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Soap Operas and Seismic Shifts

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 04, 2009

 John Allen, the leading Vatican-watcher in the English-speaking world, offers some perceptive comments on the sensational public dispute centering on the editor of the newspaper published by the Italian bishops' conference. It's more than a matter of mudslinging, he argues; it's a sign of significant changes in the way the Church interacts with the political world. Allen sets forth two main themes:

  • The political and cultural ties in the West that in recent decades have bound the church to the political right may be unraveling.
  • The "Power Distance Index" in Catholicism, meaning the willingness of ordinary people to accept the authority of the bishops to manage the internal affairs of the church, is declining rapidly, and not just in countries scarred by the sexual abuse crisis.

As usual I would argue with some of Allen's points. I just can't see the "marriage of convenience with conservative political forces" that he perceives in the US as well as in Italy. American bishops have made common cause with conservative Republicans on abortion and related issues, it's true, but the vast majority of American bishops still reflexively endorse liberal Democratic policies on issues such as welfare, immigration, education, the environment, and foreign policy. And whereas in Italy the Church has generally found friends on the political Right since the aftermath of World War II, in the US the stronger historical ties bind Catholics to the Democratic Party.

Still Allen makes a series of good points. What he calls the "Power Distance Index" is an important phenomenon. Older Catholics were more willing to accept the guidance of their bishops; younger Catholics are more critical. What's more, that critical attitude extends across the theological/political/ideological spectrum. There was a time when liberal Catholics were always ready to criticize their bishops, and conservative Catholics were always ready to defend them. No longer.

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