There is no ‘democratic revolution’ in the Vatican

The Independent seems to think the Holy See is just another dictatorship (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Paul Vallely has written an article for the Independent which requires a response.

First of all, the headline, which Mr Vallely did not write, but was written by someone working for the paper. ‘Vatican Spring’ suggests that the reform of the Roman Curia is akin to the overthrow of the tyrants who until recently held sway in the Middle East. Now, I myself have said that the Roman Curia is not fit for purpose, and needs reform: but this snide comparison between the Curia officials and, let us say, President Mubarak, is going a bit far. Not only does it malign some perfectly respectable people, it also belittles the sacrifices made by those who rebelled in the Middle East. The Vatican Spring/Arab Spring echo represents a cheap journalistic trick.

The tone of the article is unfortunate: take this quotation, which suggests that the Pope holds prayer, indeed the most ancient of Christian prayers, in contempt:

The local archbishop asked the Pope to say the Lord’s Prayer there, as St Francis had done eight centuries before. “The Our Father?” the Pope replied. “But I want to talk about what the Church today need to strip away to emulate the gesture Francis made.”

Here you have the perfectly false dichotomy, which the Pope certainly has never intended, between prayer and action. The Pope knows, as do we all, that the more one prays, the more one will change oneself and the world; but the mindset of the Independent seems to be that prayer is an excuse for inaction.

There is more. We are told that the Pope has embraced living more simply “by shunning his gold-leafed papal palace for the spartan quarters of a Vatican guest house.” If only the readers could see the interior of the Casa Santa Marta, as I have, with all its marble and mahogany! It is anything but Spartan. As for the Papal Apartment, true that is on a grand scale, but it is hardly cosy or comfortable. Moreover, the Pope does not shun it, but goes there every day to work. The Pope, meanwhile, has himself said that he has chosen to live in Santa Marta because he likes to be surrrounded by people, not because it is austere. It isn’t.

Mr Vallely’s personal agenda comes out in this paragraph:

They [the Pope and his advisers] now need to create mechanisms to ensure their changes cannot be overturned by some conservative successor. The Pope and his new advisers should start by allowing bishops to oversee the selection of Vatican officials and to give lay Catholics a voice in the appointment of bishops. They should scrap the rule which says that top Curia officials should be priests, bringing in lay administrators, including women. They should restore the notion of subsidiarity – the concept that decisions should be taken as low down as possible – to conferences of bishops, diocesan councils and parish councils. Men who left the priesthood to marry should be allowed to return, on a par with Anglican clerics who crossed to Rome. They should rehabilitate theologians, priests and nuns silenced by the Vatican under the previous two pontificates. They should usher in a democratic revolution in the Church.

This sounds very nice, but how is it to work out in practice? One notices that along with a call for greater democracy, Mr Vallely wants future “conservative” popes to be bound by what the present generation sets up. How very undemocratic! Are future generations to have no say?

Mr Vallely’s main idea seems to be a move away from the Roman Curia as an organ of governement towards a diffused power structure vested in Bishops’ Conferences. But someone has to oversee the Bishops’ Conferences (some of which do not inspire much confidence, let it be frankly said), just as someone has to oversee the religious orders (the untrustworthiness of some of which is sadly well known and beyond dispute); who, if not the Vatican? And is not this system the system we already have? Does the Roman Curia micromanage everything that goes on in the Catholic world?

To some rather paranoid Catholics, this might seem the case. After all, Rome has silenced dissident theologians, hasn’t it? Hans Küng might be one whom Mr Vallely has in mind, and I can think of others without mentioning names. ‘Silencing’ is an odd term to use of someone as loquacious as Dr Küng. But the idea that the Vatican and its minions go around silencing people is really something out of the playbook of the Protestant Truth Society, the stuff of the Black Legend. 

Amidst the other details of the Vallely programme is the reinstatement of priests who have left the priesthood to marry; he does not demand an automatic right of return for all who have left, only for some, and only after some form of scrutiny, it is implied. But what he is advocating is the creation of a married priesthood, implying that this is what we already have, thanks to our Anglican convert clergy. But a married vicar seeking ordination as Catholic priest and a Catholic priest who marries after taking a promise not to – these are two clearly different things. Mr Vallely’s idea of a return of fomerly active priests represents a Trojan Horse, a way of changing the Catholic Church profoundly. The priests who left to marry chose to leave: they have to live with the choice they made. We all have to live with our choices, don’t we?

Finally, talk of a democratic revolution in the Church is careless talk. Revolutions tend to be destructive, and end up ushering in less, not more, democracy. I suppose Calvinism, with its elaborate saystem of lay control over the Church sounds democratic, but Calvin’s Geneva was anything but free and easy. Most Catholics – I am guessing here – like myself, do not find the atmosphere inside the Catholic Church repressive. The idea of more democracy might sound attractive, but whatever democratic structures were set up, they would soon be dominated, one fears, by shrill and strident activists. The idea of a Church run by Hans Küng and people like him seems to me the stuff of nightmares.