I did a bloggingheads with Dan Drezner last Friday discussing, among other things, the organizational problems of the Catholic church, which seem to me to be (a) enormous, and (b) reasonably well understood in terms of Albert Hirschman’s famous book). If the Catholic church were a normal organization that was even moderately responsive to external feedback, one would have expected that the Pope would have resigned by now. As Duncan Black notes, the issues are quite straightforward, and have nothing to do with questions of theology. At the least he’s presided over an organization that has systematically covered up for child abusers, and it seems quite plausible that he’s been actively involved in said cover-up. The problem is that there is no very good way to force him to resign, or indeed to exert significant internal pressure on the Catholic church (which is constituted so as to be highly resistant to bottom-up pressures). In Hirschman’s terms, the Catholic church has never been particularly keen on voice (it is notable that the organization tried ruthlessly to stamp out the first stirrings of protest among lay-Catholics in the US against child abusers. Nor does it seem likely to be stirred to radical reform by the threat of exit. Clearly, the church is worried that Catholics will drop away – equally clearly, it wants to respond in ways that reinforce the current hierarchy rather than modifying it (e.g. by sending an Apostolic Visitation – a class of a senior inquisitorial team – to inspect the Irish Catholic church). Hence, it is forced to rely on a kind of loyalty which rests on specifically pre-modern ideas of authority. But loyalty is likely only to go so far, even when it’s larded with substantial dollops of conspiracy theorizing.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, an aide to the Pope, set the tone, telling reporters on Thursday: “This is a pretext for attacking the church. . . There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.” This theme was pursued by Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, in an editorial accusing the media of neglecting facts with the “evident and despicable intent to get to and strike Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators, regardless of everything”. People close to the Vatican have been speaking in ominous tones of a conspiracy by masonic lodges and big business to undermine the church.
The church is faced with a very tricky set of organizational trade-offs. It seems to be opting for a bare minimum of external accountability (acknowledging that there is a problem, and apologizing for it, while refusing to undertake substantial reforms or to admit that the rot has spread to the top), combined with an appeal to the loyalty of the faithful. This plausibly shores up the position of those at the top – but at the risk of provoking mass exit (at least among churchgoers in industrialized democracies – I don’t know enough about the church in the developing world to speculate). Senior figures in the church have been muttering for years that, if it comes down to it, they would prefer a smaller and more orthodox church to one which had more members but had to accommodate greater heterodoxy. I suspect they are about to get their wish, although I imagine that they would prefer that it occurred under somewhat different circumstances.