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Posted August 4, 2002
The Roman Catholic papacy has lost its moral authority. Will the Church of England and its new leader, Rowan Williams, take over as the voice of Christendom?
Pope on a slope

THE TWO IMAGES appeared within hours of each other on television. First there was Pope John Paul II, frail and ill, trembling with Parkinson’s disease as he slowly made his way down the steep steps of his airplane, which had just landed in Toronto for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day — a celebration he inaugurated in the mid 1980s that he almost always attends. In shocking contrast, viewers were then treated to clips of Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. With shaggy white hair and a slightly unkempt beard, he looks, at 52, like an aging hippie, despite his neat black suit and clerical collar. Indeed, he refers to himself as an old "peacenik" and is not afraid to voice extraordinarily liberal views on everything from homosexuality to the Bush administration’s apparent plans to bomb Iraq.

But the difference between these two religious leaders do not simply come under the headings of conservative and liberal, old and young, Roman Catholic and Anglican. Rather, their contrasts points in two opposite directions: the past and the future. The enormous chasm between them - unmistakable not only in their physical presences, but also in their views of the world - may very well capture a unique historical moment: the twilight of the political and moral importance of the modern papacy, shadowed by the rise of a new, vibrant, and more compelling voice of Christian moral counsel for our times.                                                                                                                            AS THE PONTIFICATE of John Paul II draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that this pope - despite his extensive world travel, his shrewd use of new communications technologies, and his penchant for speaking out boldly on certain issues - is presiding over the waning years of the Roman Catholic Church's influence and power. It isn't his fault - although, God knows, his
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hasn't helped the situation much - for the power of the Vatican has been in serious decline at least since the second half of the 19th century. At that time, when faced with democracy and a new wave of learning and scientific discovery, the papacy executed a frenzied retreat from modernity, what you might call a Counter Enlightenment. And John Paul II has has continued in that tradition.

Under the guidance of Pope Pius IX (1846-’78) — who was "emotionally unstable" and "evinced the symptoms of a psychopath, according to Catholic theologian and historian Hans Kung — the Vatican became increasingly insular and reactionary. Democracy was viewed with deep suspicion, and freedom of religion was outright condemned. More and more books — by Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Flaubert — were added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of books Catholics were forbidden to read. When moderate and liberal clergy complained about dubious theological and political statements made by Pius IX, the pope cleverly pushed through the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility at a time when a recently convened Vatican Council was half-empty. As though mocking this show of arrogance, two months later the Risorgimento (unification of Italy) brought an end to the Papal States, and thus to the pope’s temporal power base. None of these rapid changes stopped the papacy from retreating, turtle-like, into its own increasingly empty shell. The Church’s moral authority reached a breaking point — active, dire, and irreversible — when Pope Pius XII (1939-’58) failed to speak out clearly against the Holocaust.

Since 1945, the Vatican has made one serious misstep after another. It has been consistently hostile to almost all forms of contemporary modern art and culture. In 1968, Pope Paul VI capitulated to the Church’s right wing when he reaffirmed (against enormous pressure from many theologians) the stand against birth control. The Vatican has blocked research in its archives on the Church’s actions during the Holocaust, and it has dangerously, and disingenuously, backtracked in its well-publicized renouncement of its anti-Semitic history. The list goes on.

As a result, the papacy no longer exerts the moral or temporal leadership it did only 50 years ago. Sure, the Vatican has done some serious spin control. One of the most widely accepted PR jobs is that the current pope was instrumental to the fall of Communism and Soviet Russia. But this is a false claim. By the mid 1980s, Communism was in such a state of semi-collapse that its demise was inevitable; since he was elected only in 1978, John Paul II had little time to affect events one way or the other. No, the fact is that the Roman Catholic Church has simply lost ground — not least because of the Vatican’s intransigent pig-headedness. Evangelical Protestantism, for example, is wildly spreading throughout Latin America — historically one of the Church’s strongholds — at least in part because of John Paul II’s hostility to the economic changes promoted by liberation theologians popular among Catholics in that region. Most Latin-American Catholics also reject the Church’s stand on birth control and, increasingly, abortion as well. Since the pope has not wavered from his conservative stands against homosexual behavior, gay rights, birth control, abortion, divorce, and pre-marital sex, he has simply lost these battles all over the world. Hardly anyone listens to him or obeys the Church’s teachings anymore — not even those who consider themselves Catholics in good faith.

