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Lord Acton’s Most Famous Maxim Explains The Catholic Church Scandal


The most perceptive and simultaneously most obtuse comment on the current crisis in the Catholic Church is a headline by Marc Theissen: “Suddenly I Understand How [the] Reformation Happened.”

This is perceptive, because the mass defection of the Protestants 500 years ago is the right historical precedent for the gravity of the Catholic Church’s crisis, which goes way beyond a mere “scandal.” But it’s obtuse because I don’t see how this could be the first time anybody understood it.

The church’s 2,000-year history includes too many crimes (burning heretics at the stake and all that sort of thing) and too much corruption (the Renaissance popes routinely bought and sold church positions and used the papacy as an instrument of their families’ worldly ambitions) that it seems rather late to wonder why anyone would question its authority. The better word for what’s happening right now is “schism.” That’s according to Jonathan Last, who sums up the situation.

If true, [the accusations in the Vigano letter] would mean that we have one cardinal who was a sanctioned sexual predator, (at least) one cardinal who turned a blind eye to this man’s crimes as they were happening within his jurisdiction, and a pope who didn’t just look the other way but took affirmative steps to help both the criminal and his enabler.

And if all of that is true, well, then what? The potential answers to this question aren’t very nice. They include: schism, the destruction of the papacy, and a long war for the soul of the Catholic church.

It has just gotten worse in recent weeks, as it became clear that Pope Francis, who was supposed to be the church’s great “progressive,” is more interested in defending the perpetrators than in defending the victims.

In another homily on September 11, Francis went further, saying that not only was Vigano the real villain, but the bishops were the real victims: They were being persecuted by the devil: ‘In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,’ Francis preached. And Satan ‘tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.’ (The Father of Lies—as he is referred to in the Bible—has not traditionally been regarded as the revealer of sins in Catholic thought, but this pope has never been known for having a supple mind.) Francis then offered counsel for his poor, suffering brother bishops: ‘The Great Accuser, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse.’ A bishop’s strength against the Great Accuser is prayer.’

But the real story here isn’t the misconducts of priests or even the misconduct of the pope. It’s the fact that no one can do anything about it. Here is where Last mentions, in passing, the real heart of the problem.

The Catholic church is unlike any other earthly institution. It is strictly hierarchical, with its ultimate power derived from the son of God. The head of the church—the successor of Peter—is elected to a lifetime appointment by his peers, and his authority over them is total. He can allow them to carry on sexual affairs in broad daylight, as Francis did with Father Krzysztof Charamsa, a priest who worked for years in the Vatican curia while living openly with his gay lover. Or he can drive them from the church, as Francis did with Father Charamsa after the priest made his situation public in the Italian media in 2015. He can make either of these choices—or any choice in between—for any reason he likes. Or none at all. Such is the supreme power of the vicar of Christ.

Yet the pope’s immediate subordinates—the cardinals and bishops—function like feudal lords in their own right. The bishop can preach in contravention of the teachings of the church, as Cardinal Walter Kasper does on the subject of marriage and infidelity. He can forbid the offering of both species of the Eucharist, as Bishops John Richard Keating and Paul Loverde once did in Northern Virginia. He can punish and reward priests under his care either because of merit or caprice—because the deacons and priests all swear a vow of obedience to the bishop (or cardinal) himself.

All of which is the long way of saying that there is no mechanism for a man such as Donald Wuerl to be dealt with by his peers. The bishop of Madison can fulminate against Wuerl all he wants to, as Bishop Robert Morlino did in late August. His fellow bishops have no power over him. The only man Wuerl is accountable to is the pope. And the structure of the church has no remedy when a pope is foolish or wicked.

Note, though, that Last contradicts himself in one regard. He says the Catholic Church is unlike any other earthly institution, but he later compares it to feudalism, which is exactly the right historical comparison. The Catholic Church is the last leftover in the modern Western world of the Middle Ages and the concept of rule by divine right.

Last goes on to complain about Pope Francis being too ideologically liberal, repeating the party line among conservative American Catholics that this whole thing is happening because the church just didn’t condemn homosexuality hard enough. But this all sounds very much like the subject of an absolute monarch insisting that the problem isn’t the monarchy itself but the machinations of the king’s wicked advisors, and everything would be fixed if someone better were whispering in the king’s ear.

Over many contentious centuries, the Catholic Church has slowly, unwillingly, but inevitably been divested of its political and legal authority over the rest of society. It had to be, because its feudal absolutism is fundamentally incompatible with a modern free society. But the church’s internal structure remained unreformed, and now we get to see, in these latest revelations, all of the corruption that can flourish under unchecked power.

The man who diagnosed the fundamental problem with the Catholic Church was not Martin Luther. It was Lord Acton. Acton was a rebellious Catholic, and in a letter arguing against the doctrine of papal infallibility he wrote his most famous maxim.

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases…. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely….

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.

Acton lost that theological battle, but in retrospect, it’s almost like he was predicting recent events.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Catholic Church is the only large-scale holdover of absolute power in the modern West, and this must certainly be regarded as a leading cause of the current crisis—and of the church’s inability to reform itself in response.