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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Douthat’s comments intuitively made sense to me. But on second thought I would not be so sure that this will result – at least in the RCC – in a shift to more decision making in Rome. The locals are a cantankerous lot and guard their well established privileges often much to the frustration of Rome. Your point though that it does provide us with a caution about what might happen in less established local authority structures is well taken.

    I would say that part of the solution to a justifiable fear that any restoration of local control will get washed away by the first calamity is 1) local authorities need to handle things better and 2) a commitment to a notion of subsidiarity has to be deeply ingrained in the culture so that any effort to return control to a distant authority can be resisted.

    The larger issue it seems is- using the case of the accused pedophile priest from India – the local Bishop in Minnesota responded appropriately as did the CDF in Rome – turning the case over to the police and recommending defrocking. But the local Bishop in India disagreed and decided the old prayer cure was the way to go (he has obviously not been following how the old prayer cure worked here in the US). So a second issue about localism is how do we deal with disparities in the way local authorities choose to handle a situation that has impacts beyond the local or where there is significant variance in local values? It is likely that the Bishop in India has less experience with these situations and may be responding to different cultural issues regarding abuse. (I note that in some sections of India child brides are perfectly acceptable – a practice which would seem horrendous here in the US) So his solution may be the logical one for his locality. Yet his decision is unacceptable to the rest of us – who have different ways of understanding abuse. So do we – in the name of respecting local decisions – accept a choice that is anathema to us? Or do we call for more central authorities to be strengthened so that a disreputable local decision can be avoided?

    This is an extreme case – pedophilia and two thoroughly different societies – the US and India – but the issues are perhaps best illustrated in the extreme. One could easily imagine very different perspectives on a range of issues from one region of the US to another. Can a commitment to local decision making include a tolerance of decisions that might be very disagreeable to other localities?

  2. In my parish, St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, NY, the first major pedophile scandal materialized in the early nineties. The priest in question, “Father Ed” had been molesting boys in their early teens. To say that the parishioners were traumatized by this would be an understatement. They were devastated. Then something wondrous happened….

    Father Ed was eventually replaced by Father Trevor Nichols. Father Trevor had been an Anglican in merrie old England when he converted to Catholicism. On becoming a Catholic was transferred to Saint John’s – WITH HIS WIFE AND TWO DAUGHTERS! A married priest! WITH TWO KIDS!

    You want to hear the punch line? Our little parish did not implode. The sun did not fall from the sky. Huge cracks did not appear in the earth’s surface. In fact, it was nice having them. They were – and are to this day – deeply beloved by the people of St. John’s.

    Allowing priests to marry would transform the Catholic Church. Having a married priest and his lovely family in our midst certainly transformed the people of St. John’s.

    http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

    Tom Degan

  3. Having been an Anglican much of my life, and a priest for ten years, and now back home in the Catholic Church, I have some perspective on what Tom Degan is saying. There is a wonderful story about Bishop Sheen. After he received the highest honors in eleven centuries at Louvain, he sailed back to Peoria as a young priest, with three offers. He could start a Christian Studies program at Columbia University, or assume the chairmanship of theology at either the University of Detroit or The Catholic University of America. Instead, his bishop assigned him to the poorest parish in Peoria. Two years later (and Bishop Sheen later said they were the two happiest years of his life) his bishop called him in to say that it was time for him to go to Catholic University and to do what God meant his life work was to be. Bishop Sheen asked, why didn’t you just send me there in the first place? “We knew you were brilliant,” said the bishop. “We wanted to find out if you were obedient.”
    I don’t doubt that Fr. Trevor has “transformed” St. John’s. I doubt very much that it should be taken as a rule. Fr. Ed, by the way, was probably not a pedophile–from what you describe, he was a homosexual, which is what most of the offending priests were. We must be careful in describing what is going on. Mr. Douthat’s Protestant sensibilities (whatever his affiliation is) sacrifices obedience for individual judgment. That’s all right, but let’s call things what they are. I’m not at all sure that God is concerned whether His Church is “popular” with rank-and-file Catholics.

  4. But here’s the question: is real decentralization sustainable, given the centripetal forces of mass culture, mass media and mass politics?

