Perhaps the strangest feature of the present crisis in the Catholic Church is the failure of most participants – and especially the American press – to understand the cultural factors at its heart. In seeking accountability and disclosure they fail to take cognisance of the fact that, in a world of participatory democracy and political manoeuvre, the Papacy is the last surviving European autocracy.
The Vatican is an absolute monarchy, in which the Pope is not merely the fount of law; he is the law. He has no need to answer questions or respond to accusations. His strength (as Cardinal Quellet’s recent letter has shown) lies in a mystical ontology, which makes of criticism a sort of blasphemy.
The stand-off between Francis and the American Catholic press is a clash of two cultures – of two worlds which are virtually irreconcilable. You do not, in my view, have to be an adherent of the ‘Whig View of History’ to predict which side will win.
The English Civil War was a similar conflict between autocracy and accountability. And it ended, as we all know, with a beheading.