The Austrian “Call to Disobedience”: Resistance to the “Banality of Evil” in the Catholic Church.

A few weeks ago, the news in the UK was dominated for a while by the extraordinary, and rapid decline in the might of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire. This has reached a climax of sorts with dramatic, full page advertisement apologies over two days in every national newspaper, declaring to the nation, “We Are Sorry”. At about the same time, there were revelations from the Irish government that the Irish church, egged on by the Vatican, persisted in its cover-ups of sexual abuse and non-cooperation with secular authorities, even after it claimed to have cleaned up its act and cracked down on abusers.  Earlier in the week, there had been news of the remarkable “Call to disobedience” from several hundred Austrian priests, which Bart wrote about yesterday.

There are some remarkable parallels between the meltdowns at the News of the World and the Irish Catholic Church, which provide an important prism through which to view the  Austrian call to disobedience – not least, the profuse (but not always convincing) declarations that -

 The “Banality of Evil” at News of the World

This began years ago, with reports that a royal reporter for News of the World had hacked into royal mobile phones. Executives of the group then and later consistently claimed that this was the work of a single rogue reporter. The reporter was convicted and jailed, and life at News Corp continued much as before. Not everybody was prepared to accept the executives’ bland assurances that all was well, however. Investigative reporters and a handful of politicians refused to let the matter rest. Reports continued to surface of several thousand public figures whose phones appeared to have been hacked, but a police investigation led nowhere. It has now emerged that the investigating team had been forced to close their investigation, in part because they had been met with a total lack of co-operation from executives at News Corporation. As later revelations of scandalous phone hacking had continued, we also learnt allegations of bribes to policemen. Hacking was clearly not the work of a single rogue reporter, but was endemic to the organization.

Even so, top management tried to continue as before, insisting that the problems were not their fault. Murdoch is said to be renowned for his fierce loyalty to his team. In a remarkable display of this loyalty, he announced the complete closure of News of the World, but twice refused to accept the resignation of Rachel Brooks, who had headed it at the time when the hacking seems to have begun. However, his protection could go only so far. Brooks was eventually allowed to resign, as did other news executives, on two continents. The share price slid, and Murdoch was forced to relinquish his bid for complete control of Sky television. Regulators may even conclude that his group can not be considered sufficiently “fit and proper persons” to be allowed to retain their existing 39% share.

What was this to do with the Catholic Church?

Parallels with the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis.

During the height of the news reports,  I heard a radio discussion on the affair, with input from learned experts in psychology, ethics and the like. The phrase and concept that remained with me, was that of  “the banality of evil”. In a closed group, it is easy for ideas and behaviours that outsiders would clearly reject as unacceptable, to become gradually normal and routine. News Corp, with its renowned emphasis on fierce internal loyalty, was just such a group. Its internal culture, and its obsession with finding news sources not obtainable by its competitors, seems to have led it to the use of methods that were clearly illegal and abhorrent – but which those involved seemed to have treated as just part of the job.

The parallels with the Catholic Church, and its mishandling of clerical sexual abuse, are striking.

  • Initial complaints were of just a handful of incidents, quickly dismissed as the work of rogue individuals. Many of those involved simply did not see their actions as particularly serious.
  • Initial attempts at internal investigation were cursory and unproductive. In some quarters, it seems that people knew these things were happening, but condoned or ignored the behaviour – a banality of evil was setting in.
  • It later turned out that some individuals who should have attempted to clean up the problem, had instead engaged in extensive cover-ups, failing to co-operate properly with police or government investigations.  Even as complaints became more vocal, and court actions meant that abuse could not be ignored by the 1980’s, the standard response of the bishops and the Vatican, we now know, was one of cover-ups and lack of co-operation with secular investigation.
  • Some secular / political / police investigators held back in their investigations, either out of deference to a powerful institution / corporation, or following simple bribery.
  • As pressure mounted, News Corporation tried to blame the repeated reports of malfeasance at his papers on the hostility of his commercial rivals, just as some Vatican officials, even up to last year, simply brushed away serious allegations as rumour-mongering by the enemies of the Church.
  • The persistence of public pressure forced greater truth-telling and admissions – with the abject apologies and promises to behave in future.

