Habemus Papam: time for a fresh start at the Vatican?

After promising beginnings with the Vatican II council, the Catholic Church lost its way under the reactionary leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, says John Cornwell. Can it now change course?

Pope Benedict addresses his final meeting with the cardinals in the Vatican. Photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

John Paul II’s defining political moment as pope, or so it seemed at the time, occurred on 2 June 1979 when he faced a million-strong crowd in Victory Square in Warsaw. “Come, Holy Spirit,” he intoned, “fill the hearts of the faithful and renew the face the earth.” And he added: “Of this earth,” indicating Poland and the world beyond. Here was Karol Wojtyła, less than a year in to his papacy, liberator of his oppressed nation and evangelist of “solidarity” – the recognition that freedom is to be found in the political and spiritual interdependence of all peoples on the planet.

Two years later there emerged the Polish trade union Solidarity, funded by John Paul’s Vatican bank. Solidarity’s principal grievance was the collapse of living standards in Poland under communism; its strategy, serial strikes. Ten years after Victory Square, the Berlin Wall fell and the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed. “The tree was rotten,” John Paul would say. “I just gave it a good shake.”

Yet through the 1990s his sense of solidarity diminished. He became an ecclesial autocrat, a disciplinarian and excluder of dissidents, aided and abetted by his enforcer Cardinal Ratzinger, appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.

Wojtyła and Ratzinger denounced liberation theology, which characterised “sin” as oppression and unjust socio-economic structures. Theologians who strayed from strict dogmatic guidelines were excommunicated. The nomination of new bishops, a prerogative of popes since 1917, favoured papal yes-men. Priests or members of religious orders, including nuns, who dared raise questions about a married or female priesthood were disciplined. Catholic aid workers were told that it was sinful to distribute condoms to combat the spread of Aids in Africa, let alone for victims to use them.

The Wojtyła-Ratzinger papacies resulted in an increase in Roman centralisation and the reduction of collegiality – a downgrading of bishops’ authority and local discretion. The obligation to refer laicisation of offending clerics back to Rome resulted in the failure to deal with the clerical abuse scandal promptly. Reports of warring Vatican cliques, financial misdemeanours and theft of private documents from the papal apartments complete the picture of a regime racked by intrigue, confusion and decay.

According to Catholic progressives, the greatest failure of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership was its betrayal of the spirit and letter of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, known as Vatican II. Great councils of the Catholic Church, in which the collective authority of the bishops becomes manifest, are rare events, and popes are obliged to pay heed. Catholic critics and a wide constituency of senior clergy and laity assert that the worst papal betrayal of Vatican II has come in the area of political and social teaching, which sought to overturn a century of entrenched hostility to pluralism.

From the middle of the 19th century the papacy has obstinately resisted the advance of secularism and democracy. In 1864, Pius IX, the longest-serving pope in history (1836-78) and a rabidly fundamentalist cleric by today’s standards, published his Syllabus of Errors, a catalogue of denunciations of “modern” propositions, the 80th of which stated: “[I]t is a grave error to assert that the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation.” Here was the first modern papal political manifesto. Pius also forbade Catholics, on pain of mortal sin, to vote in the new Italy.

His successor, the politically temperate Leo XIII, realised that the ostrich stance was unfeasible. In 1891, he published Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), a belated response to the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Capital. This document became a crucial catalyst for subsequent popes and for “Catholic social teaching”.

Although it deplored the oppression and virtual enslavement of the poor by the instruments of “usury” and although it advocated just wages and the right to organise trade unions (preferably Catholic), Leo’s encyclical rejected socialism as equivalent to atheism and class hatred and was lukewarm on democracy. Class and inequality, he proclaimed, are inalterable features of the human condition, as are the rights of property ownership. Leo’s immediate successor, Pius X (1903-14), reverted to the stance of Pius IX. He initiated an “anti-modernist” campaign. “Modernists”, a term of extreme abuse in Pius X’s parlance, were Catholic academics and clerics who introduced historical criticism into theology or who attempted, for example, to reconcile Genesis with Darwin’s theories. “Liberalism” in all its forms stood condemned as relativism.

In 1907 he added a further 65 errors to those indicted by Pius IX. He said that modernists should be “beaten with fists”. His spymaster, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, said that historians did “nothing but vomit” and understood one thing only – “the Inquisition!”. George Tyrrell, an Anglo-Irish Jesuit modernist, was excommunicated. When he died in 1909 he was refused burial in consecrated ground. The priest who said prayers over his grave was suspended.

Pius XI, who followed Benedict XV, the mild pope of the First World War, revealed his own distrust of democracy by collaborating with Mussolini and repudiating Italy’s Catholic Partito Popolare, forbidding all priests from joining it. In 1931 he published an encyclical in celebration of the anniversary of Leo’s great Rerum Novarum – Quadragesimo Anno (“Fortieth Year”). It promoted the social thought of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas on the benefits of “subsidiarity”: the belief that higher institutions in a society – the state, for instance – should not arrogate to themselves functions that can be carried out by lower ones.

