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Crisis of trust in the Vatican


If all publicity is good publicity, the Catholic Church has certainly prospered over recent years.

Clerical abuse and its handling, the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Bishop Bill Morris affair, the reining in of Caritas, the censure in the United States of the group representing religious sisters and of the work of two women theologians, the silencing of prominent Irish priests and the cleaning out of the Irish College in Rome, the public disquiet expressed by clergy in Austria and Ireland, the sacking of the head of the Vatican Bank, the steady leaking of confidential Roman documents, and the conflict between the Obama Administration and the USA Bishops over health care are just some of the recurrent stories.  

Most of these stories have raised questions about how central authority is exercised. For many critics the answers are self-evident. Just as the actions of Orcs and other forces of Mordor reflect what Mordor is, so  arrogance and misbehaviour are what you expect from the Catholic Church. They are as much a fact of life there as others would find them in News Limited, the Greens, the Unions or any other organisations they may want to identify as part of the Evil Empire.

If you want to address the way people in any organisation behave, however, you must first understand why they act as they do. 

In the case of the Catholic Church the account it gives of its foundations is of critical importance. In this account faith is passed on by Christ through the Apostles to the early Christians. The Apostles live on in later generations through the bishops. The place of Peter who was charged with strengthening his brethren in their faith, is subsequently held held by his successors, the Bishops of Rome. 

 The weight of this account and of two thousand years of history explains why the Bishops and Popes feel such an enormous sense of personal responsibility for handing down faithfully the faith they have received.  They will always respond cautiously to alternative understandings of faith or morality and demand that their continuity with the faith of the early church be demonstrated. 

But the handing on of faith is not like the reading of the will that distributes family possessions:  that is entirely top down.  Faith is at heart a relationship to God.  In all Catholics of any generation, including Bishops, it needs to come alive and its implications to be seen and weighed.  This involves a shared process of wondering, learning and reflecting.  The sharing of faith engenders the mutual trust that provides the space for Bishops and Popes to teach authoritatively.  Where mutual trust is eroded, teaching is met with reserve and comes to be seen as imposed.

This is the background against which the listing of papal news items should be seen. In addition, however, these events reflect a reading by the Vatican of the contemporary Catholic Church.  The Vatican judges that secularism and relativism are a serious threat to the integrity of faith and have infected the ways in which many Catholic individuals and groups see the substance of faith and the governance of the Catholic Church.  The mistrust that follows from this judgment expresses itself in the desire to create from above a strong and authentic Catholic identity without exploring the local conditions in which this must be forged. 

The combination of responsibility and mistrust lie underlies what critics see as lack of due process in decisions that are detrimental to Catholic individuals and groups. These include Bishop Morris, the United States Sisters, the Irish priests, the Caritas council, English language liturgical commissions, and perhaps the head of the Vatican Bank.  Because they see these people as untrustworthy in their grasp of faith and of Catholic life, those responsible for the faith of the Church judge it  reasonable that they themselves should act as investigators, prosecutors and judges in their regard.    

All this is understandable.  The problem is that mistrust is contagious. In any group it corrodes governance and ultimately renders sterile the projects that the group initiates.  The corrosive force of mistrust can be limited when processes are kept secret. But in a world where what is spoken in secret will be shouted from the housetops, mistrust is revealed and met with reciprocal mistrust. Its corrosive power on governance itself can be seen in Vatileaks. To the extent that mistrust characterises relationships between Catholics the more difficult it will become to commend the Gospel. 

It is common to speak of a crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. The crisis is not only that people do not believe, but also that they are not believed.  

Pictured: Vatican spokesperson Fr Federico Lombardi at a media conference.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Vatican, clergy, pope, trust, unions, Greens, News Limited, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

It would have been more interesting if Ihad understood it and its thrust.eg para 3 especially the last sentence;para 9 especially the first sentence. A problem posed but no solution expressed.More open processes are implied , but how this could be achieved is left up in the air.

Barry O'Keefe | 05 July 2012  

Unfortunately "the account the church gives of its foundations" is one that was concocted many years after its inception. The initial Christian community was known as "The Way" as described in Acts 2:42-47. It was a Doomsday Jewish sect,based on certain of the 'sayings' of Jesus such as the immanent arrival of the Kingdom of God,(which they took as the end of the world) and a Judgement on how we loved our neighbour. They showed great love to others, but no desire to break away from Judaism until it was persecuted by the Jewish Hierarchy, and "everyone except the apostles fled." This ewxception shows that it was a grass-roots movement. Saul obtained authoriation "to arrest any followers of the Way he could find (Acts 9:2)The love and devotion of the followers made many converts among the 'Gentiles', contradicting the words of Jesus "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.(Mt15:24. These Gentiles wrote the Gospels, adding miracles from their 'pagan' religions, despite Jesus saying (Mk 8:12),"No miracle shall be given to this generation". The true foundation is "Love God, and love all others."

