Dinosaurs were unable to adjust to climate changes long ago and went extinct. However, institutions that don’t adjust are also subject to this “Dinosaur Rule.” The mighty such as the Roman Empire can fail, as well as the unspectacular slow-to-adjust like Horn and Hardart automats. Sadly, because today’s Catholic Church seems incapable of adjustment on so many fronts, I wonder if institutional Catholicism also falls under the Dinosaur Rule? Are our Catholic leaders making decisions that are hastening, rather than avoiding, the day the Church loses its status as the biggest in Christianity?
History shows that when the Catholic Church has been threatened by the pace of rapid social change, ecclesiastical leaders often become overtly political in trying to preserve their power. That happened in the medieval Caesaro-Papism conflicts and the reactionary policies under Pope Pius IX after revolutionary 1848. But the classic cases are with the Borgia pope and others during the Italian Renaissance. Perhaps many view the decisions of church leadership during these times as faulty, or even scandalous. However, because we Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit never leaves the Church, we cannot deny our own history. In the city-state conflicts of Italy at the time, the Church sought worldly leaders able to lead armies against rebels (Pope Julius II) or make alliances by marrying children to ruling dynasties (Alexander IV’s daughter Lucrezia). Those political moves were reasonable measures for preserving Church power.
Against worldly decisions, the Holy Spirit intervenes to teach us that an old model of church must first fail before a new one can rise. Because the Borgia pope failed, I would argue, the door was opened to the Council of Trent, reform, and vibrant religious orders like the Jesuits, the Capuchins and women religious like Mary Ward. We should distinguish between short run and long range policies because that distinction allows one to accept the sincerity of today’s pope and USCCB in fighting to restore power and prestige, but simultaneously consider these to be bad ideas whose certain failure will benefit Catholicism in the long run.
To be clear, I am not comparing our pope or our bishops to the Borgia pope because of sexual excesses. (Some might argue, however, that surrender to lust is a less offensive sexual crime than allowing clergy to molest children.) But one can identify in many current ecclesiastical actions an effort to restore lost influence and power over resources like clergy and property. This is what Pope Alexander IV attempted, and it appears the same intent motivates the American bishops decision to combat the US government rather than seek accommodation. This muscular confrontation smells like the politicizing failures of the past. Today’s bishops have chosen to fight the social change outside the Church rather than nurture change inside the Church. That’s the backwards logic of “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
Look for two trends in reaction to this politicizing. First, the gap between what was called “upper clergy” and “lower clergy” will grow greater. Historically, these terms referred to hierarchs drawn from the nobility (upper) and clergy from the (lower) people. Today, it defines clerics with ambition for ecclesiastical power and those toiling with parish-level ministries. (I would include in the “lower clergy” today’s sisters in LCWR.) The more the upper clergy bishops insist on accumulating power to fight political battles, the less inclined will be the grass-roots clergy to follow them.
Second, we will see a rise in anti-clericalism. This is not the anti-Catholic bigotry from non-Catholics that is regularly denounced by shrill voices such as the Catholic League. This is resistance from lay people inside the Church. They do not oppose clericalism because they hate Catholicism; rather, they are motivated because they love the faith and consider the bishops’ directions harmful to Catholicism. So lay people won’t contribute to diocesan appeals, and will protest political pronouncements. They understand that when a bishop has to warn you he has power to punish you, he probably doesn’t. Expect to see hospitals and universities cut ties to episcopal control to concentrate on ministry.
Hopefully, this Catholic winter that we must endure in the short run will be followed by a Catholic spring.
Dr. Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is a writer at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog.