Local leaders must lead
Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he is to resign on February 28.
When 117 old men walk into the Vatican conclave soon, they will be coming not as monarchs of great archdioceses of the Catholic Church around the world, or as executives of the great departments of state of the Vatican government. They enter as pretend leading citizens of Rome, gathering, as leading Christians of the area once did, to elect a new religious leader when his predecessor died.
It is only by being elected local Bishop of Rome that the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff, the servant of the servants of God, gains his authority, his legitimacy and his power over the worldwide church. This is because Roman Catholics, of whom I am one, defer to the theory that the apostle Peter was the Leader of the Apostles, that he became the leader of the first congregation of Christians, and that he was martyred in Rome. None of these are dogmatic facts which Catholics must believe at the risk of going out of the communion of the church.
Catholics also think that Christ gave particular authority to Peter as the leader of the Church, and that, accordingly, it is the doctrine of the church preached by Peter's successors which represents the orthodox Christian view. That is a claim supported by some Biblical authority, and by the deference to Rome demonstrated by some, if not all, other bishops over 2000 years.
The idea of presbyterial election of a bishop, other than the pretend presbyterial election of the Bishop of Rome, is no longer the means by which any other bishops are selected to rule in regional jurisdictions of the church. In the Roman, or western Church, a bishop holds his legal authority only by appointment by the Pope, or by (and after) the Pope's assent if there has been any other process of nomination. There is a token consultation, called a ternus, of carefully preselected bishops, clerics and ''lay persons of exceptional wisdom'' - as the Code of canon law puts it - before the Vatican's diplomatic representative presents a short list of three men to the Pope. The Pope decides, and not necessarily from this short list.
Alas, legal authority may come from above, but moral authority can come only from below by the respect that the leadership, teaching, administration and, particularly, personal example provided. It is not someone many bishops - even some popes - have given enough attention to.
The archdiocese of Canberra has been without an archbishop for more than a year. So have a number of other Australian dioceses. There are established systems for the continuing government of such dioceses, but the number of gaps is unusual, suggesting an unusual paralysis in the processes of the church - some say because of recent power struggles in Vatican government culminating in a decision by an ageing, slowing and wearying Pope, 85, adept at politics but not at the details of administration, deciding to hand over to a younger geriatric.
Each of the cardinals who will select the Pope's successor is a great power in the land. Each claims - and is usually accorded - the status of a foreign prince in the tables of civil precedence in their own country, or in Italy. An Australian cardinal - the Irishman Patrick Moran - caused a great fuss at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia when he refused to attend because the Governor-General had accorded precedence to the Anglican archbishop of Sydney. No other Australian cardinal has been less demanding, more humble.
In the 500 years until recently most Popes have been Italians, and, at least until the concordat with Mussolini's government which established the Vatican as an independent city state, enmeshed in the civil politics of Italy. They ruled as civil monarchs (usually cruelly, unjustly and tyrannically) while also creating a bureaucracy that sought to control or influence matters spiritual all over the rest of the world. Thus they had departments responsible for doctrine, for discipline, defence of orthodoxy and detection of error, for the broad supervision of dioceses, for the
broad supervision of religious orders, for evangelisation into countries where the church was weak, and for relations with other churches, states and institutions. The church also has a judicial arm, a canon law system dealing not only with ordinary matters of church government but, depending on the country, with matters such as marriage, defamation and the disposition of property.
For centuries the Roman focus was on a single Catholic ''brand'' - to a degree sealed by the common use of Latin for religious ceremonies. This centralising push has been, over the centuries, resisted by bishops and governments. There is always an argument about whether the power, influence and authority of the church should be exercised ''collegiately'' - which is to say by consultation, discussion and the consent of at least some levels of the governed - or by Rome's claim of ultimate and virtually unlimited sovereign power over all matters spiritual. The major church council in the 1960s saw a decentralising tendency; a clear sign was the shift to the vernacular language and some loosening of ritual; the powerful reaction by conservative church figures of the past 40 years has seen a strong recentralising push and fresh assertions from Rome of total power.
The underlying claim of Rome - and local echoes by loyal servants such as George Pell in Sydney - is that the church is an exclusive club, governed by rules administered by a committee. It's not a democracy. If you do not like the rules - all of them - or how they are administered, you are free to leave. You cannot pick and choose which rules you like. If you do not uncritically support the rules, you can be, in effect, expelled by the committee, or at least have the right to call yourself a Catholic disparaged.
