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Our Feudal Church Must Reform​

Updated: Nov 20, 2021


Faith and power

Two heavyweight blows to the good name of the Catholic Church, in Britain and worldwide, have left painful bruises all over the Body of Christ. The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has followed its highly critical report on how the Church of England dealt with this issue, with one, no less severe, on the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The Holy See’s inquiry into its own mishandling of the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, while not independent, does not pull any punches either; every mistake by bishops, cardinals and even popes, is examined in detail. There were plenty of them. Is there any light at the end of this dark tunnel? Will the many lessons from this devastatingly critical examination of Catholicism in action be readily grasped and fully assimilated? These reports are about the deeds and misdeeds of hierarchs, men ordained to high office. They are not “the Church”, only part of it. The harm they did was done to ordinary Catholics – the other, greater part, who are best described in the language of the Second Vatican Council as “the People of God”. Unfortunately, despite the reforms generated by the Council, they remain largely voiceless and powerless.

It is that bruised body that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is addressing when he asks for “forgiveness” for any actions of his that have contributed to the harm done to it. Forgiveness asks for a response, otherwise it remains unrequited. Forgiveness in the Catholic understanding of it requires contrition, a “firm purpose of amendment”, and a willingness to undo the harm done. Cardinal Nichols cannot be forgiven unless there is some other voice able to reply – a voice able to say, if it so decides, “No, you are not forgiven”; or, “Yes, you are”. Without that, this is just hollow window dressing. And it is clear from the angry and indignant letter signed by the 23 victims/survivors of clerical abuse published in last week’s Tablet, that their forgiveness is still a long way off. The Tablet stands resolutely alongside them, as should the whole Catholic community.

This points to an extreme structural problem in the modern Catholic Church. The tricameral general synod of the Church of England, with its house of laity, house of clergy, and house of bishops, could if it wishes pass a motion of confidence in its leadership, signifying a renewal of trust despite the critical judgement of IICSA. But to earn that renewed trust and confidence, the Anglican leadership knows that it has to convince clergy and laity that it has not just said “Sorry”, but has put in place real reforms. There is no similar body in the Roman Catholic Church, no way cardinals and bishops can be called to account, made to explain themselves or challenged for failing to do so. A human entity without such safety valves is not a healthy one. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is time, therefore, for the leadership of the Catholic Church to revisit what the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission said long ago – that a primatial system of government, where control is exercised from the top down, needs to be balanced by a synodal system, where the voice of the people can be heard and heeded. Wisdom will emerge from the interplay of the two, not from one side alone. Cynics will say that no body with power ever gives it up without a struggle. But that struggle is now on. The victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse are central to this, for their frequently disgraceful treatment was the inevitable product of their disempowerment at the hands of the Catholic system. There is a common thread here which links the McCarrick report with that from IICSA, which is the way the system prioritises the predator’s welfare over that of his prey, which is clericalism at its worst. Clericalism is essentially about power and how it is exercised in favour of one set of interests in preference to another. It is discriminatory; it thrives in the absence of checks and balances, and the lack of accountability downwards. What the McCarrick report proves is that accountability upwards – to Rome – is not an effective brake on the abusive exercise of clerical power. McCarrick could have been stopped, but – aided by his reputation as a superb fund-raiser and generous donor – he slipped through. Until now, the experience of being a member of the Catholic Church has been quite unlike experience in the secular world – of citizenship, for instance, or a taxpayer, or of being an employer or employee. In every case there are laws to limit the abuse of power, and those who exercise that power are accountable for it. Every Catholic above school age is also a voter and participant in democratic processes. MPs face their constituents, Ministers answer to Parliament. Every Catholic is a consumer protected by consumer protection legislation; every department of national life has its regulator, from Ofcom to public health inspectors. There is a legal system for the righting of wrongs, available to all.

An expectation in every secular institution is that leaders take the rap for failures. They all accept the concept that “bringing xyz into disrepute” is a sackable offence – an idea manifestly absent in a Catholic context. This daily experience is what forms and shapes Catholics as citizens, a world where they are treated as grownups, and which therefore forms and shapes their expectations as Church members. Meanwhile the Church, still feudal in many ways, simply ignores them. The experience is like being two people at once, trusted adults in the secular domain yet still powerless children in Church. Thus the immense good done in the name of the Gospel by many in the Church is being systematically undermined by clericalism, ideological division, unelected leadership, bad management, and a willingness to turn a blind eye to vice. But change is in the air. Pope Francis knows this, as do many others. Catholics are no longer prepared to allow the good name of the Church – their Church – to be dragged through the mud. This must stop.


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