November 11, 2012       David Timbs (Melbourne)    David's previous articles 


  Fear and Power in an Age of Anxiety

One of the most common observations about the so-called Arab Spring is that the crucial turning point came when the people lost their collective fear of the government security apparatus. They had never known a society remotely resembling a western style democracy with its inbuilt checks and balances. They had been conditioned by centuries of theocratic rule administered largely by despots or the occasional benign dictator. In an overwhelmingly Islamic society, a culture of conformity, acquiescence and fatalism prevailed. With the mass abandonment of fear however, the forces of control, intimidation and coercive authoritarianism were negated and broken. With this revolution of mind and heart, the worst dreams of dictators and tyrants were realised.

The perception of people losing faith in their leaders and the very structures designed to protect and care for them has deep and lasting consequences for a society. This has happened in the case of the Arab Spring and there is growing evidence that it has happened and continues to do so in the Catholic Church, particularly in the West.

A critical point

A critical turning in the development of the Catholic culture of fear, dread and profound human worthlessness was occasioned by the outbreak of the great Plague or Black Death in 1347. It was totally unexpected, random in its effects and devastating in its consequences. When its first wave had passed after less than two years, upwards of a third, maybe more, of Europe’s population was dead. An enduring legacy left by this catastrophe was a popular deep-seated fear of dying without sacramental absolution. It was precisely this sense of dread which perversely gave occasion for unscrupulous Church leaders to capitalise on and exploit opportunistically the mass ignorance, fear, hysteria and irrationality brought on by the Black Death.

The advent of the Plague delivered a cash cow into the hands of money strapped clerics. This new revenue source was called Indulgences. These were delivered by documented guarantees issued in the name of the Pope and they promised complete or partial remission of sins and happiness for all eternity in return for cash ‘donations’ to the Holy See. These Indulgences certainly relieved popular anxiety and fear of eternal punishment and they also bountifully replenished Church coffers. St Peter’s Basilica is evidence of this.

It was precisely the abuse of these indulgences, the exploitation of popular fear and superstition, among other things, that ultimately led to the Reformation and its aftermath. Its leader, Martin Luther lost his fear of Roman authority and snubbed his nose at the sanctions it could impose. So too did a vast sector of Christian Europe. While the Catholic Church eventually did take many appropriate corrective actions, it may well be asked if it did enough serious analytical thinking about what had actually happened in the Reformation and why. Did the Church, for example, ever really identify the connection between the widespread loss of the fear of authority and the confidence and independence which emerged out of popular suspicion, scepticism and rejection of that authority?

The emergence of a thinking laity

An unexpected by-product of the Reformation was the power of the printing press and the mass production of books. The Enlightenment built on this new found mass literacy and in turn produced a new, popular critical ability to analyse and evaluate arguments. This phenomenon was particularly evident in the Reformation communities. Mass popular education took a little longer to have significant effects on the ability of ordinary Catholics to examine their own traditions in a critical way and to begin to demystify them. When it did happen, it was decisive in forming a new relationship between the Teaching Church and the Church Taught. The asymmetry in that relationship was gradually corrected by a new, healthier equilibrium.

The modern history of lay Catholicism provides a telling narrative of a people, once  referred to by Church authorities as the flock to be led, becoming self assured and insisting on being treated like adult human beings and not sheep. Some examples of this journey towards emancipation follow.


A disastrous doctrinal aberration called Jansenism which originated in the Netherlands began to flourish in France in the seventeenth century. It was actually a form of Catholicism strongly influenced by a cold and rigid form of fundamentalist Protestantism. It focused on the moral corruption, imperfection, sinfulness and total unworthiness of humanity compared with the perfection of God. It caused enormous spiritual and psychological damage to generations of Catholics especially from the nineteenth century and even to the present day. This disorder, perversely, found a natural home in the natively scrupulous Celtic mind. Not surprisingly, Jansenism was propagated through mainly Irish clergy both in their own country and in many regions abroad. Jansenism insisted in particular that believers are so corrupted by original sin and an on-going disposition to evil that it is impossible for all but saints to make an act of perfect contrition. To achieve complete reconciliation with God therefore, penitents would need to join their imperfect contrition with the grace of the sacrament of penance in confession. Jansenism generated such a tidal wave of neurotic guilt, scrupulosity, self-loathing and all sorts of related pathologies that people were almost driven psychotic with fear and dread. This spiritual malaise is only now disappearing with the death rate of the older generation it so badly afflicted.

A critical theological and pastoral issue the Church had to face in the middle of the twentieth century was the sheer scale of evil generated in and by two world wars in the space of around thirty years. People were forced to re-evaluate the very notions of evil, sin, culpability and punishment. This led inevitably to the conclusion that sin itself had been massively trivialised especially in Catholic theology and pastoral practice. How could, for example, deliberately eating meat on Friday or missing Sunday Mass stand on the same scales of moral value as whole-scale aggressive war and genocide? The long term consequences of this kind of popular reflection on the proportionality of evil are still being played out in the Catholic Christian world.