But for others, sovereignty comes from below, not above. A hierarchy and set of rules may be a necessary evil, but it is, in day-to-day terms, a very remote one, having almost nothing whatever to do with the day-to-day job of living a life in some consonance with the message of Christ. Most do not agonise over points of doctrine, and generally see bishops, particularly their own one, only rarely; nearly every time that they see one on TV it is embarrassing, because he is ineptly trying to explain away some scandal caused by servants of the church, and subsequent mismanagement of the evil involved. They do have views about bishops flying first class, and diverting church funds to the refurbishment of their accommodation, but these are generally not respectful.
To them, neither the bishop nor the Pope provides any real sort of moral leadership or example, although the character, personality and charisma of a pope can provide a degree of background mood.
A good many bishops, though not many Australians ones, are stout advocates of more inclusion, democracy and consultation in church government. But many are also complete and virtually unaccountable autocrats in their own dioceses.
The bishops are themselves great powers in their own kingdoms. Regarded as one corporation, for example, the Catholic Church in Australia would be bigger by far than any private company and with a workforce exceeded only by state governments and the commonwealth. It runs hospitals, schools and universities, childcare and child welfare services, convalescent and aged care communities, and community programs in virtually every town.
It has about 180,000 paid employees, (including 60,000 teachers in 1800 schools, 70,000 nurses and other medical staff in 60 hospitals) and a further army of 60,000 volunteers which, in bodies such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, provide practical local community charity.
In size and reach its Australian operations are about six times the size of the ACT government's.
It has massive real estate holdings - albeit often on terms which restrict its use to religious purposes - and substantial share and cash portfolios, frequently augmented by generous government subvention because many of these things the church does are now subsidised by the state. Those who are cynical about this access to state money would do well to remember that most of the overlap comes from the state's entry into the provision of health, education and social services to the citizenry, when previously this has been provided by the churches, mostly as charity.
Once the Australian church had more than 20,000 priests, nuns and brothers providing many of these services at low cost. Religious vocations have plummeted, and most services are provided these days by fully-paid professionals through organisations with common-law governance systems and acquittals to government, if generally unpublished accounts.
Thousands of these organisations are managed by women, people who, in doing their professional jobs simply do not accept views promulgated by Rome (or if sotto voce these days, the bishop) about the right of women to have power and influence in the councils of the church.
The new pope, and his bureaucracy, central and local, is increasingly dealing with congregations no longer used to docile obedience to bishops or cardinals, nor to the self-serving perpetuation of sexist rules of highly doubtful canonical status.
This is particularly so in western Europe, North America and Australia, but it is as much a feature of a more pilgrim church in Africa, South America or Asia. The faithful are no longer automatically faithful; nor will it follow leaders who do not lead, especially not lead by example.
In recent times Rome has rudely cracked down on American congregations of nuns. That has created a considerable crisis among the laity about its own authority, not least by its assumption that women simply have to be commanded to get back into line. Law can never operate without the consent of the governed.
Australia's own first saint, Mary MacKillop was the co-founder of an order of remarkable women who voluntarily bound themselves together to the service of God, to teach poor children with no other access to education. They sought the church's sanction for their work, and its approval of a simple constitution they had agreed, but the sanctity of their operations never depended, even in the eyes of the church, on their incorporation by canon law. They did not need (nor did they get) much money from bishops.
MacKillop came into conflict with a number of bishops who treated her, and her nuns, as vassal resources subject to their entirely arbitrary disposition. When she insisted on a right to be consulted, and to herself ultimately decide where nuns would go, she was excommunicated by one bishop. In a later dispute her order was expelled from two other dioceses. She appealed, successfully, to Rome, but her ultimate canonisation has not made Australian bishops any less autocratic in their own domain. As witnessed in recent times by disputes over the control of schools, or, in Canberra's case, Calvary Hospital.
If a group of women, or men, wanted to unite to provide services to others, whether as celibates or otherwise, they would be very wise not to incorporate under canon law, nor to subject themselves to the authority of their local bishop - even if their intention was to be entirely loyal to Catholic precepts and respectful of the views of the regional leaders imposed upon them. Well might they say that if there is leadership, they will follow it on its merits.