Ross Douthat, in speaking of the latest in the long, sorry parade of priestly sexual abuse stories, reflects on the way in which globalization, the mass media, and participatory democracy make local control so difficult to maintain–not in so many words, perhaps, but that is what I take away from his somber, somewhat tragic little comment. In a world where so many people travel, and do some many different things in so many different ways so very far away from wherever it is that they began their journeys, and where technology makes it so very easy to follow up on all these distant people in their distant places, how can local authority survive?
As time goes by (and especially if the media drumbeat continues), the [Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith] will probably acquire an ever-larger staff, to avoid accusations that laicization proceedings are taking too long, that abusive priests are still hanging around Catholic communities, that bishops in India (or wherever) aren’t handling abuse allegations appropriately, etc. Bishops, in turn, will become accustomed to punting more and more hard personnel decisions up the ladder, prompting further centralization in Rome, and so on. This centralizing turn is probably necessary, given the gravity of the scandal, and it’s obviously preferable to the see-no-evil, pre-Pope Benedict status quo. But it means that far from becoming the more decentralized body that many of the current hierarchy’s critics claim to hope for, the post-scandal Catholic Church may end up more Rome-centric than ever….
But here’s the question: is real decentralization sustainable, given the centripetal forces of mass culture, mass media and mass politics? Once you’ve established that administration can be centralized, won’t any cascade of local blunders eventually get pinned, whether by the press or the public or the legal system, on some more central authority….which in turn will try to consolidate or re-consolidate its power, on the theory that if you’re going to get the blame, you might as well have the authority as well? And doesn’t this mean that any bold attempt at decentralization will only last until the next crisis–the next Hurricane Katrina, the next financial collapse, the next sex abuse scandal?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But so far, the experience of the Catholic Church doesn’t seem encouraging. The Vatican is likely to emerge from this crisis more unpopular with rank-and-file Catholics, and yet more administratively powerful than ever. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what’s been happening to America’s ever-more-potent, ever-less-popular federal government for many, many years as well.