Another watershed moment in the unfolding story of Catholic life and moral perception came with the 1968 publication of Paul VI’s Encyclical letter Humanae Vita. The particular section of that letter dealing with the prohibition of artificial birth-control was met with mass conscious dissent and rejection. Humanae Vitae was greeted with non-reception not only by Catholic laity but most probably, at least quietly, by sizeable sections of the hierarchy and clergy. This rejection of a major Church moral teaching marked an associated loss of fear of the consequences of its non-acceptance. It was of no small moment for any Catholics regardless of their particular space on the moral spectrum.


The associated fear of damnation itself was rejected by loyal Catholic people and this in itself was revolutionary in the history of the Church. The sense of Catholic identity had taken on a new incarnation with capacity for informed reflection and the ability to make independent morally mature distinctions. This, significantly, was another first in the Catholic narrative. A vacuum had been created in the traditional chain of authority which had profound implications for the future direction of the People of God. The response of some sections of the hierarchy was often harsh and authoritarian. It evoked, for example, extraordinary levels of reactionary attitudes and hostility towards secular society. This in turn has produced a kind of paralysis within the ranks of Western Catholic leadership pointing perhaps to a loss of collective nerve and a failure of judgment and pastoral wisdom.

 The fear of the besieged - smokescreens

In a recent Australian Cathnews blog, Fr John Ryan reflected on the dangerous link between unquestioned clerical power and the fears haunting those who exercise it,

“With power comes the fear which abhors dialogue. This is the greatest threat to love.

It has been well said that there is nothing more dangerous in human affairs than giving power to frightened men rather than those who are motivated by love. I have often experienced this in the Church.” [1]

Some recent examples from the United States may illustrate this.

A moral power struggle involving artificial birth-control and its availability has been playing out in the United States in the lead up to the recent Presidential election. The American Bishops’ Conference consciously linked the birth control issue with abortion and wrapped it all in the associated Culture of death rhetoric. This turned out to be a massive miscalculation of the ability of ordinary Catholics to have the brains and maturity to distinguish between the two. That, combined with the perceived alliance between the Catholic bishops, the very conservative branch of the Republican Party and fundamentalist evangelical sects, led to mass disenchantment and alienation among ordinary Catholics. The fact that a number of Church leaders, among them the Illinois bishops Jenky of Peoria and Paprocki of Springfield, in not so subtle words suggested that for a Catholic to vote for the Democrats would be to jeopardise his or her eternal salvation. [2]

To compound the problem of the rapidly diminishing credibility of the US bishops there was the recent debacle of a Vatican-initiated second investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This fiasco had all the appearances of being a clumsily fabricated and contrived set up. The allegations against the women Religious were that they had digressed from fundamental Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion when the real hidden agenda was politics. The LCWR had largely sided with much of the social policy platform of the Obama government as they saw in it a closer resemblance with the Social Justice Gospel than in politicised, crusading moralising of the USCCB and its backers in the Roman Curia. The Catholic people have, it seems, largely stood in solidarity with the Religious women and, subsequently, the Bishops have been popularly perceived to be little more than franchised bullies. They have painted themselves into a corner and dangerously isolated themselves from their own people.

It may well take decades before the Bishops ever regain anything resembling trust, confidence and credibility. [3] What is happening in one local Church might well pale into relative insignificance compared with the collapse of credible leadership in the wider Church as Catholics continue to make the critical distinction between blindly submitting to coercive authoritarianism and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.

[1] Fr John Ryan  reflects on the culture of fear in the clerical subculture. Click here.

 [2] Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Ill, warns Catholics in his diocese that they could risk their eternal salvation if they vote Democrat, see here. The kind of monarchical authority reflected in the pronouncements and behaviour of Bishops Paprocki and Jenky may well reflect Hobbes’ theory of the desirability of an absolute ruler to govern the ideal State, here.

 [3] For Michael Sean Winters’ NCR assessment of the damage done to the credibility of the USCCB by a small number of bishops especially during the election campaign. Winters points out what the Bishops’ forthcoming plenary meeting in Baltimore might need to do in order to provide a corrective, see here. To add to their collective woes, it is now possible that the Internal Revenue Service will be looking at the tax exempt status of some dioceses after a number of bishops appear to have been party-political during the election campaign. Paprocki and Jenky may be investigated as well as David Ricken, the bishop of Green Bay, WI.  See also another source of grief for the USCCB, namely a convicted bishop in their ranks: +Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph, Missouri, here.

David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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