Leading Article: The Pope must make his church more catholic

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The Independent Online
POPE JOHN PAUL II has apparently decided to impose his will upon the Roman Catholic Church. He is expected shortly to deliver fresh pronouncements reasserting his moral authority in general and his views about birth control in particular. His uncompromising attitude is likely to result in deep anguish, especially among the faithful in Europe and America. His intervention will highlight their mass disobedience on the subject of contraception and convince some that they must resolve the contradictions in their lives. Slow haemorrhaging from the laity and the priesthood may thus gain extra momentum.

The Pope would probably respond that his task is not to be popular. His job, he might argue, is to act as a conduit and representative of God's will, expressing an objective morality, however uncomfortable its truths may be. Such a view inevitably challenges those who equate moral behaviour with obeying conscience and acting 'decently'. But the Pope would reply that he is duty-bound to teach the truth as revealed by God, whatever its price.

Non-religious people may dismiss as nonsense the suggestion that any institution has supernatural authority to teach morality. However, the dispute within the Roman Catholic Church is more subtle. It is about the way moral authority is being exercised by John Paul. Many of the faithful see him as an old man in a hurry, determined to have his own way.

His papacy, which has been wonderful in many respects, has also been characterised by intolerance: theologians have been disciplined and strict loyalty has usually been required from those appointed bishops. The nature of the Polish church and of the Pope's own long struggle against Communism explain an authoritarian character that has left him out of touch with many Western Catholics.

The exercise of Roman Catholic authority does not have to be like this. During the first Vatican council in 1870, when the principles of papal infallibility were codified, it was made clear that it was the church as a whole that was infallible. The Roman pontiff was said, in exercising his personal office, to crystallize the authority of the church. The council expressly discussed the pontiff's obligation to consult brethren. Again, during the second Vatican council (1962-65), the collegial authority of the bishops was a strong theme. This has since been down-played by John Paul II.

The Pope is clearly obliged to diligently seek out the beliefs of the whole church through the bishops. Authority can then be claimed to be catholic in the full, universal sense of that word, rather than being based in a more narrow Roman theological tradition. In fact, the Pope has isolated himself from national hierarchies and intelligentsias. The cheers that he has richly earned by his unceasing travels and labours may sometimes drown the still small voice of thoughtful protest.

The Roman Catholic Church in England perhaps offers some useful guidelines. Its experience of the Reformation and a tenuous existence in the following centuries has given it an appreciation of pluralism and a need to stay close to the people. In contrast, the papacy, which for long dominated Italian society, has remained authoritarian and insensitive.

In preparing his new pronouncements, the Pope has raised the stakes in his battle against dissent. By demanding obedience to his authority without properly reflecting Roman Catholic feeling, he threatens both his own credibility and that of his church.