The Incredible Shrinking Catholic Church

The focus of Pope Benedict’s reign has been to draw sharp boundaries that strictly define what it means to be a Catholic, what it means to be a priest, and how the Church should reconfigure itself in order to exile members who are not true believers. For Benedict, the church must be an orthodox community, which means that it will be a smaller community.

But as we have seen in the Vatican’s unsure handling of the controversy around Bishop Richard Williamson, the global trends that the Pope wants to resist are going to pose serious challenges to a more orthodox church and its leadership.

Tyranny of the Minority

Benedict’s understanding of the church—his reinterpretation of the reforms of Vatican II in particular—erases the power of local culture in the experience of Catholicism. It also undermines the ecumenical movement by claiming that Protestant churches are not “true” churches, judges priests on their identity (gay priests must leave) rather than their actions, stops dialogue on any topics that do not meet the Pope’s approval (such as the possibility of women priests), sheds gay people from its ranks and fights against their rights, ignores the diminishing number of priests and the effects of this shortage on Church communities, and calls on Catholics to form the “perfect society” resembling the ecclesiology of Opus Dei. It is no surprise that Pope Benedict comes from a country—Germany—where the percentage of Church members attending Sunday mass is one of the lowest in the world. Strict adherence to orthodoxy will not be popular.

In an odd parallel, Benedict’s view of the Church resembles the ecclesiology of the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who argued that the Christian church should focus on creating a community of character that strictly follows its convictions as a body while suppressing autonomy in its members. Adherence to the ethos of such a church is through the family, which is shaped by a sexual morality that is limited, exclusive, and onerous. Drawn together by this shared narrative, the church community is small, insular, and rigid in its political commitments and ethical expectations.

Hauerwas’ church engages with the world by transforming its members, not by seeking to transform the ethics of its non-members. This is where the resemblance between Benedict and Hauerwas ends. While Benedict is leading his church into a period of contraction through strict orthodoxy, he wants to maintain the influence of Catholic moral theology on the larger global society. For instance, the Vatican maintains its presence at the United Nations, where it opposes resolutions like the recent one in support of gay rights. We might call this strategy “the tyranny of the minority.”

Through the “small Church” ecclesiology of Benedict, many Catholics are already being encouraged to take their spiritual business elsewhere. We have seen an increase in the number of American politicians who are asked to remove themselves from communion lines and, recently, priests have even denied parishioners communion if they vote for a political candidate who favors abortion rights. This exclusion from the sacrament is essentially a form of excommunication.

Dogma Over Diplomacy

Ironically, at a time when many earnest believers are being turned away from the communion rail, the Pope recently un-excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson, who a few days before his reconciliation with the church reaffirmed his belief that the Holocaust did not happen (as Louis Ruprecht has reported on these pages). Unfazed by the possibility of public outrage, the Pope has embraced a figure who is a lightning rod when it comes to the Church’s relations with Jews. While Catholic-Jewish relations had grown closer during the reign of Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s background as an ex-Hitler youth has created some suspicions about his true beliefs when it comes to the dignity of the Jewish religion. With this new development, the Rabbinate of Israel has severed ties with the Vatican and expressed concern about future relations with a Benedict-led Catholic Church.

Why would Benedict reach out to Bishop Williamson and two of the bishop’s fellow travelers at a time when he is shrinking the church? I would argue that reconciliation with these Lefebvrite bishops, as well as the resurrection of the Tridentine Mass, shows that in the eyes of the current papacy, orthodox belief in traditional dogma is more important than the church’s relationship with other religions and the rest of the world. Put simply, these men think like Benedict when it comes to the church’s relationship to the world. This is underlined by Benedict’s revision of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, a move that mirrors the thinking of Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the renegade church with whom these bishops are attached.

Benedict makes it clear who is part of this more tightly circumscribed church and who is not. While many people are troubled by the Pope’s embrace of Holocaust-deniers and saddened when priests ask folks to step out of communion lines because of how they vote, Benedict believes that those who value spiritual sentiment over orthodoxy do not fit the mold of what it means to be Catholic today. They must see the church and Catholicism the way he sees it or leave the fold.

The Vatican seemed surprised that the rapprochement with Bishop Williamson would pose public relations problems for the church. Condemned by many theologians, politicians (including Angela Merkel in the Pope’s native Germany), and Jewish leaders, Benedict’s ecclesial acceptance of someone most thoughtful people would not invite to a cocktail party demonstrated a lack of emotional intelligence when it comes to understanding history and the changing sensibilities of his own flock.

The Vatican has not only felt the need to respond to the secular challenges related to this story through an atypical press statement; moreover, it has also come under pressure to clarify Benedict’s own position on Vatican II. Consequently, the Vatican has now requested that Williamson and the Lefebrvrite bishops publicly state that they are in adherence with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

All corrections to this controversy aside, what has been revealed in this story is Benedict’s vision of the Church as a “perfect society” that places orthodoxy as the primary requirement of membership. If the faithful are willing to give this unquestioning assent to papal rule, then filtering history through the lens of bigotry is not a problem for the Church.

But Benedict’s vision for the Church is a big problem for gay folks, women who seek equal rights, people who believe the expression of sexuality should not be restricted to marriage and procreation, those who embrace ecumenical dialogue, and people who believe in the primacy of conscience (a hallmark of post-Vatican II Catholic moral theology). For Benedict, a Holocaust denier is welcome and these ecclesiastical outliers are not. Ironically, by recognizing Williamson as a member of the Church in good standing, Benedict has made his flock much smaller.

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Paul Gorrell earned his doctorate in Christian Social Ethics at Drew University in 2004 and co-chairs the Gay Men?s Issues in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion. His essays have been published in Theology and Sexuality and Gay Religion. A former Catholic priest, he provides leadership development coaching and programs to companies of all sizes.