the great recurring catch-phrases of Jesus, and yet, 2,000 years on, his church persists in the shady business of fear management. When there isn't openness, transparency or accountability, then power is devoid of collective scrutiny and inevitably becomes warped and misused. We've seen it in the banks, in politics and the media. The wielding of power by the few needs to be regulated by the many.

In the case of Christ's church, we should expect better checks and balances than are found in secular institutions but, ironically, the church has no oversight structures. It is run by a clerical caste, much to the embarrassment of many decent priests and laity the world over.

Historically, the institutional church manufactured fear based on its own fears; fear of science and progress, of educated followers, of other religions, of bible reading, of change, and it is fear that drives the institution today. A humble church for the people became a church that took from the Emperor Constantine the clothes of a dying empire, parting ways with the simplicity of its early foundation.

From then on, it would be 'princes of the church' instead of fishermen in charge; Popes would run empires and start wars rather than humbly lead; those who spoke out would be deemed heretics and burned at the stake. Catholicism had truly lost its way.

A simplistic analysis, some might say, but who can look back proudly on our history of governance and consider it enlightened? However, the resignation of Pope Benedict may be a turning point in the way this church is run. Under John Paul II, there was a return to the mystical, spiritual leader persona around the office of Pope. But Benedict has removed the veil, he says he cannot do the job of Pope anymore – something many of us Catholic observers believed but were afraid to say for fear of being labelled disloyal and modern 'heretics'.

To question the papacy even as a loyal Catholic is to bring opprobrium down on your head.

The Vatican is not the church and as an institutional centre it really has become an embarrassment for ordinary Catholics. It is steeped in clericalism. The protection of the clerical state at all costs was more important than believing children. The Vatileaks scandal displayed to the world Vatican officials locked in power struggles. The Vatican Bank – not for the first time – was involved in allegations of corruption and money-laundering. And so it goes on and on. It's not good enough to say 'well, yes, but they're slowly getting their house in order' or 'the church moves in centuries'. The imperative of Jesus is to announce the Good News now in our times and if the Vatican is a blockage to that – and it is, in my view – then it should be removed, or reformed.

The Vatican wasn't founded by Jesus, and the modern papacy is only a construct that came into being after the French Revolution. Popes weren't always elected by Cardinals. Lay people were involved. A lay person can technically become Pope. It doesn't have to be this way. There is a democratic tradition in the early church that has long been side-lined, and so much of the so-called tradition around the papacy as we know it is only a few hundred years old.

In the next conclave, we need a Gorbachev-style Pope to emerge who will confront those who want to maintain a medieval-style church while pretending that it is embracing modernity. We need a Catholic 'Glasnost' in the Vatican and a clearing out of the old guard.

Then start building a truly international church leadership and bureaucracy more akin to the UN, with elected posts filled by those elected by each bishops' conference.

The Pope would be elected by bishops' conferences from around the world, he would have a retirement age, and, with electronic voting, could be elected in hours, removing the need for the medieval pageantry of Cardinals voting in the Sistine Chapel while the world awaits the white smoke.

I love the Vatican pageantry, but I love the church that Jesus founded more and would gladly sacrifice pageantry, incense and red, papal Prada shoes for accountability, democratic structures and a stripping of the trappings of the late and not-so-great Roman Empire and its Caesars, whose vestiges of power still waft around and haunt the Papal Monarchy.

The church has nothing to fear but fear itself.

Garry O'Sullivan is Managing Director of 'The Irish Catholic'

Irish Independent

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