The pope and the Roman Catholic Church simply are not up to the challenge of moral leadership in an increasingly complex and complicated world. One need look no further than Rome’s statements on the current clergy sex-abuse scandals. After avoiding the issue as long as it could, the Vatican called the US bishops to Rome for what turned out to be a quick PR job. It then issued a press statement pitting canon law against US civil law — clearly a sign of Vatican officials’ complete unwillingness to grapple seriously with the modern world.

Finally, at World Youth Day, the pope — after simply ignoring an issue that, to say the least, had great implications for his young audience — made the following earth-shattering statement: that the scandals brought sadness to the Church and that people should not forget how many good priests there are. Sure, the crowds in Toronto went wild for the pope, showering him with cheers and tears. But as the New York Times noted in its headline of the story, for many, pope’s frailties now define papacy. And let’s face it, being defined by one’s frailties in show business, politics, or even religion might get sympathy, but it is no way to move into the future.

Of course, Pope John Paul II never had any intention of moving into the future; rather, he has done everything in his power to continue the Counter Enlightenment launched by Pope Pius IX. Not surprisingly, his pontificate has done much to counteract the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of Vatican II’s liberal reforms. He has refused to allow open discussion of theology or to foster debate on issues of ethics and morality, and he has consistently threatened any Catholic theologian who has dared voice a dissenting opinion. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church has abdicated its responsibility to speak knowledgably on a huge range of contemporary topics, including new reproductive technologies, cloning, embryology, and birth control, as well as a myriad of other complex issues. But hey, that’s no big surprise: the Church is so profoundly clueless about feminism that it still insists — and expects its argument to be taken seriously — that women can’t become priests because Jesus and the apostles were men.

None of this means that the papacy will completely fall apart, or that the Roman Catholic Church will come to an end, or that people will stop being Catholic or lose their deeply felt faith. Nor does it mean that all the Church’s basic beliefs are wrong. Indeed, its positions on war, the death penalty, social welfare, caring for the economically disadvantaged, and treating the poor with basic respect highlight the intense inhumanity of most of the policies of the Bush administration. But it does mean that to a very large degree, the papacy has lost its premier moral standing in the world.

IT IS IN THIS context that the appointment of Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury emerges as one of the major religious events of the last century. It is not just that Williams is a younger man with impeccable academic and theological credentials — he speaks six languages, has written 14 books, and has taught at Oxford and Cambridge — who espouses a liberal theology; he is already on his way to becoming a media darling, noted for his ability to take on tough issues with a light touch. Almost all media reports about him have noted with delight how he attacked the Disney corporation for corrupting children by turning them into consumers and sexualizing kids’ culture. And his statement that The Simpsons is "one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue" will no doubt increase his likeability and media friendliness. Even on theological matters he has a light hand. After being challenged by Anglican conservatives for his ordination of a gay man in a committed, presumably sexual, relationship, he stated that he didn’t make it a practice to go looking in people’s bedroom windows.

Above all, he is unafraid of making clear moral and theological statements about world affairs. He has condemned the American-led bombing of Afghanistan as "morally tainted," speaking out clearly in an interview published in the Melbourne Anglican Home last month: "I’m still rather unhappy that we did the obvious thing. We reached for the first weapons at hand, and I think it’s yet to be seen whether this has really changed the situation we are in.... The problem of the last few months has been, I think, that because of the enormity of the horror and the great evil of the act of September 11th, people have said, ‘Well, that absolves us in the West from doing any self-questioning, because they over there are clearly so wicked that we don’t have to do any questioning, and if we question ourselves, then somehow that is equivalent of saying they are all right.’ That is absolute nonsense, and really, really dangerous nonsense."