    I won’t speak to the centralization of the RCC, but to me this question is incredibly upside-down. Seeing as centralization, mass culture, mass media, and mass politics in the U. S. has required the explosive growth of debt to the tune of 12.7 trillion dollars and rising, the question ought to be is continued centralization and mass culture sustainable?

  5. Except that the events of recent decades indicate that the pope can’t trust them — not least because if and when local bishops foul up, the Vatican will inevitably be held responsible (by the media, and perhaps eventually even by the courts) for their crimes and blunders.

    Regarding Douthat’s overall point, I think he is overlooking the main problem with his intimations. Events of recent decades indicate not just that local authorities “can’t be trusted,” but that centralized authorities “can’t be trusted.” Are local or centralized authorities responsible for more murders in the 20th century?

    In the end, no one “can be trusted” in the way Douthat would want; but that doesn’t mean authorities shouldn’t exist. It just means that moral failure simply cannot be the criteria by which one determines at what level of authority power should rest, because everybody fails eventually–including the “best and brightest” at the top of the technocratic hierarchy.

  6. “But here’s the question: is real decentralization sustainable, given the centripetal forces of mass culture, mass media and mass politics?”

    If decentralization is what you want, then may want to investigate the Orthodox Church.

  7. Actually, decentralization, at least since the 16th Century, is a protestant move, through and through. It has its costs, certainly, but this is precisely why the “porch” must make peace with protestantism and protestant forms if it is to have any chance in an American context.

    As I’ve written elsewhere:

    “The paradox of the Reformation era was that new instruments of control and communication made unprecedented levels of unity conceivable and possible, thereby rendering the old unified-pluralist order based on common law eradicable and thus unacceptable. That is to say, it could be refused and so it was. The end result was the amplification of old divisions, and not a few new ones, arising out of the quest for unity. Christendom was never “christian” or “united” in the protestant, legal-textualist sense, and protestant unity devolved to mutual acquiescence in necessarily legal confessions: the advent of the constitutional church; the church as an “idea” rather than a fraternal existence with one another and with God under his will. In the political realm, it was the centuries old Anglo tradition of common law that preserved the English political community from the worst ravages of Europe’s transitioning from loosely feudal configurations to massively centralized and nationalized secular states; this dynamic also created the unique phenomena of the English Reformation and subsequent American constitutional forms which held decentralized plurality together under a new, loosely knit legal-textualist, rather than sacred, canopy.”

  8. actually – the level of centralization and control from Rome along with the loss of input from the laity is very much a function of the counter reformation as well as a response to the loss of temporal authority by the Papacy in the 1800’s.

    Before all this – bishops were elected locally not appointed by Rome.
    Rome was dominant in matters of belief but the locals could control other issues – certainly administrative and there was much more diversity in regions – including regional variations in liturgy. And secular authority played a role – often significant – in appointments of bishops. One of the results of the Protestant Reformation is that since the laity were no longer ALL Catholics – the role of the laity gets diminished.

    It is ironic that Benedict is the one who has been talking about a return to the historic role of the Papacy – a decentralization – at a time when the forces around the sex abuse scandal may push the Vatican into greater centralization. I think that would be a tragedy.

  9. “Actually, decentralization, at least since the 16th Century, is a protestant move, through and through. It has its costs, certainly, but this is precisely why the “porch” must make peace with protestantism and protestant forms if it is to have any chance in an American context.”

    Decentralisation and individualism are different things though. A lot of more radical Protestantism goes too far towards individualism(not to mention modernism.) imho as Rome goes too far in the other direction sometimes. It seems the Orthodox, Anglican and traditional Lutheran denominations have the best balance and it is a balanced decentralism and not a radical individualism or fundamentalist localism which will be the sustainable course of real decentralism

    “this dynamic also created the unique phenomena of the English Reformation and subsequent American constitutional forms which held decentralized plurality together under a new, loosely knit legal-textualist, rather than sacred, canopy.”

    I’m unsure about your reasoning here. I think your ascribing too much influence to English Puritans and other more radical Protestants. In a lot of England such ideas did not hold great sway for anything but small time periods(specifically with the final decline of Catholicism as a major religious force in the early 17th century before the triumph of the high church doctrine after the restoration and even then Bancroft, Laud and others interspersed this period with plenty of high church ideals competing with the Puritan.).

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