Towards a Catholic Brexit? A decentralized Catholicism and global politics
Informational not an endorsement
The reconfiguration of the European project is directly related to the reconfiguration of the Catholic Church
Reconfiguration of the European project is directly related to the reconfiguration of the Catholic Church. And it has nothing to do with nostalgia for a European medieval Christendom or Eurocentric Catholicism. There are three issues that connect this key moment in the life of the Old Continent and of Roman Catholicism.The first issue is historical.The crisis of the EU is one of the faces of the crisis of Catholic Europeanism. On the one hand, while it is true that the European project was part of a vision of Catholics, the United States and of post-World War II political elites, then the weakness of these three players is part of the crisis of Europe.During the Cold War, German Protestant theologian Martin Niemöller said that the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had been "begotten in the Vatican and born in Washington," at a time when Catholics were still at the margins of the US political establishment.
The rise of Catholicism in the United State during the last three decades has had a political impact, but not in the direction of bridging America and Europe. Perhaps just the opposite, if one notes the negative way in which neo-conservative American Catholic intellectuals like George Weigel usually talk about Europe and European Catholicism. In this sense, the responsibility for the crisis of the European Union rests not only with European Catholics, but also (in a different way) with Catholics globally, including those in the United States.The second issue that connects Brexit and Catholicism is political theology; that is, how Catholics today view the nation state and international bodies in the age of a globalized economy.The first practical question is whether democracy should be direct or representative. The Catholic Church has struggled with the idea of democracy since the French Revolution and it seems to me that its teaching since World War II has assumed and accepted the representative form over the direct version.
Those who accuse Pope Francis of being a typical Latin American populist, politically, still have to demonstrate how he has encouraged Catholics to sidestep representative democracy (he has not).A second question concerns the notion of the nation state. English-speaking Catholic theologians who are inspired by "radical orthodoxy" emphasize the need for the Church to reject the idea of the nation state as idolatry. But it seems to me that the idea of direct democracy as infallible can also be seen as idolatry. Don't forget, the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus.But there is something in this debate that will also touch those who do not read the provocative arguments of radical orthodoxy. From the perspective of the Catholic Church's future as a global political actor, we must remember that the perception that its theology and magisterium had of the nation state in 20th-century was influenced more by its European and Latin American experiences more that those in North America, Africa and Asian.
Brexit could well be a key moment in revealing that the old (but not so old - only seventy years) confidence of Catholics in the nation state as the partner for the Catholic Church is not that universal. The way Catholics view the Chinese state or the Philippine state could end up having a much greater influence on the Church’s future than the way Catholics' view Germany or France.The third issue that connects Brexit and Catholics concerns the future decentralization of the Church and what it means for the political orientations of its members worldwide.Pope Francis has said repeatedly that the Catholic Church needs to be less centralized. This is generally accepted from an ecclesiological point of view, but nobody knows what it might mean for the political posture of Catholics worldwide.Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Church has been in favor of democracy, loyal to the nation state (as long as it respects human rights and allows some forms of conscientious objection). But, at the same time, Rome has told Catholics that it must dialogue with oppressive regimes in order to allow the Church to survive and prepare for a better future (this is what the Vatican Ostpolitik with Communist countries between 1945 and 1989 was about).
All this was based on the assumption that the pope and the Holy See knew what they were doing, and that Catholics believed in the good faith and the usefulness of Vatican diplomacy. It was an act of faith based on a centralized ecclesiology where, regarding certain key areas, the Vatican could and should overrule local or national episcopates.But the future of a decentralized Catholic Church could look very different. Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop-emeritus of Hong Kong and a staunch opponent of any dialogue between the Vatican and Communist China, recently called on his "brothers and sisters" of the People's Republic of China to ignore a potential agreement between China and the Holy See that carries the pope's approval.When he was still just the coadjutor bishop back in 1999, Cardinal Zen experienced a sort of Brexit when the United Kingdom transferred its sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The cardinal's stance on Pope Francis and his negotiations with Beijing could be a foreshadowing of a new global Catholicism – not in the sense of disrespecting the pope, but in the assertive way that local Catholics might determine what is good for them politically, even it means ignoring the Vatican’s centuries-long experience in dealing with tyrants and demagogues of all sorts.This would mark a radical change. And it would be part of the decentralization of Catholicism. But I'm not convinced it would always and necessarily be a step forward.