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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Authority and Obedience in a Bureaucratic Church

By:   John Andra
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Corruption in the Church appears bound to the existing social order. Caesaropapism was a threat so long as there were Caesars. Feudal corruptions like simony lasted (with some amendment) as long as feudalism. The divine-right kings had their sycophantic clergy, and it took the Age of Revolution to break that particular grip.

Thus the social order tends to frame the way Catholics see the Church. Granting that any number of influences work on the Church through time, it still helps to understand how things are done. The manners of an age will probably find expression in the Church's life, even if unconsciously.  


The social order today is arguably bureaucratic. Prior social orders used bureaucracy as a tool of authority, but something else is going on. Bureaucracies seem to have taken a life of their own, apart from the orders which created them.

Bureaucracies, in fact, appear more or less indifferent to their prior bases of authority. Whether that authority was monarchy, democracy, joint-stock ownership, or anything else, the result is the same. People still hail a monarch or vote in elections, but the administrative collective believes itself in control.

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Bureaucracies are probably self-referential in any age, but when cut loose from outside authority, things become insufferable. If a Caesar, a feudal lord, or a divine-right king thought too much of himself, a bureaucracy thinks too much of itself.

Perhaps because it is a structure and not a person, the bureaucracy becomes the tacit source of its own authority. The bureaucracy's standards are treated as absolute simply because they are bureaucratic. One could say the rules, manners, and pecking order of a bureaucracy become holy, at least to the bureaucrats.           

All sorts of governments and corporations operate this way. The Church similarly bureaucratized in the last century. Canon law was codified (twice), national bishops' conferences assumed substantial power, and parish organizational charts became more complicated. 

If this analysis is true, what particular corruptions and corresponding blind spots would one expect among contemporary Catholics? Authority and obedience in the Church have always been based on Scripture and Tradition. With bureaucratization, however, a new source of authority emerges, and a new basis for obedience. 

The Second Vatican Council provides an example. Taken as an ecumenical council, it was an ancient institution. The Council was run bureaucratically, but perhaps no more than some others. The transformation of bureaucracy from a tool of authority to a locus of authority became evident after the Council.

The Council said in essence that the traditional liturgy should be retained. The ecclesiastical bureaucracy said otherwise, and in five years the traditional liturgy was gone. Most astonishingly, people said this was a decision of the Church! 

Was the Church her immemorial liturgical tradition? No. Was the Church her solemn ecumenical council? No. The Church was whatever the ecclesiastical bureaucracy said, and the bureaucracy had spoken.

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The fact this bureaucracy was staffed by a Pope and Bishops does not change the analysis. It is the authority held by these men which is in question, along with the obedience owed to them. Does their authority come from Scripture and Tradition, or does it come from themselves operating as an administrative collective? Are they bound in order to bind, or do they bind without being bound?

One must consider that a Bureaucratic Age is characterized by its failure to notice the prior bases of bureaucratic authority. Let's say a business corporation is organized to make a profit, and it forms a bureaucracy for this purpose. If the bureaucracy eventually has other ideas, perhaps pursuing social justice or environmentalism, the will of the administrative collective often wins out.  

The courts, which are very bureaucratic, operate in the same way. Established by popular constitutions, the courts then change these constitutions, even against public opinion. The fact this obliterates the courts' authority is generally not noticed.   

Catholics, for their part, know the Lord founded the Church to save souls. Catholics also know He founded the Church on an apostolic basis. But how Catholics today understand this "constitution" of the Church is not unaffected by the bureaucratic order.

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It must be insisted that contemporary Catholics are not, unique among all Catholics of history, free from a zeitgeist. To recall the earlier examples, ancient Catholics tended to think the universal Church required a universal emperor. Many medieval Catholics did not see a problem with clerics buying their positions when other feudal benefices were alienable as well. Modern Catholics tended to view their monarch's control over the Church as royal solicitude for religion.

The danger today is that Catholics will look to the apostolic successors and forget the apostles and the Lord who sent them. Decisions of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy will be revered not because they are traditional, but because they are bureaucratic. Stated bluntly, Catholics will see the bureaucracy and call it Magisterium.

And so capital punishment was allowed yesterday, but it is inadmissible today. Jesus warned about adultery, but perhaps it may be tolerated. St. Paul condemned unworthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament, but the ecclesiastical bureaucracy can look the other way.

The head of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy might even refuse to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. Although this head bureaucrat is actually the Successor of St. Peter, little will be said. The bureaucratic norms are too strong.

When a bureaucracy's authority comes from without, one could expect a few bureaucrats to resist substantial perversions within the administrative collective. When a bureaucracy is its own authority, as many contemporary Catholics apparently see the Church, resistance becomes extraordinarily difficult. It is felt to be disloyal.

Disloyalty is probably the greatest fear in the latter sort of bureaucracy—a fear of something more horrible than punishment. The administrative collective is now in control, and its decisions are holy. To be cast out of the collective is to lose all moral value.

Courage is therefore very rare among today's ecclesiastical bureaucrats. Courage requires a principle of some sort, and the bureaucracy is its own principle. The ground gives way as soon as one thinks to stand.

Although the present corruption of the Church, like all diseases, should be resisted, history shows it will probably last until the end of the age. History also shows, however, that it will end. God has smashed all social orders which previously captured His Church, and He will smash the bureaucratic order as well.

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Last modified on Wednesday, September 4, 2019