Robert Liddy | 05 July 2012  

Well written Andrew. That most fragile of things - trust. And once it's destroyed, very difficult to rebuild. I'm certain the Catholic church will rebuild this trust - the church is important to God so it must remain important to God's people.

Pam | 05 July 2012  

I trust in Christ's promise that he would be with his church till the end of time. He did not say his representatives would all be humanly perfect - he said that he - 'the way, the truth and the life' would stay - and in Benedict XVI as in JPII and the former popes I see this fulfilled. In my view Bishop Morris was given too much leeway to promote views contrary to what the church - the voice of Christ - teaches. Same with the American nuns - rather they are not to be trusted as they betrayed the trust of ordinary Catholics who simply wanted to follow Christ and got mixed messages from these 'authority' figures. It is a great mercy to ordinary people to point to the ground of all truth - not to mix it with political agendas. As the Pope's letter on Bishop Morris - found in the Vatileaks letters - Bp Morris was very poorly taught in the seminary. That was a kind interpretation. I do agree there were not adequate procedures to deal with sexual abuse by priests - but then working in a government institution I see that this lack of procedural effectiveness was widespread and not limited to the church alone. In addition it seems the problem was rather ehebophilia - not pedophilia - which raises suspicions that the church did not have an adequate approach to detecting and dealing with ehebophilic and - perhaps one might add. homosexual priests.

Skye | 05 July 2012  

I do not agree with your exposition, Andrew, for God has judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist. And if He had determined that in the case of men, there should be no restoration to happiness, would it not have been quite just, that the being who firstly rebelled against God, who in the abuse of his freedom spurned and transgressed the command of his Creator when he could so easily have kept it, who defaced in himself the image of his Creator by stubbornly turning away from His light, who by an evil use of his free will broke away from his wholesome bondage to the Creator's laws—would it not have been just that such a being should have been wholly and to all eternity deserted by God and left to suffer the everlasting punishment he had so richly earned? Certainly so God would have done, had He been only just and not also merciful, and had He not designed that His unmerited mercy should shine forth the more brightly in contrast with the unworthiness of its objects.

Bernstein | 05 July 2012  

Thank you Fr Hamilton. Insightful and accurate, and in the current climate, brave. We do indeed have a situation where the conservative "mis-trusters" are not only in charge but have declared war on the moderate main-stream...especially in the Church. And indeed wish to rub noses in it, as for example in "their" liturgical English. It is of note that our own Cardinal is both poster-boy and attack-dog for this minority. But we have been here before and survived (just!): the early moderation of Trent intended by Paul 111, and Cardinals Pole and Morrone overwhelmed by the ultra-conservative back-lash. And this destructive "Carafa effect" lives on.

Eugene | 05 July 2012  

I am sorry that I am less than accepting that those Bishops act out of a desire to preserve tradition. My first visit to Italy and Rome in particular, last year, showed me so clearly that the wealth and arrogance of the past is still alive and present today. I was sickened by the opulence - and the pathetic excuses that nothing could be done to sell or donate art works. Please! Anything is possible if they want it to be. I was so ashamed that I left the galleries. And so now this week we find that they are still at the old game of covering up. The only hope is that the laity stand up and get counted: loudly, publicly, and with outside community support. There is nothing 'mystical' about raw power and systemic arrogance.

Pauline | 05 July 2012  

As usual, Andrew, a well-argued presentation of the other's position - in this case, that of the Pope and the Curia - in the seemingly never-ending stream of bad news from the Vatican. 'Faith is at heart a relationship to God... Where mutual trust is eroded, teaching ... comes to be seen as imposed.' The latter expresses the current relationship between the Vatican and much of the Catholic church. Following the dictates of Rome is presented as the means by which we live our relationship with God; and importantly the converse - unless we follow Rome, we cannot be in good relationship with God. And where, in all of this is Jesus? Jesus argued against the Pharisees who, as pre-cursor to the Vatican, formed a rigid school of strict adherence to received doctrine and practices of tradition. On trust, Jesus healed the lepers, ritually unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus defended the woman accused of adultery, one who deserved stoning to death according to the Pharisees. Jesus used a Samaritan (to the Pharisees, an apostate and idolator) in his parable about love for fellow humankind. Jesus demonstrated a good relationship with God. He argued that strict adherence to received tradition is not necessarily a good relationship. When will the Vatican recognise the Spirit of God in today's Church?