The Italian Fascists exploited this idea as a basis for state corporatism, comparing medieval guilds to local “fasces”. Subsidiarity was a feature of the socially “distributist” proposals of G K Chesterton in the 1930s, and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell believed that the idea might underpin socio-economic policies in postwar Britain. Yet subsidiarity was hardly adopted by the Catholic Church internally.

Under Pius XI, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, negotiated a historic treaty with Hitler in 1933, the Reichskonkordat, which traded Catholic withdrawal from the political sphere in Germany for a greater measure of Vatican control over the Catholic population there. The deal involved the dismantling of the democratic Catholic Centre Party, after it had voted for the Enabling Act, which give Hitler dictatorial powers.

Pacelli, both as cardinal secretary of state and as pope, would favour such figures as Ante Pavelic in Croatia, Franco in Spain and António Salazar in Portugal. State corporatism was his favoured model of the good society. Throughout the war he made no moral discrimination between the Allies and the Nazis. What he feared most was a communist eastern Europe and Italy after the war. He declared it a mortal sin to vote for the communists, notices to which effect were nailed to every confessional box in Italy.

Pius XII bequeathed a centralised church with the pope as ultimate authority. He decreed that whenever there was a dispute over faith and morals, the pope’s verdict should be taken as final. But the monolithic Church, disciplined, triumphalist and admirable in so many ways, was out of step with the world. The faithful longed for a different kind of church, and their aspirations were as much social and political as they were spiritual.

Angelo Roncalli, the man who became John XXIII in 1958, had spent much of his priestly life as a papal nuncio, or envoy. He had tried to help the Jews during the Second World War. One of his first public acts as pope was to apologise on behalf of the Church for Christian anti-Judaism. In January 1959, three months after his election, he called a general council of the world’s bishops with a view to pastoral renewal and the promotion of Christian unity.

The conciliar bishops attempted to address a problem fraught with social and political significance in the coming decades: how does a religion that believes itself to be the unique repository of truth respect the truths of other religions and, indeed, those who hold no religious belief at all? At stake was the tension between religious fundamentalism and freedom of conscience. In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI had declared that freedom of conscience sprang from the “evil-smelling spring of indifferentism”. Conservative bishops in the council recoiled at the mere suggestion of such a debate. The political philosopher Carl Schmitt believed that the council was betraying Catholicism’s “political” vision, by which he meant a loss of “differences” – between “sacred and profane”, “good and evil”, “God and Satan” – that would lead to the certain destruction of the Church.

However, in 1961, a draft document on these issues emerged out of the council’s findings. It formed the basis of the groundbreaking Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”), promulgated by Paul VI after John’s death in 1963. This stated that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in [other] religions”. Sincere respect must be shown towards “moral and doctrinal teaching which may be different in many respects from what she holds and teaches”.

By the end of Vatican II, the bishops agreed a document entitled Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which accepted the inalienable right of freedom of conscience for all. The Catholic Church now accepted that political and religious pluralism owed its origins to a powerful principle in natural law.

Karol Wojtyła, who took part in Vatican II as a bishop, welcomed the declaration as essential to his struggle with the communist regime. He continued to pay lip-service to it as pope until the regime collapsed. But as economic globalisation burgeoned in the 1990s and Europe prepared to expand without a Christian element written into the proposed EU constitution, he became anxious and then angry about the triumph of free-enterprise democracy. In 1991 he wrote an encyclical to mark the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. He argued that pluralism, democracy and free enterprise were degenerating into new forms of tyranny, without a “moral culture” to restrain and shape them. By moral culture he meant Roman Catholic moral culture: crucially, the repudiation of sins against chastity and the sanctity of life.

Catholics inspired by Vatican II insisted on continuing the dialogue with opinions that were often antagonistic to Catholic values. The matters for discussion included human embryonic stem-cell research, contraception, the deployment of nuclear weapons, poverty, the environment and development. John Paul II’s style through the 1990s became increasingly harsh and dogmatic. He hurled the epithet “culture of death” at those he deemed to be in the grip of the “contraceptive mentality”. Over his bishops and ancient intellectual orders such as the Jesuits and the Dominicans, he favoured highly disciplined evangelistic groups, such as Opus Dei, acquiescent to every papal directive and recommendation.

It was noticeable that Catholic moral phil­osophers, most of whom were non-clerics, were becoming increasingly distant from papal social teaching. The Scottish-born thinker Alasdair MacIntyre, working in the Aristotel­ian tradition, had argued in his masterpiece, After Virtue (1981), for the importance of virtue ethics in social, political and economic life. He had many followers among political philosophers on both sides of the right-left and the confessional divide. The “Red Tory” Phillip Blond and Jon Cruddas of Blue Labour have both cited MacIntyre as a resource for rethinking the relations between individuals, society and the state.

