The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny » Post Topic » Continuities

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

The number and specificity of the demands or proposed actions vary among these declarations, conferences and “processes.” But the underlying issues that are identified are generally the same. How can we account for this extraordinary unanimity? After all, hasn’t the Church throughout the world and over recent decades been characterized by tensions between conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and liberals? Yet, when the Church undertakes a project to “listen” to its base, only one perspective emerges, only one set of priorities is deemed worthy of comment.

The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny » Post Topic » Continuities
(Above) The 1973 “Terence Cardinal Cooke Center” is the main monument of post-Vatican II Catholic architecture in Manhattan. Constructed on the site of an old parish, it houses the chancery of the Archdiocese and dozens of other Catholic functions.

We read much about the “Synodal Path,”  the “Synodal Church,” the “Synod on Synodality” and “synodality” itself.  Few, however, seem to have noted the remarkable agreement among all the actors involved in these events. The German Synodal Path supposedly was the product of the unique nature of the German Church: bureaucratic, historically antagonistic to “Rome” and enjoying the benefits of the Church Tax. Yet similar recommendations were soon forthcoming in France and Ireland. Then, the allegedly “conservative” Church of the United States issued its own “national synthesis” which has a surprising resemblance to the  positions taken by the Germans. For example, the USSCB summary found among the main issues facing the Church:

Closely related to the wound of polarization is the wound of marginalization :

Those who experience marginalization, and thus a lack of representation in the Church, fall into two broad groups.16 The first includes those marginalized who are made vulnerable by their lack of social and/ or economic power, such as immigrant communities; ethnic minorities; those who are undocumented; the unborn and their mothers; people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, or incarceration; those people who have disabilities or mental health issues; and people suffering from various addictions. Included also in this group are women, whose voices are frequently marginalized in the decision-making processes of the Church: “women on parish staff said they felt underappreciated, underpaid, not supported in seeking formation, worked long hours, and lacked good role models for self-care.”17 The second group includes those who are marginalized because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church. Among these are members of the LGBTQ+ community, persons who have been divorced or those who have remarried without a declaration of nullity, as well as individuals who have civilly married but who never married in the Church. Concerns about how to respond to the needs of these diverse groups surfaced in every synthesis. 

Persons who have been divorced, whether remarried or not, often feel unwelcome within the Church. 

The hope for a welcoming Church expressed itself clearly with the desire to accompany with authenticity LGBTQ+ persons and their families. …In order to become a more welcoming Church there is a deep need for ongoing discernment of the whole Church on how best to accompany our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. 

There was a desire for stronger leadership, discernment, and decision-making roles for women – both lay and religious – in their parishes and communities. 

Synodal consultations identified that more work is necessary to welcome diverse cultural and ethnic communities. 1)

This consensus extends not just across borders but up and down the chain of authority in the Church. The archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, produced its own statement pf priorities completely in accord with those mentioned above.  Artwork arising out of those sessions in Pennsylvania was subsequently republished by the Vatican. In Rome, Cardinal Mario Grech has defended the German Synodal Path against is critics in other hierarchies.

Finally, the continuity extends across time as well as space. In 1976 the famous Call to Action conference was held in Detroit with the support and participation of senior members of the American hierarchy. In substance, its characterization of the issues facing the church resembles closely those of the synodal reports of today. 2) In Germany, the Würzburg synod held between 1971 and 1975 anticipated in many respects the current Synodal Path.

The number and specificity of the demands or proposed actions vary among these declarations, conferences and “processes.” But the underlying issues that are identified are generally the same. How can we account for this extraordinary unanimity? After all, hasn’t the Church throughout the world and over recent decades been characterized by tensions between conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and liberals? Yet, when the Church undertakes a project to “listen” to its base, only one perspective emerges, only one set of priorities is deemed worthy of comment.

One obvious fact is that in all these meetings, conferences and sessions the same people and the same institutions are involved. They are the bureaucrats who in fact run the Catholic Church, regardless of post-Conciliar talk of an empowered laity, subsidiarity or synodal government by the bishops. They include the teachers and administrators at the Catholic educational institutions, the journalists of the Catholic press, the members of the mainstream religious orders, the administrators of dioceses, the staffs of national episcopal conferences and the leadership of catholic organizations of every kind. The Roman curia, along with its related and subordinated entities, is itself one of the foremost examples.  Note that the administrators of the Church include (or form close alliances with) many not officially in the Church’s employ. Members of the “engaged” or ”activist” laity, for example, can be counted among the partners of the bureaucracy. Other allies have found a home as teachers or students at secular universities and divinity schools.  The publication perhaps most representative of the views of the Roman Catholic bureaucracy – the National Catholic Reporter – was specifically founded in the 1960’s outside the formal perimeter of the Church.

