Mark Silk reflects on Rick Hertzberg essay in the current New Yorker on the current Catholic crisis.
Hertzberg on the Church
Those who conceive of religious institutions as the unique stewards of moral values in contemporary Western society need to think about that. But Hertzberg also makes an historical misstep that’s important to correct:
The Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution, modeled on the political structures of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. It is better at transmitting instructions downward than at facilitating accountability upward. It is monolithic.
Authoritarian and monolithic the Church may be these days, but not because it is modeled on the political structures of the Roman Empire and/or medieval Europe. It isn’t. Bishops were very much independent actors in Antiquity, chosen by the local clergy with the assent of the community of the faithful. Church doctrine was decided by councils of bishops. The pope was the first among equals, if that. In the late fourth century, when the emperors were seriously going about the business of suppressing all religions other than Christianity, the most powerful ecclesiastical figure in the West was the bishop of Milan (Ambrose), not the pope in Rome.
In the Middle Ages, the papacy did turn itself into a universal court of ecclesiastical appeals, and took charge of such matters as making saints and promulgating canon law. But bishops remained powerful, autonomous figures, chosen locally and running their dioceses without instructions from Rome. To be sure, popes (as well as secular lords) liked to get involved in episcopal elections–and complicated compromises were always on order. But though the Reformation (and beyond), the Church was a big, diverse, complicated, feudal entity, with lots of power centers and sources of influence and authority.
The model for the Catholic Church today is actually the modern authoritarian state. Doctrine and appointments are made at the center, and anyone who wishes to rise to the top knows that the curia must be cultivated. Sure, the wheels often don’t run smoothly or efficiently–that’s what modern authoritarian states are like. Think Kafka.
Read Hertzberg’s essay HERE
Silk’s response is HERE