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The Radicalism of Obedience

As I mentioned in my last link roundup, I wanted to discuss in more detail the Pope’s latest Easter homily, in which he directly addresses the “disobedience” of priests who are calling for the ordination of women and an end to mandatory celibacy. There are some interesting implications for how the elites of the Vatican see the future of the Catholic church.

The background to this story is that Catholicism is in the grip of a slow-motion demographic crisis: their priests are growing old and dying (as are their nuns), and there aren’t nearly enough new recruits to replace them. As the CatholiCity website puts it, with reference to America:

In 1965… there were 58,000 priests. Now there are 41,000. By 2020, if present trends continue (and there is no sign of a dramatic upsurge in vocations), there will be only 31,000 priests, and half of those will be over 70.

Another Catholic website says, “Today each year the American seminaries are producing ordinations at between 35 and 45 percent of what is needed to keep the priesthood at a constant size.” So far, the Vatican’s strategy for dealing with this problem mainly consists of importing priests from the few countries that still produce a surplus, which is a stopgap at best.

No surprise, then, that there are some Catholics who are worried for the future of the church, and who want to widen the criteria for admission to permit women and married men. But in his homily, the Pope effectively accused these priests of selfishness – of advocating this change not because they want to save the church, but because they want to bring it in line with their own heretical vision of how it should operate. See for yourself:

…there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others.

We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?

Given that the Vatican has already begun silencing priests in other countries who call for loosening the rules, we can expect that further action will soon follow this condemnation. But the Pope went even further, stating explicitly that the prohibition on women priests is a permanent part of Catholic teaching and will never change, ever:

Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience… even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord.

As stonewalling tactics go, this is the religious equivalent of “I’ll have to transfer you to my supervisor”. The Vatican wants to frame this as an issue of permission, claiming that they can’t just issue whatever directives they want, but that God has to tell them it’s OK first. And obviously, the Pope and his minions have a hotline to God, so it’s not possible that he could have told someone else the church is in need of a change without first telling them.

The church has painted itself into a corner here. Through the means of the “ordinary and universal magisterium“, they’ve proclaimed that the ban on women priests is an infallible part of Catholic doctrine. If they’re later forced by demographic reality to change their position, they’ll be admitting that their “infallible” teachings can be wrong. It seems that the church’s leaders would prefer slow demographic suicide to that admission.

Nor would it be the first time they’ve made such a choice. As I wrote in my review of The Means of Reproduction, in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI formed a committee to advise him whether the Catholic church should permit the use of contraception. Their recommendation was that it should – following which the pope overruled his own hand-picked commission and reiterated the total ban on birth control, reasoning that if the church were to change its view, it would have to admit that it had been wrong in the past, and that was one thing the church must never do. This, of course, has given rise to the most widely flouted religious rule in recorded history.

The Pope concluded:

And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.

“The radicalism of obedience” must surely be in the running for the most Orwellian phrase ever coined by a religious figure. It means, in effect: shut up, do as you’re told, don’t think about anything we don’t tell you to think about, and trust us that everything will be just fine. The Vatican is convinced that, if they stay the course and cling to a failing policy, God will reward them for their faithfulness by producing a miraculous renewal of the church. On the other hand, it’s clear that the Pope would be perfectly happy to see Catholicism shrink down to a small, hard core of obedient believers, rather than a larger and more liberal church with more diversity of opinion. It’s safe to say that, unless the church drastically changes its path, he’s going to get his wish.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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