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When captains and kings depart

The end of rule is in sight in society and perhaps also in the Catholic Church

When captains and kings depart
Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo

February 8, 2012

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When the history of this decade is written, one of the significant events will certainly be what has been called the Arab Spring. In North Africa and the Middle East, people have taken to the streets to protest against and overthrow autocratic rulers. It remains to be seen if their efforts will bear fruit in the near term, but those men and women with their mobile communications devices have set in motion something that will inevitably change much of the world. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the days of rulers. Rulers operate without accountability to their people. Eventually, that lack of accountability leads to corruption, to grabbing the legitimate authority of others such as courts and parliaments, to violations of law and to ignoring human rights. In other words, a system of unaccountable rule proves the much-quoted maxim of the English Catholic historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We must not forget, however, that Acton was talking about the growing centralization and absolutizing of power in the Catholic Church in the 19th century, a situation that has become “normal” for us, but is certainly neither ancient nor traditional. Lately, we are seeing more and more the fruits of that centralization of power:


Just a few years ago, there was scandal over shady real estate deals involving millions of dollars and nepotism in the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Lately, there have been allegations by the apostolic nuncio to the US of massive corruption in the administration of the Vatican.

Grabbing the legitimate authority of others

Though an ecumenical council of the Church declared that the authority to authorize liturgical translations belongs to bishops’ conferences, the Vatican overruled the endorsement by the world’s English-speaking bishops of a 1998 translation and imposed one done under Vatican control. Vatican-appointed bishops then obediently endorsed the new translation, an episcopal parody of politburo “voting” under communist regimes.

Violations of law

Though the pope has the authority to appoint and remove bishops, there are canonical legal norms that are to be followed. In the recent removal of Bishop William Morris from his diocese in Australia, those laws were not followed.

Ignoring human rights

Again, in the matter of Bishop Morris, an expert in law and human rights has pointed out how the process used against the bishop violated the norms of natural justice. In short, the Vatican seems to be falling into the dangers that befall any system of rule rather than leadership. Does that mean we can expect to see mobs in St Peter’s Square calling for the overthrow of the papacy? Not likely. Unlike secular rulers, the Vatican lacks the coercive power of tanks and guns and the papal torture chamber in the Castel Sant'Angelo has been turned into a museum. The authority of the Vatican relies upon the willingness of people to accept it. Since people need not combat forces that would keep them under control, they have options beyond demonstrations and revolution. The first, of course, is “emigration.” Many Catholics have simply left the Catholic Church. This is especially the case in Europe and Australia, but is increasingly occurring in the Americas as well. The other, a growing approach on the part of those who wish to remain part of the Catholic community, is to simply ignore the rulers, being faithful to the Gospel and Tradition without caring what might or might not be said by rulers who have only the power their listeners give them. Where might this lead? In the case of the Arab Spring, social media have enabled people to realize that their frustrations are shared by many and that those many can be mobilized to effect change.  Eventually, the ability of people to share their frustrations and hopes may lead to new forms of leadership that are responsive to the aspirations of citizens and dependent upon them for legitimacy. That may not happen right away because of the residue of rulership, but the end of rule rather than leadership is in sight. Will the same eventually, if belatedly, happen in the Catholic Church? I am convinced it shall, because the People of God, the real Church, do not need the power that comes from rule in this world. They have the power and promise of the Holy Spirit. The 21st century will be the one in which new forms of leadership will emerge in the Church as the power of rulers whose model is defunct imperial Rome wanes. Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan’s Catholic weekly.  
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