It is easy, as the pope has done, to condemn the September 11 attacks and call for world peace — even Miss America does that. What makes Williams’s statement unique is that he puts the very act of "questioning" on a theological basis. His is not a popular position in America — most people, if you believe the polls, probably would not agree with him; patriotism, in its current guise, is not supposed to come up for "questioning." But for an influential theologian, it is a bold and important assertion. The idea that "questioning" might be a virtue — or, even more important, a moral imperative — is exactly what we need as we face the mounting horrors of our contemporary world. And questioning is exactly what Pope John Paul — in keeping with the papacy of the past century — has resisted.

Even on a smaller scale, Williams speaks soundly and forthrightly in the tradition of Christian humanism: "I think in various ways we are encouraged culturally and politically to underrate the humanity of those who are on the edges in terms of world politics," he told his Melbourne interviewer. "You do hear people saying, ‘Well, you can write off the continent of Africa in the next half century.’ In local terms people will say, ‘Well, we can’t cope with that category,’ whether it is the long-term unemployed or the asylum-seekers or whatever, and we just do not allow ourselves to imagine that human reality. Now I don’t think that Christian belief or Christian theology has an immediate practical answer to how you deal with this. What it does have, though, is an absolute refusal to let you get away with ignoring humanity — you can’t do it, you are not allowed."

Such statements are particularly relevant to the current state of the Catholic Church. As the Vatican’s moral and theological positions have grown more ossified, so has its ability to address the "humanity" of women and men around the world. Even worse, it has gone on the attack. Not content to claim that homosexual activity is sinful, the pope and his spokesmen have found it necessary to speak out against anti-discrimination laws that would protect the "humanity" of gay men and lesbians. This was driven home last week in Toronto, when our own Bernard Cardinal Law — tainted beyond repair in the sex-abuse scandals — called for young people to boycott gay civil-union or commitment ceremonies "because attending them would lend support to unnatural relationships." Law to homosexuals (and their families and loved ones): take your humanity and shove it. The question is not why and how Law could say this, but whether anyone thinks the Church has any moral authority left at all?

In the politics of world religion, Williams’s appointment rings a clarion bell. The action states boldly that the Church of England will be a progressive institution that engages with the world on open and honest terms and will not shrink from making difficult moral statements. Further, Williams’s appointment is a blow to Anglican conservatives — ironically, most of whom are African and Asian clergy — who over the past decade have had major influence in Anglican teaching, particularly regarding social issues such as homosexuality and the ordination of women. Beyond that, the new archbishop’s outspoken progressive, internationalist politics sets the Church of England — which is still intricately connected to the British government, with the queen heading the Church just as she does the country — on a new footing as well.

It is not just Williams’s candor, or his ability to confront the increasingly complicated problems of the contemporary world, that puts him — and the Anglican Church — at the forefront of religious thought today. Most compelling is his desire to engage and communicate with a wide range of people who are looking, if not necessarily for answers, for new questions and ways of understanding their lives and this world. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church played such a role — in the Middle Ages and during periods of the Renaissance, the Church was at the forefront of new thinking and new ways of looking at the world — but that time has ended.

Now, the Catholic Church and this pope — as well as the next, since we are assured that John Paul’s successor will most certainly be just as conservative — looks not to the future but to the past. It has refused to change and grow and, as a result, it has stagnated. From the broad point of view of the world’s religions, there is not really much difference between Catholicism and Protestantism — to the Jew, the Hindu, the Muslim, the animist, the Confucian, they are both simply Christian. Until now, the Roman Catholic Church has assumed the mantle to speak for all of Christendom. But now — almost five centuries since the Reformation — this mantle should pass to the Church of England and its leader, Rowan Williams.

Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at mabronski@aol.

Issue Date: August 1 - 8, 2002 

2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group

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