No Exit

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell uses Albert Hirschman’s famous Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1970) to consider the impact on church membership of the recent scandals in the Catholic Church.  Will Catholics “exit” the church in response, or might there be a sustained call for reform?  Farrell notes that the Church’s structure, ill-suited for input from below, prevents any response by “voice” ; he concludes:

Senior figures in the church have been muttering for years that, if it comes down to it, they would prefer a smaller and more orthodox church to one which had more members but had to accommodate greater heterodoxy. I suspect they are about to get their wish, although I imagine that they would prefer that it occurred under somewhat different circumstances.

Historians, especially medievalists like me, are usually circumspect about applying modern models to institutions created almost 2000 years ago. All too often we end up with Procrustean beds, having trimmed the subject of all ancient trappings in order to fit the model but potentially sacrificing the primary characteristics in the process.  Farrell recognizes the problem (“If the Catholic church were a normal organization that was even moderately responsive to external feedback …”) but he is wrong, I think, to suggest that the problem does not involve theology.  According to traditional doctrine, the essence of the Catholic Church is its transcendental or sacramental function.  As St Augustine taught long ago in his dealings with the Donatists, that transcendental function is immune to the moral failings of its officials.  For traditional Catholics, therefore, the Church continues to fulfill their needs irrespective of past errors or inept hierarchical responses to those errors.  Besides, “exit” is not on option for traditionalists on the principle of “no salvation outside the Church”; these traditionalists are also the least likely to raise their “voice”, given the governance of the present Pope.  For “liberal” Catholics on the other hand (I am using the term liberal in the American sense), the hierarchy’s action or inaction is of little relevance to their faith.  In my, admittedly limited, experience with liberal Catholics today, their membership of the Church does not rest on what Rome does or says—indeed quite the opposite, it sometimes seems.  In other words, to treat the issue as one that offers disgruntled consumers a choice between shopping elsewhere or demanding a word with management is really not terribly useful.

But if political science or economic theory does not inform us very much, can history be a better guide?  It is not, to put it mildly, as if the Church has never experienced a crisis or a call for reform, other than the obvious (and calamitous) example of the Reformation itself.  The best parallel I can think of is the Gregorian reform of the late eleventh century, which (surprise!) also implicated immoral priests and self-serving management.  Come to think of it, here we have a nice example of reform implemented from above –hence the name, derived from the leadership of pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085–but broadly responsive to ideas and attitudes generated in the community at large.  That reform did not come easy, however, took several generations to be carried out, and was in the end not entirely succesful.  It also relied on a much broader agenda of reform in which priestly morals played only a small part.

More historical perspective: I often wonder if pope Benedict XVI, in his thinking of the present problems, is not, consciously or unconsciously, recalling the Nazi show trials of priests and monks for child abuse in 1937-38, at the height of the Kirchenkampf, when he was a young boy/man.  It would help to explain (though it certainly is not the sole reason for) the current, persistent self-identification, in Vatican circles, of the Church as a victim of an orchestrated campaign.

1 thought on “No Exit

  1. Thanks for offering a long historical perspective on this topic. (And congratulations to the department on this blog.) It strikes me that the issue for many Catholics today, American ones particularly, is less the morals of individual priests then the imperviousness, indeed hostility, of the Church to any movement toward accountability or transparency. American Catholics may be unusual in expecting such things of their institutions, because of American history and culture. But that’s not to say they don’t regard Rome’s behavior (and that behavior extends to American dioceses) as relevant to their membership in the Church. I suspect the response of the hierarchy to the most recent abuse exposures, which it’s not too strong to call paranoid, and which parallels its response to earlier scandals, is driving many Catholics away from the Church in dismay or disgust.

    The comment thread on Farrell’s post is interesting–I haven’t checked the figure but one person cites polls saying the number of people polling in Massachusetts as Catholics has dropped by 15%. Even very “traditional” Catholics seem to be appalled by the current episode–see Maureen Dowd’s NYT column this week at

    It’s far too soon to know whether this wave of outrage will spur a wider reform movement, but in highlighting how, er, medieval the Church hierarchy is, it may serve as a catalyst.

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