Friday, November 16, 2001


In an interview at the Religion Report website sent in by a reader, John Allen responds to questions put by Stephen Crittenden:

I mean ironically, although there certainly is a quarter in the Catholic church that would complain about the kind of imperial papacy, and the centralisation that’s gone on under John-Paul. The truth is, when you talk to cardinals and ask them what is their big beef with this pontificate, granted they’re all admirers, but to the extent they have complaints, what is it? Almost to a man they’ll tell you that this has been a brilliant visionary, and a brilliant evangelist and a mediocre governor. That is, that this is a Pope who from October 16th, 1978, made the decision that he wanted to be both Peter and Paul, that is, he wanted to be this peripatetic preacher and evangeliser who would travel the highways and byways of the world. He wanted to be in dialogue with culture, he wanted to remain a philosopher and a poet and an intellectual. And the price of being able to do all that was that there were large areas of the kind of nuts and bolts maintenance that goes on in terms of the internal dynamics of the church, that has always left in the hands of aides. I mean liturgy is a classic example and the Pope is a very reverent celebrant, you see that when he celebrates mass, but he’s never been personally involved in the details of setting liturgical policy. Clerical discipline: I don’t know that there’s a case file on a priest that he has ever voluntarily read in his 25 year career. Occasionally when he’s had to actually forcibly laicise someone, he’s been compelled, but it’s not the kind of thing he goes looking for. And so the point is that he has always been a delegator, and that has ironically produced a consistent atmosphere for over 25 years in which the papal power structure, if you like, has operated in a fairly autonomous sense.

What’s happened in recent years of course, is that normally that is kept in a rough kind of coherence, people are kept roughly on the same page when you have a strong Secretariat of State who is sort of the Prime Minister in the Vatican power structure. We have at the moment however, a Secretariat of State who is far more concerned with Italian politics and questions of international diplomacy than he is with anything else, which means in these areas the Pope has delegated, so has the Secretariat of State, which means in effect you have heads of agencies that are quasi-autonomous, that is, following their own scripts. Again I come back to this, one of the remarkable things about the present moment is that despite the mythology that the Catholic church is this rigidly hierarchical and ultra-centralised institution, there are probably few institutions of global reach on earth that have less internal co-ordination at the moment than the Roman Catholic church.

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