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The expansion of a religious tyranny

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 11 October 2018

I have warm memories of Paul Collins on the ABC reporting on religious affairs back when the ABC had a robust department that dealt with such things. He was gentle and witty and became for me what one would expect of a priest. He resigned from the priesthood in 2001 because he foresaw that his difficulties with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) following his publication of an earlier book on papal power would drag his order into a controversy that it could do without. This volume is an extension of his examination of the history of the modern Roman Church.

The book begins with the death of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) and the celebration among the philosophes, the public intellectuals of Europe, because they were sure that the papacy was at last extinct. This event coincided with perhaps the lowest ebb of papal power with strong monarchs taking control of the Church. The rest of the book outlines the rise of papal power to the present day, from a situation in which even faithful Catholics were sure that the papacy was at an end, to the present in which the papacy manages every detail of the life of believers and treats bishops as mere branch managers. As Cardinal Pell remarked when a journalist accused him of being the pope's man in Australia "I hope so".

Collins regards the history of this rise to absolute power to be a travesty of a continuing accretion of power in the hands of the bishop of Rome. Indeed, there is a disturbing trend, observed in some popes, to make the move from seeing themselves as the representative of Christ to being incorporated into the incarnation of Christ, being themselves the fullness of Christ. This means that the pope need listen to no one for he himself contains all that is necessary as Christ was the fullness of the Father. Alarmingly, such a conception may be seen in the long papacy of John-Paul II, the one man band papacy. His hubris extended to believing that the Virgin diverted an assassin's bullet in order to save his life so that he could continue his work as pope. The bullet perforated his bowel and causes massive blood loss that was life threatening. One could only say that if the Virgin was involved she may have tried harder!


Collins deals fully with the absurd push, under Pius' IX and X to hold Catholic scholarship back from what they perceived as Modernism. This episode draws a picture of a reactionary Church fearful of change and clinging to the idea that revelation was a once and for all event that was fully incorporated into the dogma of the Church. To be a good Catholic one could not read history or be involved in historical-critical research into biblical texts but keep the faith as outline by the Pope, who, after all, is infallible. The papacy turned its back on the idea of historicism, that the present is a result the past. Thankfully, the nonsense of the anti-modernist push ended with the papacy of Leo XIII who established the Pontifical Biblical Commission. However, he still insisted on the centrality of Thomas Aquinas for the Church, a move resisted by many academics.

The insistence that the papacy held supreme power over the Church led to it acting very much like a Stalinist state, not with an archipelago of concentration camps but with a large number of academics who came under the scrutiny of the CDF. Collins complains that communication with the CDF was one way. They were not interested in hearing from the person they were investigating, did not reveal how they arrived at their opinions, did not answer letters directed to them for explanation. You only have to read Hans Kung's two volume biography to see that his was true in so many cases. This resulted in the cream of Catholic academics being suspended from teaching positions or even excommunicated. There was the real danger that Catholic theology and biblical studies would be stranded in a backwater.

The Vatican's centralised power has reduced bishops to being mere enactors of the papal line. When recently Pope Francis asked for opinions from the bishops there was little offered. Collins puts this down to the fact that bishops were elected for their willingness to hold the papal line and that thinking for themselves was not expected, nor were they trained to do so. In short, the extreme concentration of power in Rome has left a clueless Church capable only of obedience.

Most of the book is concerned with the utter difference between the exercise of power and the gentle Galilean who had no place to lay his head. Arrogance, presumption and an unwillingness to engage with the world were the marks of the Vatican. However, Collins sees that there are two highlights for the papacy, John XXIII and the present pope Francis I. Both men saw that the Vatican bureaucracy was locked in an intransigent juridicalism that threatened the very centre of the faith. John inaugurated Vatican II as a way of interrupting that bureaucracy. It was sad that he lived only till the completion of the first session and many of the formulations of the Council, especially councilism, ecumenism, the role of women in the Church were rolled back by John's successors. In particular, Collins mourns the ham fisted attempts of the Vatical liturgists to produce graceful English texts from the Latin. You would think that this would be easy enough, however the translators insisted in simply transferring the meaning from Latin to another language despite the loss of any poetic sense or the sense of prayer itself.

The chapter on Francis I is favourable but despairing that even a pope who is said to have supreme power has no power at all as far as the entrenched powers in the Vatican administration. Francis has already been knocked back on his wish to liberalise communion for those who have divorced and remarried, a symptom of the application of law. This in spite of St Paul's insistence of grace over law.

Collins ends his book with ground shaking recommendations that we may not see in our lifetimes but may be the only way to save the Church from itself.


"It is not only the pope but also the Roman Curia that needs to be confronted. This bureaucratic incubus should be summarily swept away. Every attempt to "reform" it has failed dismally; it is irreformable and should be abolished and replaced by a smaller papal secretariat whose task would be to support the bishop of Rome in his ministry, not to micromanage the universal church. Totally new personnel, mainly laity with specialised skills are needed to run the secretariat."

This is a necessary read for anyone interested in the history and fate of the Church of Rome.

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This is a review of Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World. Paul Collins 2018, $40.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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