I'm nearing the end of Hans Küng's book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), about which I began blogging several days ago. Before I provide any kind of overview of the book or summative statement about it, it occurs to me that it might be helpful if I identify the premise from which Küng's analysis flows.
The book's narrative hangs on a central metaphor: in Küng's view, the Catholic church is sick unto death at present. As he states, the "carefully considered view" from which the book's analysis flows is "that the Catholic Church – this great community of faith – is seriously ill, suffering under the Roman system of rule, a system which developed during the second millennium and which, despite opposition, remains in place today" (4-5).
And so the Catholic church is both sick unto death at this point in its history, and it is not difficult to diagnose the cause of the sickness: that cause is "the Roman system of rule," an historically conditioned polity of church structure and governance that is not part and parcel of the church's very nature from the gospels forward, and is not rooted in the New Testament or patristic period of the church. It's a later development.
From the outset of his book, Küng insists that the "systemic crisis" in the Catholic church now on full display in things like the mind-boggling sexual abuse crisis "calls for a well thought-out theological response" that frankly addresses the damage the Roman system of rule has done to the church (2). The abuse crisis has demonstrated, Küng notes, that the growing crisis within the Catholic church is not a crisis of lay Catholics but of the church’s leadership (ibid.).
Throughout much of the Catholic world, the cry being heard from lay believers today is, Küng insists, "Things just can’t go on like this in our Church! The powers that be, those up there in Rome, are doing their best to tear the Church apart!" (11). He adds:
The Catholic Church is in its deepest crisis of confidence since the Reformation, and nobody can overlook it. As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger missed a great opportunity to make the forward-looking ideas of the Second Vatican Council the lodestone of the Catholic Church worldwide and especially within the Vatican itself. Instead of courageously pushing forward the reforms begun by the Council, he did the opposite: again and again, he qualified and weakened the statements of the Council, interpreting them retrogressively, contrary to the spirit of the Council fathers. He even expressly set his face against Vatican II, which, as an ecumenical council, represents, according to the great Catholic tradition, the highest authority within the Catholic Church (12).
Here are the ways in which Ratzinger/Benedict XVI set his face against Vatican II, as Küng enumerates them (12-13):
1. accepting without preconditions the bishops of the Pius X Fraternity, who reject central elements of Vatican II's teaching and have separated themselves from the church as a result;
2. actively promoting the Tridentine Mass;
3. creating a deep distrust of the Protestant churches by denying that they are churches in the true sense of the word;
4. instead of building communication with the Anglican communion, attempting to lure conservative Anglican clergy from that communion to the Roman church;
5. strengthening the opposition to the Council by appointing men opposed to it to key positions in the church and reactionary bishops to sees around the world.
In short, the men who have been governing the Catholic church from the top of its pyramidal power structure in the period after Vatican II have willingly sacrificed the well-being of the church as a whole — of what Vatican II refers to insistently as the people of God who are the church — in order to keep in place and even to bolster, after Vatican II critiqued this system, an historically mutable system of organization and governance that dates from the Middle Ages and is not part and parcel of the church's "essence" or "nature" from its New Testament foundations.
Küng notes how this mentality, this penchant for maintaining the Roman system of governance at all cost, no matter what suffering it creates for the people of God, plays out in the hierarchy's response to the crisis in clerical vocations, as fewer men join the priesthood due to the refusal to reconsider the celibacy requirement, and as many women note that they feel called to the priesthood but are rebuffed by Rome:
The hierarchy prefers to deny the faithful a close-to-home celebration of the Holy Eucharist — the central element of the New Testament religious community – for the sake of maintaining the "even holier" Medieval obligation of celibacy (17-18).
Küng note that the great Catholic theologian of the 20th century, the Jesuit Karl Rahner, died deeply discouraged at what the popes governing the church after Vatican II were making of that council and of the church: as he states,
Karl Rahner died in 1984 in wintry resignation, without having seen any harbingers of a new spring under a new pope. What would he say about the situation of his Church thirty years later? After three disappointing decades of Roman restoration under the pontificates of Wojtyla and Ratzinger, I am sure that he would agree that the advent of spring after such an icy winter will only be possible when we frankly admit that the Church is now seriously ill (23).
And so can the Catholic church be saved — or, as Küng puts the question, Can we who are the people of God save the Catholic church? The reality, it seems clear to me, is that tearing the church apart is precisely what the church's leaders following Vatican II (I reserve judgment about Pope Francis, since he hasn't yet been pope for a sufficient length of time for me to make a well-grounded judgment) have wanted.
They've wanted to tear the church apart, to whittle it down to a faithful remnant of stolid, badly educated true believers. They've wanted to drive everyone else away. Just as they've wanted to tear apart political and economic systems of the world that move in a modern liberal-democratic direction, even as they pay lip service to human rights and concern for those on the margins.
Under the direction of super-rich elites and their political allies, who increasingly drive (and fund) the movements in the church that are willfully tearing things apart, the leaders of the Catholic church have themselves willfully participated in the destruction of the church for decades now, in order to assure that dissenters, those with a broader vision of the church and a deeper understanding of its history and theology, walk away, and only rabid true believers remain.
Because those rabid true believers are far more controllable, and what the Roman system of governance is all about, when all is said and done, is power and control . . . . And so I'd conclude that it's impossible to look at the sickness unto death of the Catholic church at this point in its history without also paying attention to the deliberate choice of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to place in the driver's seat of the church super-rich elites who exercise enormous influence on what happens within the church through the Curia, through movements like the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei, and through their use of money to buy power and influence at the highest levels of the Catholic church.
Which is another way of saying that if we, the people of God, can by any stretch of the imagination save our church, it's not merely the structures of our church that we have to play a hand in changing. We have to pry away from the control mechanisms at the very top of our church the hands of the economic and political elites to whom the two popes prior to Francis gave increasingly control, even as they whittled away at the church, driving faithful Catholics away in droves . . . .
More to follow as I conclude the book . . . .