<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Red Hats and Rights: Reinforcing the Pyramid ARCC
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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Red Hats and Rights:  Reinforcing the Pyramid

By  James E. Biechler

“I’m sure most of the members of ARCC saw the lovely colored news photos of the recent elevation of 44 men to the cardinalate.  We Catholics sure know how to make religion colorful and newsworthy!  But still, I can’t help feeling that the whole spectacle was a bit anachronistic.  Don’t you agree?”
—A.T.J., St. Augustine, FL

My problem with this recent event is not with its obvious anachronism.  I’m writing this a few days before Holy Week and the remembrance of “the downward journey” Jesus was forced to take to the cross because he rejected the “pyramid of esteem” which the religion of his day had erected in the name of God.  (I’m using the terms “downward journey” and “pyramid of esteem” from Sean O’Conaill’s book Scattering the Proud:  Christianity Beyond 2000 (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999)).  When I learn that the present “pyramid of esteem,” which is the hierarchical church, has just been reinforced by the addition of 44 red-clad “princes,” please forgive me if I find it difficult to find a place for this picture in the gospel of Jesus.  It’s hard for me to think about Calvary and cardinal princes as not mutually exclusive.

It’s not just that the addition of 44 princes, apparent clones of their curial selectors, makes it more likely that the next pope will continue the reactionary trend of the past 20 years.  This may, of course, be unfortunately true.  As a Catholic I am more dispirited by the fact that more princes in the pyramid means that all bishops, priests and people have just had their own significance in the church proportionately diminished.  Even worse.  Reinforcing the red-hatted royalty in the church cannot be a positive move toward rapprochement with the other Christian communities.  One could also look at the needless expense involved in putting on the whole show.

Diverting resources to the great consistorial “Red Hat Show” is not the real complaint of reform-minded Catholics.  Rather, the hypertrophy of the college of cardinals is a malignancy that is destructive of true collegiality.  When the Second Vatican Council spoke of collegiality it was referring to the college of bishops, not the college of cardinals.  Several days after the massive coronation of the princes the pope announced an “extraordinary consistory” for May 21-24 to discuss current problems in the church.  Already we witness the bypassing of the college of bishops in favor of the hand-picked homogeneous group of grateful princes.  

Now that the consistory is to discuss the positions raised in the pope’s apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte of January 6, what need is there to call together the world’s bishops?  That unpredictable body of pastors, much closer to the priests and people of the church, could present a real problem to the Vatican church management staff.  Remember what happened at the Second Vatican Council?  The curia had the council’s conclusions all but decided before the bishops even got to Rome.  But when collegiality began operating, the curial plans were scrapped and some real church reform began.  Having a consistory of princes is a good way to forestall another general council, desire for which is already being heard throughout the church.  

Some Catholics, among them many members of ARCC, have been calling for more democracy in the church.  A college of princes is the antithesis of democracy.  It guarantees the perpetuation of monarchy and anachronism.  Worse still, the cardinalatial superstructure of the church is a countersign of gospel spirituality.  All the silks and gold and finery, all the posturing and rank-consciousness do not just have nothing to do with the gospel.  They are a blatant, in-your-face contradiction to the humility and simplicity of Jesus.  And it’s not enough to tell the cardinals to be humble, as the pope did.  All the symbolism of the position preaches a sermon of status, power, and splendor more eloquent than any mere papal words can remedy.

In short, the spectacle of an enhanced ecclesiastical monarchy, embellished in a Red Sea of splendor, in stark contrast to the example of Jesus, is, quite simply, a scandal, an obstacle to serious-minded Christians who look to the church to be a sign of Christ.  Rights in the church are based on the equality of all the baptized.  Structures like the college of cardinals are opposed even to the equality of all the bishops and extraordinary consistories of cardinals to deal with the ongoing reform of the church effectively make the universal role of the bishop insignificant.  What voice does a body of mere bishops have when set over against the royal college of cardinalatial power?  Don’t even ask about the voice of a mere lay person.  We can’t even shout loudly enough to be heard over the Red Sea.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 23 April 2001
Last updated 23 April 2001
Copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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