Ian Fraser | 05 July 2012  

I have to agree with Pauline and accept Andrew's critique.I have studied and taught Church History over many years. Sadly the history of the Vatican is laced with intriques and scandals so the current climate of distrust is not a surprise to me athough I am greatly saddened. The Church has seen revolts against corruption and misrule before and no doubt will see similar events in the future. Maybe the falloff in Church attendance is a quiet revolt? Unlike the reactionary Councils responses to knowledge and change, like those of Trent and Vatican 1, the Vatican can no longer use threats and warnings of damnation to coerce obedience to its dictates. Many lay Catholics are well educated theologically and are well versed in the scriptures and traditions.Unlike the "pay pray and obey" Catholics of my youth (Pre Vatican 11). Today's Catholics like Pauline, who have like me has visited the Vatican and seen the reality of its splendid isolation can make up their own minds and informed consciences and disagree with some of the recent Vatican dictates that have no scriptural or theological basis in fact. Sadly many Catholics have lost faith in the Vatican as an institution, but that does not mean they have lost the Faith!

Gavin | 05 July 2012  

The proces of handing on the inherited faith in up-to-date ways was identified in a striking way by Peter De Rosa years ago in his words: 'Doctrines, like bread, must be freshly baked.'

Brian Peter Gleeson | 05 July 2012  

To Skye, on paedo-/hebephilia: 1. Any documented case of paedophilia involving a priest is already a scandal in itself; your attempt to rebrand this abuse of power over the sexually vulnerable, trivialises a major ethical failure. 2. "Lack of procedural effectiveness"? One cannot say that of the Holocaust's bureaucratic efficiency, the prime example of institutional devilry (far outstripping the Inquisition). The dilemma of the Vatican is not in its centralism but the other "Peter principle": that all organisations end up advancing the self-interest of its directors - even when this is expressed as a genuine sense of mission. Isn't that the Gospel's challenge, to step beyond the ego? Neither Pope nor priests - nor anyone in authority - can avoid this challenge.

Fred Green | 05 July 2012  

I suppose mountains are always more imposing than molehills. Be careful. If you keep on builing up the molehills by taking from the mountains you might destroy the mountains in the process.

john frawley | 05 July 2012  

Thank you Andrew for your usual moderate, balanced and thoughtful piece. I particularly appreciate your ability to open up discussion on sensitive issues without grandstanding. You provide the reader with space to think more deeply and compassionately about the topic. As with many other contributors I have lost trust in the hierarchy. The cover-up by senior churchmen of pedophiliac activity by some priests, the silencing of theologians and pastoral clergy and the lack of open and accountable processes in dealing with dissent leave me quite disillusioned. I believe this has come about, in part, with the virtual disappearance of the contemplative ‘arm’ of the Church. There is now a lack of balance between the legal (authoritative) and mystical elements that provided a dynamic tension within the Church. Ironically, many of the reforms of Vatican II that I fully support, have had a detrimental impact on monastic life. What does give me some hope is the grass roots revival of the contemplative tradition across many Christian communities. The writings of the likes of Thomas Merton and Anthony de Mello, drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual practice, I believe provide a way forward for the Church.

Tony W | 05 July 2012  

The crusades are well and truly over and the church is no longer a military organisation. Let's demilitarise the church, allow some light to shine down into the deeper, darker parts of its bureaucracy - and let some talented lay people truly lead the church this century.

AURELIUS | 05 July 2012  

What is remarkable to me is how, in this day and age, anyone can pretend that the Vatican can be trusted or considered to have any kind of moral authority re anything at all. I would suggest that everyone read the book by David Yallop titled The Power and the Glory - The Dark Heart of John Paul II's Vatican. A book which gives ample documented proof of how morally bankrupt the Vatican is. Altogether the book gives a classic example of how power always corrupts those who use it. And, more importantly, how presumed absolute power corrupts absolutely. ESPECIALLY when the actions are justified by the obvious lie that they were done in the name and/or service to "God" and "Jesus". Or that the church is the "body of 'Christ'!

Sue | 05 July 2012  

Skye's comment on this article is spot on. Thank you, Skye

Trent | 05 July 2012  

There are strong elements of all the preceding comments that I can relate to. However, I want to concentrate on Andrew's last sentence" "The crisis is not only that people do not believe, but that they are not believed". I believe there is great truth in this, in the sense of the public perception of actions (and non-actions) by the Vatican and the hierarchy more generally clearly taints the attempts at Christian witness by those who do believe, because the latter are associated with the former. Thus a blind eye is turned to the incredible breadth and depth of community-wide service of the many lay and religious workers for a vast array of works and causes in social justice areas, because these are constantly overshadowed in the media by negative reports. Further, the word "crisis" has the fundamental meaning of a "turning point", or a cause of making decisions to go in a different direction. I truly hope that this is what the "crisis of faith " really is, but the making of such a decision at the level of the hierarchy seems right now to be a long way off.