The make-up of the bureaucracy has shifted over the years – there are far fewer priests and nuns today in comparison to 1976 or 1966 – but that has hardly diminished its role. Most of the few religious sisters that remain no longer serve in schools or hospital but as administrators of one kind or another. Jesuits today rarely are able to staff their own schools and universities but direct and decisively influence their lay disciples who manage these places. 

The actual number of administrators has undoubtedly steadily increased.  Many bishops and diocesan priests also have come to understand their function to be links in a bureaucratic chain. Moreover, the bureaucratic tide is daily conquering new territory. Pope Francis has just decreed that laymen and women can lead Vatican congregations and dicasteries. A woman has just been appointed as akind of “deputy vicar general” in a German diocese. 3)

These bureaucrats and their hangers-on are the ones who select the issues to be addressed in the synodal process and formulate the “solutions” for them. Not even the ”1%” supposedly surveyed in the synodal process has had any real say in the matter.

This institutional stability is linked  with ideological uniformity. The ascendancy of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, although its roots reach much further back, is really the product of Vatican II. For it was in the wake of the Council that the functionaries were empowered to assume the direction of the Church. They internalized and perpetuated the basic twofold nature of the Council: a revolutionary reaction against all forms of the past in Catholicism, combined with total openness to the norms of contemporary society. It’s easy to see how seductive such a message is for modern administrators. As against the laity and “reactionary” elements of the clergy they could pose as bold innovators in an ongoing, endless process of change. In relation to the  powers of secular society – both in and outside of the state – they could appear as accommodating fellow citizens of modernity. Therefore, at all times the Church bureaucracy has remained the guardian of the progressive vision.

These continuities in structure and belief within the Catholic Church reflect the consolidation of the modern civil society of the West and of its ideology. As in the case of the Church, the cultural and structural unity of the secular world extends over all Western societies (cf. Thomas Molnar’s Atlantic Culture). Moreover, just like the Church bureaucracy, the secular power elite includes both state (governmental) and private institutions and players. The Church operates within this society, and after the Council explicitly has looked to it for guidance. In secular society too, there has been continuity in ideology since the 1960’s, even if developments steadily assume a more and more extreme form. The “woke” ideology dominant today would have exceeded the expectations of all but a fringe of extreme radicals fifty years ago. But on such issues as support of unrestricted abortion the secular establishment has been consistent over the decades. 

Now the controlling influence of secular society is evident not only in the political and moral positions adopted by the Church administrative functions, but also in the very fact of the bureaucratic ascendancy within the Church. For is not the introduction of the managerial revolution one of the hallmarks of the contemporary world? Political conservatives have long lamented the deep state, impervious to political control and following its own agenda. A whole literature has arisen on these developments in the American educational system, where at every level the rate of growth of administrative staffs far exceeds that of both students and teachers.

Continuities of institutions, people, and ideology – all embedded in a supportive secular society – explain why the progressive Catholic vision has been so resistant to change – and now directs the synodal process. Catholic conservatives and traditionalists have been slow to understand or acknowledge these facts. Years ago, James Hitchcock wondered why conservative priests turn “middle of the road” or even progressive on becoming bishops. Others were amazed at how little headway the ideas of Popes John Paul II and Benedict seemed to make in the Church. The fact of Catholic bureaucratic continuity helps to clarify the situation. For those who dispute the consensus expressed in the synodal documents it will be insufficient to write grand speeches and articles and otherwise engage in intellectual debate. They must accept the necessity of relentless conflict with a concretely existing establishment holding all the power.   It’s a struggle that, in the short term, has no immediately foreseeable resolution.

In the long term, as we know, the outcome will be quite different.

  1. “National Synthesis of the People of God”
  2. Miceli, Vincent P., “Detroit: A Call To Revolution In The Church, ” Catholic Culture (1977).
  3. Coppen, Luke, “Rome silent on German diocese’s appointment of lay ‘vicar general representative,” The Pillar ( Oct. 14, 2022)

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