The Vatican confesses: The hierarchical Church has lost the people

Holy See makes ill-fated, last-ditch attempt to alter proposed antihomophobia law supported by most people in democratic Italy.

Jul 03, 2021

By Robert Mickens
Call it the Vatican or call it the Holy See. It hardly matters anymore because the difference and nuances between the two terms (or entities) are lost on most people. That includes the majority of Catholics. Increasingly, it seems, people don't care whether a distinction even exists.

Holy See and Vatican mean only one thing to most folks -- headquarters of the Catholic Church or bureaucratic center of a two-millennia-old religious behemoth.

And that behemoth, as I argued last week, continues to experience an implosion that dates back to at least the Reformation. Certainly by the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, this implosion became an ongoing process.

As the ancien régime arrangement of "throne and altar" in Old Europe was giving way to democracy, the Church -- especially the part tethered to Rome -- tried mightily with every weapon in its spiritual and worldly arsenal to barricade itself and its subjects against the modernizing trend.

The Church’s futile attempt to make peace with modernity
From time to time “enlightened”  Christians raised their voice to warn the Church’s hierarchs that this  was futile. Then, finally, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) sought to make peace with “modernity”, including democracy.

It is now obvious that the Council did not succeed, at least not completely. One need only observe continued attempts by Catholic bishops in various parts of the world to dictate to  democratically elected governments  and heads of sovereign states the course of political action they should  pursue.

The US bishops, for instance, have  been doing this the past 40 years regarding the issue of abortion. In their  total failure to convince people to stop  aborting foetuses, they have bankrolled politically conservative movements and banked on the civil courts  to simply outlaw the practice.

It's a political and legal strategy the  Catholic prelates have only doubled  down on as they’ve seen their own  moral authority steadily slip away, especially after their disastrous and flatfooted response to clergy sex abuse of  children and adolescents.

Bishops everywhere are increasingly unable to persuade members of  their own Church how to respond to  the moral and social issues of the day. In effect, the bishops and the institutional Church they think they are  “leading” have lost almost all credibility and influence.

The hierarchical Church in Italy begins to crumble
Take the bishops of Italy. In this country, which is geographically the home of the papacy, 74.6 per cent of the population still identifies as Catholic, according to the most recent statistics.

This is a significant drop from a few decades ago when upwards of 90 per cent of the Italian people were baptised members of the Church. But it is still a significant majority. The bishops here, however, are also becoming less and less relevant in the lives of the people.

The latest clear example of this was their inability to convince Italian lawmakers to modify an anti-homophobia bill that was ratified last November in the lower house of parliament and is currently being debated in the Senate.

The bishops, traditionalist Catholics and right-wing politicians fear that priests or catechists could be fined or arrested for preaching Church doctrine on human sexuality if the bill becomes law.

And one of their most absurd worries is that Catholic schools will be forced to observe a new National Day Against Homophobia, as if this were a violation of some religious principle. But a majority of Italians — 60 per cent of them — are in favour of the proposed legislation.

The bishops have completely failed to convince them or their democratically elected representatives that there are reasons to oppose it.

Why? Obviously, because the people see the bishops and the arguments they employ as out of touch, irrelevant and plain wrong. In an unprecedented legal action on June 17, the Holy See all but admitted that the bishops have failed and have lost their people when it delivered a “nota verbale” — an official communication between sovereign states — to the Italian Embassy demanding that the proposed law be revised.

The note invoked the Lateran Treaty, a legal agreement between the Holy See and the Italian State that secures certain rights for the Catholic Church in Italy. It said the bill under review violated some clauses of that treaty. Jurists, politicians and old men in barbershops argued whether or not this amounted to Vatican interference in the affairs of an independent State. At least one newspaper editorialist reminded readers that Italy is no longer a “colony” of the papacy or the Vatican, while others argued that the Catholic hierarchs should worry about saying their prayers and leave the business of democracy to the legislators and those who elected them.

An unhappy ending for the status quo
The Holy See does, in fact, have the right to intervene as it did.

It expressed concern that the “contract” it had made with Italy would be violated if the bill were to become law.

That is something an arbitrator may have to decide if the bill is ratified and signed into law, should the Holy See decide to contest it. But was this the most prudent course of action?

Probably not. Even if it were to be decided that the legislation violates the Lateran Treaty, the moral authority of the institutional Church and its bishops will be further discredited.

The majority of Italians already perceive the Vatican as having blocked the will of the people. If an arbiter were to rule in the Holy See’s favour it would only reinforce in people’s minds that the Church continues to wield power it should not be allowed in a sovereign democratic country.

And it could also lead to a further push by various forces in Italy — both conservative and progressive — to dissolve the Lateran Treaty, a move that already has significant backing in certain quarters.

No matter what happens, the Holy See’s recourse to legal means to try to foist its will on Italy is not likely to have a felicitous ending.

This week may go down in history as the beginning of the collapse of the status quo between Church and State in the Bel Paese — the final bulwark in the old, anachronistic paradigm that no longer serves the Body of Christ or the rest of humanity. ––LCI (https:// international.

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