Some five years ago I was invited to speak at the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio.
“Since 1912, the City Club has served as one of the (United States’) oldest, non-partisan and continuously operating free speech forums,” says the organization’s website.
The topic of my talk was the Vatican implosion and, as a result, the long and gradual collapse of the Catholic Church’s monarchical structure of governance and ministry.
I argued that as the last absolute monarchy in the West (and most anywhere else in the world), the organization of the Roman Church has become an anachronism. It made sense when monarchies were a fundamental feature of human society. But no longer.
This outdated model of the Catholic Church’s structure no longer incarnates the reality of the lived experience of believers, the staggering majority of whom live in societies that are becoming more and more, and to varying degrees, participatory and representative democracies.
A Church where the most important decisions are made almost exclusively by a celibate male clergy, and where bishops are held to little or no accountability, is unsustainable in a world where patriarchal and monarchical societies—begrudgingly, but steadily—are ceding rights and duties to those who are not part of the nobility, the clergy, or one specific gender.
My talk in November 2012 came during the height of the so-called VatiLeaks Scandal. For more than a year the leaking of sensitive Vatican documents and the private papers of Benedict XVI had caused deep embarrassment to the still-reigning German pope and his top aides, especially Tarcisio Bertone SDB, the Cardinal Secretary of State at the time.
It was a mess. Today one could look back and say: “Sure, it was easy back then for someone to spout off about a supposed Vatican implosion.”
Indeed, some people have since told me that the election of Pope Francis has revealed that my analysis was way off base.
But nearly half a decade later, I’m convinced that the thesis argued on that November morning in Cleveland still holds. Because it was not based on what did or did not transpire in Benedict’s pontificate.
Even despite the kairos—the special, providential moment—that the overwhelming number of Catholics believe we’re experiencing after the election of the first-ever Jesuit pope, the Church continues to implode. In fact, in some ways Francis seems to be deliberately hastening its inevitable collapse by implementing the principles and methods outlined in Evangelii gaudium (EG), his vision and blueprint for Church renewal and reform.
Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about the demise of the Catholic Church. God is not dead and the Holy Spirit will never leave Christ’s faithful people. This we all believe.
No, it’s about the crumbling of the present governing and organizational structure that mirrors certain features of the Roman Empire more than it reflects the organizational model of ecclesial life that is found in the New Testament or was experienced in the first couple of centuries of the Christian Church.
Francis is effectively laying the foundation for the “deconstruction” of the current model by patiently planting the seeds for the Church’s structural conversion by “baptizing” and employing four, key sociological principles (EG 222-237):
- Time is greater than space
- Unity prevails over conflict
- Realities are more important than ideas
- The whole is greater than the parts
Ultimately the pope’s goal is to make the structures and mentality of the Church more reflective of the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ, and to liberate it from a codified system of rules and philosophical ideas still deeply wedded to the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world.