Lessons for the Church, and the Austrian Priests’ Revolt

The fierce corporate loyalty inside News Corp has its counterpart in the intense clerical culture of blind obedience inside the Catholic Church. It has now been widely recognised by many knowledgeable commentators as a contributing factor to both the abuse itself, and to the cover-ups which followed.  This even seems to have been accepted by the team of Vatican-appointed bishop who conducted the visitation to the Irish Church, and was explicitly cited by the organisers of the German theologians declaration on the need for fundamental reform of the Church – in its doctrine on sexual ethics, in its ordination criteria, and in its culture.

The repeated internal investigations by News Corporation simply gave themselves a clean bill of health. Those by the professional body tasked with self-regulation of the industry, the Press Complaints Commission were heavily influenced by pressure from  their professional colleagues at the corporation and no more effective.  Similarly, internal investigations by the Catholic Church, and even the work of its own self-regulating bodies, have been largely ineffective.

In both institutions, the only forces that have ultimately brought a measure of justice and retribution, have been external: public pressure, financial loss, and the threat of secular sanction.

This is why the Austrian priests’ call for disobedience should be welcomed.

Austrian priests call for reforms; cardinal plans dialogue with group.

Austrian bishops have criticized an effort by a group of priests calling for reforms in church practice, including opening the priesthood to women and married men, but the bishops have not taken or threatened disciplinary action. Michael Pruller, spokesman for Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, said the cardinal plans to meet in late August or September with the Viennese priests who are among the leaders of the “Initiative of Parish Priests,” which launched a “Call to Disobedience” in June. The initiative, which says it has just more than 300 members, suggested saying a public prayer at every Mass for church reform; giving Communion to everyone who approaches the altar in good faith, including divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment; allowing women to preach at Mass; and supporting the ordination of women and married men.

- full report at CNS 

I have written above of the “Irish” Catholic Church, because the timing of the NoW revelations coincided with the release of the Cloyne report and the Irish government reaction, and because the details of the Irish problems are best known from the government sponsored investigations. The problems however, are world-wide, and stem from the same fundamental shortcomings in the global church – amongst them, the insidious culture of clericalism that gives rise to the “banality of evil” I described earlier.

 The whole of church history has seen a steady increase in papal power and control, with damaging results for all of us – as seen most dramatically in the sexual abuse scandals, and in the number of people who have simply walked away, who call themselves “ex-Catholics”, or describe themselves as “Catholic, but not Roman”.

The expectation by the papacy of Catholic blind obedience, and the willingness of rule-book Catholics to simply fall in with this expectation, has enabled this appalling power grab. In this context, we need to remember that blind obedience is not in fact Catholic orthodoxy – even canon law says that there are times when we are obliged to call out the leaders of the church for their failings.

There are times, and this is one of them, when disobedience is not disloyalty, but a moral obligation. The Austrian priests’ stand is a courageous and important one – but it is not alone. It is just one more sign of a growing resistance to the culture of clericalism which, as you have written before is so damaging to the church.

It could just be that the centuries long movement to concentrate Church power in a privileged oligarchy is finally starting to reverse.

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2 comments for “The Austrian “Call to Disobedience”: Resistance to the “Banality of Evil” in the Catholic Church.

  1. Maninmetairie
    September 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Why must there be such anger toward the Church? They are no less free to believe and teach than any other.
    Follow the path you believe to be true and be tolerant enough to allow others their own intolerance. It is amazing how much peace it gives.
    Just a thought and suggestion.

    • September 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm

      I don’t see any anger toward the Church in this. Rather, I believe it is grounded in love for the Church, that compels these men to speak up at great personal risk, against the harmful actions and practices of those who persist in placing episcopal power before the Gospel and the good of the Church as a whole

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