(Melbourne)David's previous articles
Fear and Power in an Age of Anxiety
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
emergence of a thinking laity
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
fear of the besieged - smokescreens
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,
power comes the fear which abhors dialogue. This is the greatest threat to love.
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.” 
recent examples from the United States may illustrate this.
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. 
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
may well take decades before the Bishops ever regain anything resembling trust,
confidence and credibility.  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.
Fr John Ryan
reflects on the culture of fear in the clerical subculture. Click here.
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,
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
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.