CathBlog - Pride, presumption and power

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“They fell from their own success. They had lived in an hermetically sealed environment of self-reinforcing virtue and they were not inoculated against the corruption that they came into with success.” – The Rise and Fall of Sparta.

Three principal temptations confront every individual and civilisation in history: misplaced pride, reckless presumption and irresponsible power. Sparta failed on all three counts. It idealised itself as the self-promoting Hellenic model of the highly organised and perfect society. 

The Spartan Polis (city-state) was founded on elitist, doctrinaire and authoritarian principles of social stratification: the few, ‘the insiders,’ governed the many, ‘the outsiders’ and the slaves. 

They prided themselves on social and religious purity and their presumed superiority protected them from the contamination of foreign decadence. Their power guaranteed a  buffer zone between themselves and ‘the other.’ But, in the end, they became the victims of their own certainties and resistance to change.

Jesus was forced, on a personal and public level, to confront and wrestle with the demons of pride, presumption and power. These are documented in stylised fashion in the famous Temptation stories in Matthew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13. 

The ‘temptations’ of Jesus were probably experienced all through his public life and involved his refusal to play the ‘divine’ man, standing outside the human condition, all the while puffed with pride and presumptuously playing ‘divine’ power games with those about him. Jesus let God be God. 

It is not surprising then that the Evangelists purposefully set out to present a picture of Jesus which would become a mirror image of example and teaching to their Communities (Bishop Manning refers to this idea in a recent blog). In other words, Christology was meant to be reflected  Church identity and behaviour.

Father Michael Himes of Boston College identifies a major failure of the Church in this regard. He points out that the modern Western Church has, in practice, slipped back into a kind of de facto monophysite Christology: allowing the divine in Christ to subsume the human as if Jesus was ‘really divine, (but only) acting human.’ 

This is what the Docetists and Gnostics peddled: a high flyer with no feet on the ground and certainly not revealing the dirty hands of a labourer! (“Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church,” Yale Conference, March 2008). 

A key intentionality of Benedict XVI’s Reform agenda is continuity. 

Questions need to be asked about this continuity: with whom and with what? Presenting a credible image of the Church to the modern world must be firmly and foundationally connected with Jesus of Nazareth, the integrity of his life and teaching. 

Professor Himes may well be suggesting that the break in this nexus between the Jesus of the Gospels and the way the Church models him to itself and to the world is destined to a loss of authentic ecclesial identity and mission. In the perception of many Catholics this, tragically, has happened.

The late Father Richard Neuhaus, an American convert from the Episcopal Church, and no raging ‘liberal’, identified damage done to the priesthood by the Hierarchy’s arrogant and presumptuous display of self-protective Clericalism and overbearing power in the way it has handled scandals going back into history. He wrote in  First Things (13 January 2008):

Possible explanations abound. A less edifying explanation is that old habits of deeply entrenched clericalism kicked in once again. The Church identified with the clergy and therefore to defend no matter what. Clericalism is the shadowed side of Catholicism’s high view of Christian ministry. It confuses the priest’s sacramentally acting in persona Christi with priestly prerogative and immunity from criticism.

It is the shadowed side that largely explains the pattern of denial, deceit, and evasion that produced the sex abuse crisis in the first place, including the pattern of the bishops who say, and in many cases may sincerely believe, that their ‘ministry of unity’ takes priority over living the truth. 

It is enlightening to hear another convert offering a trenchant criticism of the Church’s overwhelming projection of ecclesiastical pride, presumption and power. The Vatican has recently issued some spectacular spin on his exemplary docility and obedience to Church authority. His name is Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. 

Before Vatican I in 1870, famous, among other things, for the arch bully Pius IX and his manipulations to force through the dogma of Papal Infallibility Newman confided his thoughts and feelings to his trusted life long friend, Ambrose St John: “We have come to the climax of tyranny. It is not good for a pope to live twenty years.

It is anomaly, and bears no fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know the facts, and does cruel things without meaning it. …. We must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the pope will be driven from Rome and will not continue the Council or that there will be another pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes.”

At a papal audience in 1975, Paul VI declared that Vatican II could be considered “Newman’s Hour.” No wonder!  On the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman wrote: “ In a higher world, it would be otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” I’m sure Newman would be watching the current situation closely.


David TimbsDavid Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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