In Vatican II’s advocacy of pluralism, John Paul, with Ratzinger’s backing, saw only relativism. The origins of pluralism, in their view, were to be found in the ideas of John Stuart Mill – in other words, in utilitarian, anglophone sources. When reports of the clerical child abuse scandals first surfaced, the Holy See noted that it was mostly anglophone countries that were involved, overlooking how discovery processes in American tort law often lead to more speedy exposure.

As the 1990s came to a close and the pope became ever more triumphalist, a dispute arose that went to the heart of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger rejection of the primacy of individual conscience. A Belgian Jesuit professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, Father Jacques Dupuis, published a book entitled Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. His idea was that all belief systems are moving towards a truth that will never be attained in this world. Rebutting Dupuis in 2000, John Paul declared that the revelation of Jesus Christ is “definitive and complete”, and that all other religions are “deficient” compared to those that have the “fullness of salvic means in the Church”.

Later that year, in a document signed by Ratzinger and endorsed by John Paul, religious pluralism was condemned as “relativ­istic” subjectivism, which made it impossible for human beings to raise “their gaze to the heights of truth”. Non-Catholic Christian churches, moreover, were characterised as not proper churches. Ratzinger’s papacy, from 2005, was a continuation of Wojtyła’s autocracy, with a traditionalist twist. He attempted to woo back the schismatic Society of St Pius X (which deplores the liberalising tendencies of Vatican II), despite the presence in its ranks of a Holocaust-denying bishop – a decision that outraged Jewish groups and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in equal measure. In a lecture given in Regensburg in his native Bavaria in 2006, he appeared to caricature Muslims as violent and inhuman. Then, without consulting his Anglican “separated brethren”, he launched a scheme to lure into the Catholic fold those Anglican priests who were disaffected by the ordination of women and the prospect of female bishops.

Benedict’s long-delayed contribution to papal teachings on socio-economic matters was launched in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009). People who have no morality about procreation cannot make serious contributions to saving the planet, he said:

Some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception . . . In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.

While paying lip-service to religious freedom, he argued that human beings do not seek the truth, but rather the truth comes in search of them. This is perilously close to John Rawls’s definition of totalitarianism – the imposition of values and beliefs from the top down.

That Benedict’s “political” thinking is inimical to social democracy became evident during last year’s presidential election in the United States. The American Catholic hierarchy condemned President Barack Obama’s proposed health-care reforms (“Obamacare”) because the new rules insisted that Catholic institutions staffed by non-Catholics should contribute to national insurance schemes that might be used to purchase contraceptives. The official Catholic view, controlled from Rome, is that Obama is riding rough­shod over people’s consciences. Lay Catholics, angry at the bishops’ interference in the election process, argued that Rome was attempting to foist its sexual morality on non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Quite apart from this, for five decades at least, most sexually active Catholics in the US have been using contraception. The disagreement exposes the gulf between teaching and practice in the Church.

The dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng, writing recently in the Catholic weekly the Tablet, advised the cardinals not to choose a successor in the mould of Benedict and John Paul. Their “personal politics”, he argued, have led to “manifold disasters” in the Church.

Over the 32 years of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership, the progressive Vatican II reforms have been eroded at the top in Rome, disclosing a political perspective that is increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist. In the debates between the New Atheism and religionists, it is widely recognised that the point at which religion consistently transforms from benign to maleficent is when it fails to adopt a pluralist approach to other faiths as well as to the secular domain. Where Vatican II offered a powerful vision for Catholicism and other world religions, the last two popes have retrenched, taking the Church on a trajectory that will very likely continue into the next papacy.

This does not signal the total failure of a “Catholic” contribution to social teaching that emphasises the notion of the “common good” and has been developed by several generations of moral and political philosophers. The tendency of the two most recent popes to lecture and dictate, rather than be part of a living conversation with their peer group, must be seen as a lost opportunity in a world facing such great socio-economic crises. At the end of After Virtue, pondering the civilising influence of St Benedict on the Dark Ages, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that the world is in dire need of a “new Benedict”. If the critics are right, Ratzinger was emphatically not he. But then it is unlikely that MacIntyre ever thought that any pope could, on his own, be the answer to the problems of the Catholic Church, let alone those of the world that lies beyond the Vatican.

John Cornwell’s most recent book is “Newman’s Unquiet Grave” (Continuum, £10.99)

Timeline:

1962The Second Vatican Council is convened under John XXIII to address the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world

1965 The Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) recognises religious and political pluralism
1978 Karol Wojtyła is elected pope and becomes John Paul II
1981 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
2004 Ratzinger is elected pope and becomes Benedict XVI
2013 Ratzinger resigns as pope