A lapsed Vatican

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 April, 2010, 12:00am

When I told my boss I was a Catholic, but a lapsed one, he quipped: 'Is there any other kind?' It turned out he had lapsed, too. While he may be exaggerating, he was pointing out a common phenomenon. The church's doctrinal stances on so many issues - from birth control and Aids to divorce and the place of nuns and laywomen in the Catholic hierarchy - have become so outlandish that many (former, half-hearted and/or struggling) Catholics, with all the good will in the world, can no longer take it seriously.

But, on top of ridicule, we can now add serious crimes as a reason to leave the church. And it is hard to say which is the more outrageous - the abuse and molestation of children by predatory priests, or the wall of silence imposed on them by local dioceses in one country after another, encouraged by the Vatican, for decades. The centralised power structure of the modern Catholic Church makes that appalling response all but inevitable. We now know the Pope was not an innocent bystander in his previous incarnation as head of the Vatican office in charge of discipline and doctrinal purity. That office - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - was, unsurprisingly, previously the Inquisition.

But even if he were innocent, he needs to know that the buck stops with him. In this, its most perilous moment, the church needs a strong and flexible leader - but, in his old age, isolation and fundamentalist doctrinal rigidity, the Pope is neither.

There is perhaps no other world-historical institution in greater need of reform. Tragically, its very institutionalised form makes it all but impossible to change.

The Vatican may be politically tolerant to such an extent that it now - at least outwardly - accepts the legitimacy of other major religious faiths. But it is spiritually totalitarian in that it arrogates to itself absolute authority in deciding all matters concerning the Catholic faith. This is all of one piece with its doctrinal insistence that the Pope is infallible. The centralisation of power and the cult of the leader who is always right - these have been two key elements of 20th-century totalitarianism.

Earthly religious powers also share something else with totalitarianism - or rather, totalitarian states took on a religious aspect when they sought control of the private lives of their citizens. Religions have always done so. In the case of the contemporary Catholic Church, it sees fit to denounce the use of contraceptives, homosexuals and women who want to become priests. That was why American bishops, mired in new revelations of child abuse and molestation, and their cover-up, still found time to mobilise the faithful - unsuccessfully, as it turned out - against US President Barack Obama's heath care reform bill. That was why Hong Kong's own Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who fancies himself as a great democracy fighter, fought the administration in the High Court over a minor government effort to allow more parents and community representatives on the boards of Catholic-run schools.

What separates the Vatican from a totalitarian state is that, though it is a politically constituted state, it has no army or any of the conventional means of state violence. Therefore, the church's control is only through suasion, and that depends on its perceived moral authority. The Vatican expects unquestioned obedience, yet it offers little spiritual guidance to the lived experience of many of the faithful; its doctrinal stances can barely keep up with changing conditions in the second half of the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

In one brief moment, the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s had a chance to bring the church into the contemporary age - to encourage a more non-dogmatic stance on marriage for priests, the ordination of women, homosexuality, divorce and the autonomy of local bishops. Such changes would have created the kind of institutional context to enable the church to address the problems of paedophile priests in a manner more in line with, and acceptable to, today's standards. But leaders of the dogmatic and fundamentalist wing won. Among them was Father Joseph Ratzinger, our Pope in Rome today.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post