Monday, April 12, 2010

Church and Empire

Further to my comments in yesterday's blog posting, here is James Carroll's view of the Church as power structure, taken from the Introduction to his moving and brilliant memoir Practising Catholic.

Apart from the museums that anchor the great cities of Europe and America, the Roman Catholic Church is what remains of "Christendom," the generating aesthetic and intellectual tradition of Western civilization. Offshoots of the Protestant Reformation claim that same Christian heritage, but the Catholic Church, in its institutional DNA if not in its ideology, has served as the vehicle for carrying key elements of the Roman Empire forward into history, much as Rome carried the achievements of ancient Greece forward. Even today, in its organization, judicial system, official language, attachment to material culture, and elevation of the classic virtues, the Church embodies that first Romanitas.

Leaving theology aside for the moment, this worldly rootedness has been a source of the Church's exceptional longevity as well as of its global reach. The diocesan structure of its organization, for example - with bishops and cardinals exercising over local churches an authority derived from the transcendent power center - is a repetition of Rome's proconsul method of governance. The way the Church's finances are organized, with independent dioceses feeding support to that center; the way the Church's diplomacy is structured, with papal legates dispatched to world capitals; the way the cult of the leader is maintained, with the bishop of Rome regarded as the deity's vicar - all of this echoes the methods of the imperium, a system that is otherwise long gone.

St. Peter's Basilica, after all, is an architectural duplication of the palace of the emperor; indeed the word "basilica" derives from the basil wreath with which, in primordial Rome, the ruler was crowned. Meanwhile, Catholic doctrine is grounded in philosophical propositions that came into their own in the ancient world, which is why any revision of that doctrine - is it even posssible? - would amount to an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual transformation. Down through the ages the tension between the papacy and the councils of the Church, which across two thousand years were convened, on average, once each century, can be seen to have been analagous to the tension between Caesar and the Roman Senate, which ended tragically. Indeed, the Church has, if only accidentally, carried forward the internal conflict between republic and empire, a tension which, in the Church's case, while yet to be resolved, has become dramatic in the contemporary push-pull between the laity and lower clergy on one side, and the hierarchy on the other. For all these reasons, Catholicism continues to be an object of fascination. And, admittedly, of repugnance.

Grave moral failings of the Church became evident in the era since my birth, and those moral failings were compounded by further mistakes in recent years. I reflect on this dark legacy, showing what it meant to me as I was repeatedly forced to confront it. But I aim less at judgmental criticism than at a loving act of remembrance, recalling Catholics - and myself - to what they have been at their best. A tradition centered on social justice, accommodation of immigrants, the work of peace, sacramental respect for creation, liturgical beauty, a global vision, and the consolations of faith - all of this weighs as much in the scale of history as spiritual imperialism, scandal, and hipocrisy.

"Meanwhile, Catholic doctrine is grounded in philosophical propositions that came into their own in the ancient world, which is why any revision of that doctrine - is it even posssible? - would amount to an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual transformation." It is not difficult to imagine, in light of this statement, that Vatican II was perhaps a mere "chipping away" at this ancient doctrinal edifice and that more chipping is needed before the Church can be brought into the modern world.

Here is what Carroll says, in Chapter One of Practising Catholic, about doctrinal change:

Jesus was a peasant of no social standing, but his actions and words were compelling. His friends, responding to him as a teacher of Jewish faith and as a resistor of Roman occupation, were devoted to him and continued to revere him after his death. Because the first followers of Jesus let him down when he needed them most, the community that grew out of their inability to let go of their affection for him was defined above all by its awareness of failure. Yes, what we call sin is a fact, but so is forgiveness. Those followers had forgiveness from Jesus himself, as so many of the stories about him declare. Therefore the Church is the community in which forgiveness is always necessary and always possible.

It matters that only gradually did his friends come to think of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and, even more gradually, as the Son of God. It matters that their sacred texts evolved slowly out of oral traditions, and then that the sacred texts themselves were only gradually selected from among many others, equally honored but never officially deemed "inspired." This book will take up the story of these developments. The point here is that once we understand that doctrines evolved over time, we stop regarding them as timeless. The evolution of doctrine can continue.

What Carroll is saying here seems to make so much sense. But then, unlike the current pope and most before him, I do not consider myself to be the guardian of sacred tradition.

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