Accountable to no one but themselves

An astute reader of Andrew Sullivan’s argues that the Catholic Church’s current crisis stems from something deeper than institutional corruption, viz. the fundamental doctrinal and metaphysical basis of bishops’ claims to authority:

In the later of section of Bishop Morlino’s letter that you didn’t include in your quote, he explains — correctly, I believe — that Roman Catholicism is based on a theory of apostolic succession, in which only members of the Church hierarchy have “authority” to define Catholic positions because only they have been called by Jesus Christ: “That’s what we mean when we say that the Church is Apostolic. The bishop is a true Apostle insofar as he teaches with the Holy Father, and the priest is a true Apostle insofar as he teaches with the bishop — that’s how it works.” As a Lutheran, I don’t accept this theory, myself, but it strikes me as a fairly complete, even airtight, answer to your many criticisms of the Pope and the Church.

I understand why you reject this view. Modern people in general reject it. But that’s because modern people are heirs of the Protestant Reformation. What you’ve essentially been saying is that the Catholic Church, too, needs to act and think in Protestant terms. If it doesn’t, you say, you wonder how it will “survive.” OK, but if it follows your wishes, it will survive only as another denomination of Protestantism. So, really, it faces a choice between two kinds of non-survival: further shrinkage into a tiny rump of pre-modernists who accept unaccountable authority (that’s what you seem to be warning against), and the disappearance of what makes it distinctively Catholic in favor of a surrender to Protestant modernity (that’s what the bishops seem to be resisting — and understandably so, I think).

You’ve been suggesting that bishops have to be “accountable,” that they have “moral authority” only to the extent that they satisfy the rest of us (at least, satisfy ordinary Catholics) that they’re conducting themselves morally. In other words, you’re assuming that the source of their authority lies in common values, the wider community, or some other human agency. This, however, is not Church teaching. To the Church, authority comes not from humans but from Jesus Christ — who, conveniently enough, speaks to humankind through the Church (NOT the Bible — that’s a Protestant view — but only the Bible as the Church interprets it), which means that as a practical matter, the Church hierarchy is not, and does not propose to be, accountable to anyone but itself.

I think the reader’s analysis of bishops’ self-conception is spot-on; fear of institutional embarrassment seems like insufficient reason to explain the still-persistant refusal to defer to secular authorities in investigating and punishing abuse. It only makes sense if one realizes the magisterium literally sees itself above any “merely” human law.

However, the claim that “We are all Protestants now” seems incomplete. I think the Enlightnement (a revolution owing its existence in part to the Reformation) informs the assumptions of most in the West to a degree few would acknowledge.

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