POPE BENEDICT XVI has denounced the predator priests with due severity, but he cannot credibly chastise their enabler bishops because he has been one of them. The whole Catholic Church seems to be in crisis, but what is really at stake here is the collapse not of Catholicism, but of Catholic fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is the raising of religious barricades against tides of change. Protestant fundamentalists use the Bible (quoting verses of scripture) as both sword and shield. Catholic fundamentalists use the papacy that way (quoting encyclicals). Today's Vatican presides as center of a command society with global reach, attempting to exert absolute control over all aspects of Catholic life, from the major (doctrine) to the minor (altar boys). Despite the impression that even many Catholics have, such papal dominance is a modern phenomenon. The Vatican was not always a corporate headquarters, with the world's bishops as menial regional office managers, priests as messengers, the laity as mere customers.
In the past, bishops were elected by local churches. Uniformity on core doctrines was balanced by diversity on more marginal issues, with real differences shaped by regional culture. Bishops had significant autonomy, and acting together in General Councils they exercised supreme Catholic authority. All of this changed during the culture wars of the 19th century, when revolutionary movements identified the church (inaccurately) with the targeted aristocracy. The pope was a supreme ruler only over the papal territories in Italy, and when he lost those in the humiliations of 1870, Catholic bishops rallied to him at the simultaneous Vatican Council I. His political collapse led to his spiritual elevation, with the bishops only then promulgating papal infallibility. Paradoxically, the pope's claim to supreme Catholic authority, even over a council, rests on the council's declaration. Meanwhile, Vatican-dominated Catholicism, even understood as a rejection of modern trends, embodied the most modern trend of all - a
Catholic version of 19th century nationalism organized around all-powerful strong men, like Bismarck and Garibaldi.
In subsequent decades, the Vatican solidified this unprecedented centralization (which was enabled by new technologies like telegraph, railroads, and ocean liners) with a new version of canon law, Rome-based institutions like the North American College that made a symbolic drinking from the Tiber a pre-requisite for promotion to bishop, and "concordat'' treaties with states that emphasized Vatican prerogatives over the local church (including the notorious Reichskonkordat that undercut German Catholics and their resistance to Hitler). But Catholics everywhere found cohesion in their identification with the Holy Father, an especially vital advantage in places where they faced political oppression, as in Ireland, or discrimination, as in America. In effect, the pope replaced Jesus Christ as the face of the church, and the more the pontiff was attacked, the more papal loyalty defined the core Catholic value. These developments occurred for understandable human reasons, but they resulted in a grave distortion of the Gospel, which lifts up the face of Jesus as central and defines church authority by service, not power.
Surprisingly, no one saw this distortion more clearly than a pope - John XXIII, who called, yes, a council to correct it. His Vatican II (1962-65) aimed to restore the "collegiality'' of bishops (the pope only as "first among equals''); to reinvigorate local expressions of belief (hence worship in the vernacular); and to retrieve the "priesthood of all believers'' as a check on clericalism. Vatican II was a step toward the democratizing of the Catholic Church, which is why Catholic fundamentalists have been seeking to undo it ever since. Fundamentalist-in-chief has been Joseph Ratzinger.
Across three decades, Ratzinger was key to the appointment of bishops whose overriding commitment was the protection of pope-centered clerical authority. Terrified of acting on their own, they had one eye eternally on Rome. "Scandal'' was their nightmare. Between an abused child and a predator priest, their choice was always simple: protecting the power structure meant protecting the priest. That structure is the problem, which means the pope's resignation is not the issue.
An example of what must happen now came from the American nuns who recently defied the Rome-obsessed bishops to support President Obama's health reform bill. The nuns acted as if the reforms of Vatican II are real. Now priests and lay people must do the same, rescuing the Catholic Church from its fundamentalists, including the present pope.