Catholicism Must Change or Risk Becoming a Fundamentalist Sect

The irresistible force meets the immovable object: A bishop speaks with two lay women during a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1962.

There is a joke about the arch-conservative Cardinal Ottaviani arriving at Rome’s main train station, Termini, for the opening of Vatican ll (1962). He hails a taxi and tells the driver to take him to Trent, 477 kilometres away. The point of the jest is that Ottaviani, at the time head of what is still known popularly as the Holy Office, was unable to adapt to the changing times.

Ottaviani’s ghost haunts Catholicism to this day, aided and abetted for twentyseven years by that charismatic autocrat, Pope St. John Paul ll, a celebrity Pope, a holy man no doubt but one of the three worst popes in my opinion since 1846, leaving aside the recurring controversy surrounding Pope Pius Xll. For all his brilliance, Wojtyla was incapable of thinking other than in binary terms, subordinating the needs of the universal Church (those of women in particular) to his jaundiced insistence that the status quo required no substantive changes, a delusion shared by his immediate successor, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVl.


One of Catholicism’s great strengths, especially since the 1960s, is that it has eschewed fundamentalist interpretations of theology in general and of scripture in particular, but since 1978 the institutional Church has increasingly retreated into an echo chamber of its own devising, incapable of listening to voices that challenge its version of ‘orthodoxy’, preferring instead to favour positions that, in the long term, will result in Catholicism becoming little more than one sect amongst others, looking for a voice in a religious market place increasingly dominated by literalists seeking the spurious comfort of ‘certainty’ at the expense of a genuine – often painful – search for truth.

‘Traditionalist Catholics’ and Evangelical creationists typify this phenomenon, ludicrously advocating a return to some kind of golden age, one that never existed in the first place. Catholics who favour Tridentine-type and other reactionary practices should do some historical research into the origins of the Eucharist, with particular regard to 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; some rude shocks await them (for example, that Jesus never “ordained” anyone).


Pope Francis’ synodal initiatives, covered extensively in this publication, are worthy exercises, but they are too little, too late. He knows a thing or two regarding the physical sciences, but probably not about one of Einstein’s lesser known dictums, to the effect that we cannot solve problems using the same consciousness that caused them in the first place.

Francis’ (very limited) reform agenda is almost certainly doomed to failure because it has not taken into account Einstein’s wise maxim, meaning that magisterial authority is incapable of remedying the crises largely of its own making. In other words, Church governance, including the work of bishops’ conferences throughout the world, is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was.

 When something is badly broken, we should fix it. The reason for this prognosis is that Francis’ vision for the Church relies upon a discredited model of authority known as magisterial papalism, to borrow a term first coined by Reginald Hill (OP). It maintains (erroneously) that Jesus directly bestowed authority upon St. Peter along with his ‘apostolic successors’. In reality, however, and especially since 1870 (Vatican l), this means that all authority is effectively centred in the papacy, and the consequences for the Church have been calamitous. Bishops, for instance, notwithstanding the official collegial spin to the contrary, are little more than mouthpieces for the Holy See, some of whom are appointees of John Paul ll and Benedict XV.

One example of how the Vatican manipulates its bishops was the 1980 Synod on the Family, when then Cardinal Ratzinger so arranged the proceedings that bishops who were intent upon voicing widespread objections to Humanae Vitae (1968) were sidelined. It is extraordinary that Francis and his closest advisers have not embraced a model of authority known as ministerial collegiality.

It has the small advantage of maintaining that Jesus did bestow his authority upon Peter and the Twelve, arguing that ministerial collegiality is best understood in relation to bishops’ autonomy in their own right. The current practice of focusing all authority in the Holy See, despite official disclaimers, was unknown in the first 1,000 years of the Church’s existence and, in the earliest centuries, priests and bishops were chosen from their local communities.

St Ambrose of Milan, for example, was in the fourth century elected bishop when he was not even baptised. Imagine that happening in 2022! There is no good reason, with proper safeguards, why the Church cannot return to such practices. As with so many issues, what prevents the introduction of these initiatives are sacerdotalism and the abuse of clerical power masquerading as service to the faithful.

St John Henry Newman, writing at the time of Vatican l in the context of his opposition to the doctrine of papal infallibility, said that the laity should be consulted on doctrinal and related matters, since lay people were often more insightful than the hierarchy (including popes) when it came to deciding the relevance of these questions. Newman’s advice needs to be acted upon, with urgency, beginning with lay appointments to all major positions in the Curia, including the position of secretary of state, which should be held by a woman.


The call for changes of this nature may appear idiosyncratic, but unless Catholicism soon faces down its institutional demons, characterised by patriarchal and anthropocentric blind spots, it will perish in the West, notwithstanding these words attributed to the risen Jesus: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt. 28:20b).

Maureen Kelly, in her excellent Synodal Times article of June 23, observes that Catholic culture is undergoing a ‘tectonic shift’, but it is rather more than that: an enormous philosophical and theological paradigm shift is in process, one that challenges the Christian narrative in general and Catholicism’s interpretation of it in particular.

At its centre, there will be a renewed and vibrant appreciation of Jesus the Jew, born in Nazareth (Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Christ). In the same edition, Bishop Paul Dempsey rightly castigates the Church’s command and control mechanisms and sensitively explores why, in the lives of many Catholics, God is missing, but not missed, yet he fails to appreciate that Francis’ synodal vision (informed by Vatican ll’s groundbreaking Lumen Gentium) cannot succeed.

Its weakness is that lay people, the main focus of this synodal exercise, are not empowered in any real sense to effect change. Patriarchal-dominated organisations usually need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to recognition of what best serves their genuine interests – the hierarchical Church still has a long way to go.

Its only hope of survival (in some fashion) is to reform itself before it is too late, applying to its worsening sclerotic condition the implications of Einstein’s wise counsel. We are now well beyond the need for mere ‘better accountability’, advocated by the bishop.


 Why should people, young persons in particular, invest their precious time, energy and talents attempting to bolster-up an institution that gives them no legislative say in its management and future direction?

This is the twenty-first century, not 325, when the Roman emperor, Constantine, imposed the Christological settlement upon the Church, thereby introducing fixed doctrinal interpretations and suppressing a more fluid, imaginative Christian narrative, to paraphrase a good friend and scholar-priest.

Constantine’s ghost, like Ottaviani’s, continues to haunt us, not to mention the baleful influence still exerted by Plato’s ghost, which has bequeathed Christianity a dualistic interpretation of reality, whereby exaggerated claims to universal and absolute truths minimise the deeper truth that God wills cultural and religious diversity for the greater good of humankind.

What the Church of our day needs desperately is not more orthodoxy (right belief) but orthopraxis (right living); that is, Catholics should be less concerned about believing right things about Jesus and instead focus their hearts and minds on imitating him. It is no accident that, of the teaching in the New Testament attributed to Jesus, about 75% of it is on forgiveness.

Judaism, the religion of Jesus (Christianity is the religion about him), has little interest in formal doctrine. Its concerns are mainly this-worldly, centred on ethical imperatives such as ‘love your neighbour’, ‘compassion’ and ‘fellowship’.

The magisterium should redirect its priorities in that direction, if it is to have any meaningful chance of providing the Church and world with a vision of hope, for without vision the people die (Prov. 29:18, redacted).

Charles Darwin, arguably the greatest human being who ever lived, said that species survive to the extent they are able to adapt to change. If Catholicism cannot undertake radical transformation, and soon, it will end up a sect-like church, ‘a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal’.

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