Dennis Green | 05 July 2012  

I agree with Skye's comment one hundred per cent. Thank you, Skye

Ron Cini | 05 July 2012  

Skye, spot on.

I pray for the day E.S. might give you an op. ed.

HH | 05 July 2012  

It is common to speak of a crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. The crisis is not only that people do not believe, but also that they are not believed. ***************************
I suggest that the crisis is that some people are in danger of worshipping false gods. Some, encouraged to some degree by the Vatican, want to place their trust in the Vatican as though it were God. In Revelations 22:8-9, 'John' relates that when an 'angel' (messenger), brought him enlightenment, he fell at the feet of the angel to adore him. But the angel said, "Don't do that, I am a servant just like you and like your brothers the prophets... it is God you must worship." The Vatican should say the same. However well intentioned they are, they do not speak with the voice of God. They are servants, just like us. It is hard for them to admit this, in case people lose faith in them. but it is faith in God that is important, not misplaced faith in them.

Robert Liddy | 06 July 2012  

Poor seminary training doesn't turn people into paedophiles, rapists and sexual predators. Stop this apologist garbage and get real!

AURELIUS | 06 July 2012  

Is it possible that Ratzinger & his many clones throughout the world ,including our Cardinal could ever be inspired to resign their roles ,so that Christianity can re-emerge in Rome .The true Shepherds such as Bishop Bill ,are dismissed while the wolves in sheep's clothing ravage the flock .Like Tony I am held up by the guidance of the Mertons & de Mellos of the world but Rome fails to applaud them .Soon after the death of de Mello,the amazing Father Peter Green SJ assured me the Manderin were "raking through his bones ".

john kersh | 06 July 2012  

Perhaps Skye (and like-minded correspondents) may care to read SMH front page story of today "Church shuttered inquiry into abuse". "The church - the voice of Christ" does not teach this sort of behaviour. And splitting hairs over "ehebophilia" and "paedophilia" may be interesting but not overly comforting to victims of abuse. The church not only "did not have an adequate approach to detecting and dealing with abuse" from the standpoint of the clergy. There was also active disregard for the welfare of victims and their families - this is where saying "Christ did not say his representatives would all be humanly perfect" is of very little comfort to those whose lives have been shattered, firstly in being abused and then being treated with contempt by those who were in a position to help.

Pam | 06 July 2012  

A wonderfully helpful piece Andrew. Trust is the key. Whom and what should we trust? We trust Jesus as his remarkable insights into the human condition of his time are recorded and foundational to our faith. Whom and what did he trust? In spite of the lack of knowledge of his time about the nature of the physical world he was able to accept a model of God, as Father, consistent with the trusting hierarchy of the peoples of Israel. In our time we can focus also on the "what" and indeed react in awe at the complexity and trustworthiness of the created world. This makes it easy then to accept the ancient teaching "God is everywhere". We can trust the created world to do what it does with absolute consistency or "trustworthiness". Therein is God. As an emergent species on this world whose ancient nature and diversity we cannot really grasp we have the frailty of a species where God has been defined by many to suit the needs of the more powerful, and misdeeds are hidden in the interst of sustaining that power. Hence the trusted ones in our church, frail as the are, like the rest of us, lose our trust when they lapse into secrecy.

Mike Foale | 06 July 2012  

Say what you will, though Virgil said it best,
"Happy is the one who knows the causes of things"

Bernstein | 06 July 2012  

Re comments made by PAM-the Fairfax press has no time for the Catholic Church.This has been shown to be true time and time again through its various articles and editorials.

John Tobin | 06 July 2012  

John Tobin, it's not the job of any media organisation to "have time for the church" which I assume means to treat it favourably. But if there's something in a newspaper article that misrepresents the truth, engaged with the actual issues the articles are dealing with and be explicit about what the issue is. The church's reponse to so many issues at the moment hardly deserves praise.

AURELIUS | 07 July 2012  

It seems to me that the situation which caused Jesus Christ to stand up so bravely to the corrupt religious/political authority of his time is being repeated. The Church Jesus founded was not the powerful and rich entity that confronts us today.

No longer can the Church rely on trust. Trust is present when there is honesty and truth. Social networking and better education has made very many believers skeptical of the present Church, though not, necessarily, of the Church Jesus Christ founded.

