Gwynne Dyer: The imperial papacy

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      It’s the Roman Catholic Church, not the Republican Catholic Church or the People’s Revolutionary Socialist Democratic Catholic Church. Its rigid hierarchy and its centralizing instincts are almost entirely due to the fact that it became the state religion of the Roman Empire over 1,600 years ago. And the pope is still, in essence, the emperor.

      How Roman are the traditions and instincts of the church that Pope Benedict XVI has led for the past seven years? Well, one of his titles is “pontifex maximus”, usually translated from the Latin as “Supreme Pontiff”.

      That was the title of the high priest of the old Roman (pagan) state religion under the Republic. When Rome became an empire, the emperors took it over, starting with Augustus. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth century—the timing is not clear—the title was transferred to the Christian bishop of Rome, who had become the head of the new state religion, Christianity.

      This is not to say that the popes are secretly pagans: they are monotheists to the core. (The answer to the rhetorical question “Is the Pope a Catholic?” is “Yes.”) But they are Roman Catholics, and the religion they lead is still run like an empire. Very occasionally some maverick pope tries to change the model, but the system always wins in the end.

      Benedict XVI was the emperor of a shrinking domain, for the Catholic Church has been shedding adherents not only in the West, where it is everywhere in steep decline, but also in the Latin American, African, and Asian countries where it once held unchallenged sway. While secularism is the enemy that steals the faithful in the West, evangelical forms of Christianity are seducing Catholic believers away in what we used to call the Third World.

      There are many who blame this hemorrhage on the outgoing pope (the first time anybody has ever used that phrase about a pope, for they normally die in office, like the emperors did). Benedict was chosen by his colleagues because they believed that he would fight off fundamental change, and he performed his duty well. His resignation for health reasons is an innovation, but it is the first that he has been guilty of.

      He held the line on abortion (a sin in almost all circumstances), homosexuality (likewise, unless the person remains entirely celibate), married or female priests (definitely not), remarriage after divorce (ditto), and contraception (under no circumstances, though he later said that HIV-positive prostitutes might be justified in asking their clients to use condoms).

      It may seem weird that all of these major controversies are about sexuality or gender, but that’s not actually the Catholic Church’s fault. It’s equally inflexible in defending the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Triune God, and Papal Infallibility. It’s just that far more Catholics care about doctrines that affect their daily lives than about theological dogmas that have little practical effect.

      What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernization, which it sees as moral decline. Perhaps it is right (though I don’t think so personally), but it is losing the battle. Yet Benedict XVI and the Church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch, because they believe, probably correctly, that full modernization would make them irrelevant.

      So there’s no point in going on about how Pope Benedict XVI (or will we go back to calling him Cardinal Ratzinger after the end of this month?) failed to modernize the Church. He wasn’t hired to do that. The only pope who did try was John XXIII, and he died 50 years ago. Every pope since then (including the charismatic but deeply conservative John Paul II) has seen his task as being to stem the tide of change and restore the old order.

      The job was largely complete even before Benedict became pope seven years ago. His job has merely been to ensure that there is no backsliding into liberalism, relativism, and other modernist errors, and he has achieved that by ensuring that almost the entire College of Cardinals (the men who choose the next pope) are reliably conservative and orthodox.

      The College had already been stuffed with conservative cardinals by his predecessor, John Paul II, so even there he really didn’t have to do much except steer the same steady course. Not a single one of the cardinals who are seen as “papabili” (men who might be elected as pope) could be described as liberal or reformist. There will be a new pope, but nothing is going to change. The hemorrhage will continue.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



      Zak Prossak

      Feb 14, 2013 at 1:23pm

      Mr. tell it like it is.


      Feb 14, 2013 at 2:30pm

      Roman Catholic doctrine is so archaic and outdated, that it's a wonder to me that it still commands as many followers as it does.

      J.T. Carpenter

      Feb 16, 2013 at 10:57am

      Mr. Dyer writes very well, although most people forget that he has a particular competency and outside of that sphere he is just another person with an opinion. His treatment of the RC Church here is an example of that, for only to another know-nothing would he appear knowledgeable or authoritative. However, he has the right to express his opinion, and many, many other people hold the same opinion of the Church. They feel it is out of step with the times and that is why it is dying out (supposedly). If this is the case, why all the fulmination and anger? The flat earth believers died out, and if our modern views are intrinsically correct, so tool will Christians. They might appear weird to modernists, and may irritate many with their dissent from modern social orthodoxy. It does not matter: democracy permits aberrant opinions and their expression, within proper law. As long as these people respect law and good order, and do not incite violence against others, then they must be respected. Of course, as is the case with any cause that gets too righteous, many liberal, fashionably leftish activists convince themselves that "incite" means any expression of disagreement with the new norm. The point is this: if the RC Church is erroneous in its thinking, misplaced in our world, irrelevant and unsustainable at a time when abortion is legally unrestricted, the once unthinkable idea of gay marriage is triumphant, when a premier champions the sexual awakening of young children, when copulation is as widespread as even the most lascivious could reasonably want -- why when the Catholics are so obviously marginalised and going down do people like Gwynne Dyer care? Have we grown so intolerant we cannot even stand the existence of those who have not embraced the new world social and cultural order? I suspect the problem lies elsewhere: that this modern world is "right" and all the pre-1960s thinking is "wrong" may not be true, that the old "morals" may still lurk in our own consciences, and that one thing this society cannot do is have a rational argument about all this. Instead, it relies on know-it-all columnists who are experts in nothing and pontificate on everything, and shrieking activists who know only slogans. The real discomfort here is that we have not settled the big questions that face us, but have merely poisoned the well that is true democracy


      Feb 16, 2013 at 4:42pm

      G.W. has summed up the Roman Church's problem as well as anyone could. For the last two hundred years or so, the world has been busy adopting new superstitions ranging from novel forms of Christianity to various political ideologies which tend to be every bit as superstitious as the old spiritual paradigms -- if we don't worship God (or gods) we worship mammon. Come to think of it, one of the great strengths of the Roman Church has been it's ability over two millennia to worship both at the same time.

      Anthony Mulindwa

      Feb 18, 2013 at 3:43am

      Membership to the Catholic Church is voluntary. So why this obsession with "changing the Church"in ways that disfigure it? Benedict and others who wish to be true to their catholic loyalties preach and defend that which they sincerely believe in. And they force no one along. Why the obsession with compelling them to abandon their freely held positions, with boxing them into "going with the crowd", with vilifying whoever goes along with them?

      Grant K

      Mar 3, 2013 at 6:14pm

      Anthony - That is the point. Catholics are voluteering to leave the church in increasing numbers because it is stuck in the past. Keep the church as it is, and it maybe won't exist much longer. Voluntarily it seems

      Anthony Mulondwa

      Dec 9, 2013 at 2:05am

      Grant K

      My point is more about granting the church space to live out it's true identity even if this comes across to you as being "stuck in the past". Many are opting out but many others are opting in. None should vilify or pressure the other. As for bringing the church uptodate , that can never be understood to mean conforming to the whims of society : the Catholic Church is not a mere corporate or some loose association. No, it the voice of Christ