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Hierarchy and the Catholic Church

Hierarchy in the Catholic Church            Gerry OShea

The Catholic Church with an approximate membership of 1.2 billion, operates on a hierarchical model of governance. A suitable analogy would compare it to a large pyramid, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. The laity comprise 99% of the members and fit into the various layers below the apex.

However, the top 1% - or thereabouts - have very different responsibilities and status from the rest of the membership. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the aging character, Polonius, while dishing out some advice to his son, Laertes, points to the importance of the clothes he wears because the apparel oft proclaims the man. This is hardly profound advice, but in the world of the Catholic clergy the clothes they wear often bespeak their importance in the governing structure.

Above the regular priests dressed usually in a black cassock and Roman collar, comes the monsignor who gets to wear distinguishing purple clothes but not the pectoral cross or the traditional zuchetta or skull cap. Next up, the bishop is allowed to put on the special cross and zuchetta. The archbishop adds a scarf-like pallium over his vestments, and the cardinals, who like to be identified as princes of the church, display their status by wearing scarlet clothes.

The pope at the very pinnacle of the pyramid is often seen dressed in a simple white soutane, but the pallium that he wears is more ornate than the one used by the archbishops, and the papal crown or tiara, worn for 600 years until the 1960’s, was considered excessively gaudy by Pope Paul V1and has not been seen since. Red shoes completed the papal regalia until Francis decided to wear ordinary black shoes.

 All the church luminaries north of the monsignor carry the elongated crozier symbolizing their importance in the ecclesial pecking order.

Nearly all this sartorial exuberance can be traced back to the long-defunct power arrangements in the Roman Empire. There is nothing  ignoble or wrong with humans in leadership positions trumpeting their importance by dressing in a way that sets them apart from the ordinary congregants in the pews, although many commentators wonder aloud how this pervasive need for aggrandizement squares with Christ’s injunctions in the New Testament favoring humility and self-effacement over grandiosity in his disciples.

Catholic spokesmen always stress that the church is not a democracy. They explain that it operates from inspiration that comes from on high, a kind of divine imprimatur far surpassing any popular mandate.

Up to the 1960’s most Catholics accepted this official version of what was surmised as heavenly inspiration favoring the pope and his officials known as the magisterium. Every seminarian learns the dictum Roma locuta est; causa finita est. When Rome speaks, the case is closed.

After the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965) a new confidence emerged among an expanded and more educated Catholic middle class. They welcomed the new stress on the importance of what was termed by the Council the sensus fidelium, the beliefs of ordinary Catholics.

 Anchoring this new theology was the conviction that the spirit of wisdom promised to his followers by Christ extended to the whole community. It would be disingenuous to suggest that this help would be directed only or indeed mainly to people in leadership positions.

Some official theologians saw the danger in this concept of empowering the laity, viewing it as associated more with the Protestant culture which always stresses the central role of individual conscience. So, in response, they preached that the sensus fidelium only applies when the thinking of the faithful accords with the beliefs in the Vatican. In other words, feel free to have your ecclesial opinions, provided they agree with the official line!

The use of contraceptives was part of the revolutionary youth culture in the 1960’s. The Vatican declared that any sexual act outside of marriage is sinful, and the only legitimate physical intimacy is confined to married couples with procreation as the goal.

This did not meet the reality test in the pews. Was it wrong for a husband and wife to use contraception to limit the size of their family? Does the biblical injunction to increase and multiply mean that couples have to throw caution and discretion to the wind in planning the number of children they want? Would it really be immoral for young courting couples to have protected sex?

 Some serious spokesmen for the prevailing culture strongly suggested that the male use of a condom could be considered a mature and thoughtful act, protecting his partner from an unwanted pregnancy. Indeed, some ethicists noted that such a decision meets a high standard of consideration and judiciousness and thus should be viewed positively in any serious moral measurement.

In the best tradition of the Second Vatican Council, the wonderful Pope John XX111 set up a commission to examine the psychological and moral implications surrounding the use of contraceptives by married couples.

It should be stressed that Catholic theologians then and since affirm sexual abstinence as the only sinless option for unmarried couples, a prohibition that carried real weight in the past but in modern times is honored much more in the breach than in the observance.

After Pope John’s death, Paul V1 expanded the commission to 58 people including fifteen bishops. They reported with a clear majority for allowing married couples to use contraceptives. Most of the bishops voted with the lay members in favor of change.

 However, on July 25th 1968 in a bombshell announcement Paul rejected the counsel of the clear majority of the commission, siding instead with the dissenters whose main argument centered on their critique of the majority recommendation which they saw as abandoning the teaching of previous popes and thus theologically untenable.

In particular, Pius X1 in 1930 wrote an encyclical, Casti Connubii, largely to reject the findings of the Anglican Lambeth Conference held in the same year, and which, for the first time, gave its moral approval to the use of contraceptives by married couples. In the best contrarian tradition between the leaders in Rome and Cantebury, the Protestants were seen in the Catholic narrative as yielding to the prevailing sexually decadent culture, while Rome stood staunchly with traditional virtue.

Paul V1 faced a major conundrum: follow the powerful logic of the members of the Papal Commission and allow married Catholics to avail of contraceptives, or side with the traditionalists who argued that a pope may never contradict past papal teaching because to do so would be interpreted as implying that the Holy Spirit had changed her mind!

Paul’s decision haunted him for the remaining years of his papacy. The dissent from many distinguished theologians as well as his complete failure to bring the people with him dogged the pope for the rest of his life.  Most ordinary Catholics for the first time just disregarded the papal teaching in this encyclical.

The alienation of Catholics from church authorities is heightened by the sexual abuse crisis in the church. Thousands of children – male and female – were systematically abused in Catholic schools and institutions run by priests and Brothers and to a lesser extent by nuns. Disgraceful beyond words, the clerical garb was used to empower predators to have their way with young innocent boys and girls.

The men in the multi-colored robes instead of removing the culprits and handing them over to the civil authorities transferred them to other parishes or schools where, inevitably, the abuse continued. In recent times as the church has been forced to become more transparent, the depth and extent of the abuse, stretching to the highest levels in the church, has left the membership stunned.

 How could such awful abuse of vulnerable children take place and then be covered up by powerful men of the cloth whose main instinct was to protect not the children but the institution?

The hierarchical structure of the church was revealed in scandalous disarray, a complete shambles. Nobody took responsibility for all the malfeasance against children. Many Catholics pointed out that if parents or grandparents were making the decisions about dealing with predator clerics instead of male celibates, the crisis would have been handled maturely and with an eye towards the safety of the children not the protection of the institution.

About 700,000 Catholics in America and even higher percentages in other Western countries leave the church every year out of disgust for – among other matters - its corrupt hierarchical culture. Perhaps the Spirit’s promptings now point in the direction of a clear democratic approach, abandoning the failed hierarchical model in favor of meaningful inclusion and participation at all levels of decision-making.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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