Maureen | 08 July 2012  

There is certainly a crisis in the church, which is a human element, which can perhaps be eased off with good sense and training.Lots of contacts and friends speak of it.My book,A Bumpy Ride, publ by Author House also deals with some of these facts.

Trophy D'Souza | 10 July 2012  

I have shadowed each of the crises referred to in Father Hamilton's article, indeed opposed those views gratuitously patronising the Vatican[within ES passim].In addition, I find said article replete with critics unnamed[let alone scientific surveys of people's attitudes to Vatican on all issues raised; rather we are fed with nameless or vague, generalised critics with zilch to back trustworthiness of those elusive 'disgruntled brigades'. Personally, having discussed the angsts raised ad nauseam, I totally dissent internally and externally from Father H's theorising in fact I see the article as a Rorschach exercise with his own personal weltenschaung projected on fictional critics and presumed Vatican attitudes[such never of course subjected to objective unsullied scientific surveys-such objectivity wards off an author's personal prejudices or angsts being projected onto fictional critics or pre-fab vatican bad boys[thereby turning an article into a Rorschach projection test

Father John Michael George | 11 July 2012  

Andrew your question “If you want to address the way people in any organisation behave” is more properly answered by examining their governance procedures. I suspect this matter has little to do with faith or handing on the faith but rather with how the organisation is governed. In other organisations, if you want to examine their governance structures you examine their articles of association; if the organisation is a country you examine their constitution; and if the organisation is a church you look at their constitution or code of canon law. The major problem with the Catholic church’s governance structure is its hierarchical model which runs counter to the democratic norms of governance generally adopted today. Matters of governance need to be devolved to national churches – and in that respect I am astounded how silent the Australian church, whether that be bishops, priests or lay members, is in seeking a more independent and accountable governance structure.

John Edwards | 18 July 2012  

But John Edwards, the Catholic Church, by its Christ given constitution, is hierarchical not democratic; nor is its constitutive nature an optional acculturated model, but written perennially, in concrete from scripture, exegeted authoritatively, by Catholic magisterium versus Gallup poll modeling or in situ market surveys.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #874-913, details the hierarchical structure of the Church and the virtue of this structure. The moral and teaching authority of the Church flows from Jesus Christ, its head, through the Pope and then to the Bishops who operate in concert with the Pope [Vatican 2;Lumen Gentium #25] and through them, to the faithful.

Father John Michael George | 18 July 2012  

Mr Edwards have we learnt nothing, from the proliferation of national churches in this and earlier centuries? They readily became play things of national political forces or so called peoples movements.[Such now ghosts of decadent marxism]. Recall the stranglehold by Stalin and gru/nkvd/kgb on and within Russian Orthodoxy with clerical stooges;add to that, todays Chinese Patriotic Christian Churches subservient to atheist departments. And forget not Hitlers very own Reichbishop Muller in his national nazified church. And of course, communism spawned and infiltrated national churches behind the Iron Curtain['Break with Rome' the catchcry[thus Hungarian pax commo priest groups and other now defunct decentralisations. National churches easily spring from dead end popular movements[eg south American Marxism] or become nationally acculturated under a quaint local royal lineage like Anglicanism, now splintering into little national churches[with weirdo agendas like priestesses, and gay bishops, initiating further splintering decline sans magisterium to reform the deform. [MR EDWARDS I SHARE NOT YOUR NATIONALISATION MYOPIA][MIND YOU IF YOU REALLY WANT HYPERNATIONAL ECCLESSIOLOGY TRY ARCHBISHOP 'MALINGERER' IN AFRICA. Me well I'm a Rome man from way back viva papa!

Father John Michael George | 18 July 2012  

Trust depends on open and honest communication. Shouldn't Rome be asking the Faithful their opinions on questions such as: Should contraception be left to the individual's conscience? Was Pope John Paul II justified in claiming infallibility when denying women ordination to the priesthood? Should the Church hierarchy get rid of their pompous Roman robes and Roman paraphenalia and dress more like the barefoot Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head? Should the Church hierarchy set an example of ongoing ecological conversion, at a time when the climate change is set to destroy the lives of countless people, especially the poor multitudes in countries like Bangaldesh, as well as continue the mass extermination of species? Should the appropriate Church hierarchy initiate moves for reconciliation with Bishop Bill Morris, Fr Peter Kennedy and the Christian community of 'St Mary's in Exile', in South Brisbane, and admit fault where it is found to exist? Should the Church hierarchy ask the Faithful to help set up procedures for addressing the wrongs it commits against members of the wider Church? Why are our churches half empty? Who are the prophets of our time,and what can we, the hierarchy, do to support them?

Grant Allen | 09 September 2012  

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