Pope Francis and Authority: The Collapse of ‘Command Catholicism’

Mar 24, 2021 | 4 comments

Pope Francis in Iraq, March 5th, 2021

“…the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross.’ Pope Francis – quoted by Cardinal Mario Grech in his address to the bishops of Ireland, March 4th, 2021.

He’s just a nice guy. He really hasn’t done anything yet!’

This overheard remark typifies a certain kind of disillusionment with the Argentinian bishop who became bishop of Rome, and therefore also pope, in 2013.

If he hasn’t agreed to the ordination of women and married men, and to the blessing of committed LGBT couples – and hasn’t ‘cancelled’ the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – the church’s ‘Theology Police’ – and has not even fully resolved the problems of clerical abuse or financial management – then what has Pope Francis done of any importance?

The answer lies in his recognition of the end of Christendom and his redefinition of Christian authority in line with Jesus’s firm instruction to those who would follow him – never to ‘lord it over’ anyone. In so doing Jorge Bergoglio has refashioned the papacy also, has fatally undermined the disease of Catholic clericalism – and has restored the freedom of the Holy Spirit to move and guide Catholic Christian families directly, from Confirmation on.

For someone born in 1943 who has now witnessed seven papacies in total – beginning with that of Pope Pius XII – this has been an historical transformation of enormous importance.

Not even Pope Francis’s immediate predecessor, the formidable Pope Benedict XVI, had felt ready to wave goodbye to Christendom – the ideal of the state-privileged Christian society guided by a politically powerful Catholic hierarchy. Pope Benedict was also deeply perplexed by Jesus’s apparent decision to do without the power of compulsion – by his decision to reign ‘from the cross’. In 1996, responding to a journalist’s question on what often appeared to be the greater power of evil in the world, the Bavarian cardinal had replied:

“This is, of course, exactly the question that I too would ask the ‘world-spirit’: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who himself failed? But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the nondivine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”


In the years that followed – especially the years of his own papacy – Pope Benedict encountered the limits of his own power to ‘impose himself and get his own way’ within the church itself.  He was obliged also to observe the apparently total victory of secularism over his church in the waves of scandal that overtook the Catholic clerical system from 1985, beginning in the USA.

The Argentinian Bishop Jorge Bergoglio was another observer of these events. He had learned something else about authority from direct encounter with the lives of the poorest in Argentina, something also evident in the Gospels: the authority of Jesus had come not simply from knowing the Hebrew Bible but from his sharing the deprivations and dangers – and outcast social status – of those he sought to teach. This was above all an authority born of social humility, compassion and companionship – rather than of academic expertise.

Pope Francis had therefore come to understand that Christendom – the long centuries of the church’s rise to social and academic ascendancy after 312 CE had distanced its summit from its base.  It had developed in too many of its diocesan ‘secular’ clergy a social aloofness that left them unable to communicate the Gospel.

In Ireland, also hamstrung by the legalism of Rome, these were mostly unable to communicate dynamically with an urban underclass too often left behind by economic development. When waves of clerical sexual scandal began in the 1980s, the scene was set for a massive advance of secularisation and the apparent defeat of the Gospel.

When the rivalries of Roman cardinals became another global scandal in 2012 – the ‘Vatileaks’ affair – the paralysis of ‘Command Catholicism’ – a system that required a pope to have firm control of a disciplined bureaucracy in loyal lockstep with himself – was complete.

The same lesson was meanwhile being taught by the practical failure of the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968. How could a Catholic clergy – themselves denied practical experience of the intimate intricacies of married life – command lay people to observe these rules for birth regulation? As many priests were unconvinced they should even try to do so, the encyclical doomed the Irish church to decades of mute non-compliance and the withering of the internal discussion needed to cope with rapid social change. Appointed to adhere to Humanae Vitae, Irish bishops never publicly acknowledged the dire impact of the encyclical upon the Irish church’s morale and internal vitality – and probably never told a pope about that either – at least until the arrival of Pope Francis.

And so the abuse scandals from 1994 hit us with the force of a tornado striking a wooden house riddled with woodworm. Can Irish bishops, and the mostly ageing clergy they lead, adapt quickly now to authority-as-service? In one sense the ongoing pandemic is helpful in this transition – by delaying any dramatic experiments in listening to large groups in the same space, in the short term. As ‘first responders’ also to many of the trials and family tragedies of this crisis, many priests have proven the authority of the texts they preach about – and witnessed the sacrifices of unordained members of the social and health care sector of Irish society – the ‘essential workers’ who are so often unjustly paid.

As the power-to-command of Irish bishops and clergy has declined, the irreplaceable value of an ethic of personal sacrifice and service has therefore become ever more obvious. There will be many such stories to share in the months and years ahead – and the survival of the Francis papacy to this critical moment is surely providential. No other way forward for the Irish church can surely now be seriously contemplated.

Christendom is over – and with it the era of ‘authority from above’ – i.e. of someone ‘up there’ telling everyone else what to do. Only those who embody the Gospel of companionship, compassion and moral example can exercise the authority of Jesus. Legalistic micromanagement from the top has been as ineffectual and disastrous for Catholicism in Ireland as the Communist Politburo and its five-year-plans were for the USSR.

In naming pride as the besetting sin of the micromanagers and careerists in the church Pope Francis has also provided a secure foundation for a moral theology freed from a ‘fixation’ with sexuality – the obsession that fuels his opponents on the Catholic ‘Right’. Understood as the drive towards proving one’s own moral superiority, pride became the besetting sin of religious elites under Christendom.

Nothing else is needed to explain how even a Catholic education can foster the vast inequalities of contemporary society, and why Irish Catholic schools typically fail nowadays to leave most of their their students with a dynamic and vibrant faith. It has taken a Pandemic in the end to bring the Irish hierarchy to the point of embracing Pope Francis’s vision of the future church.  Only we Irish, in communion with the Holy Spirit – and with one another – can put an Irish ‘spin’ on that vision. Using modern communications as the Pandemic has taught us, we can, and should, begin immediately. Sean O’Conaill – 24th March, 2021


  1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: Salt of the Earth, An Interview with Peter Seewald, Ignatius press, 1997


  1. Peter Torney

    This post above expresses eloquently, amongst many other things, the deep underlying distress felt by many lay people over so many years about this ‘command’ Catholicism, particularly your comment, Sean, on the Humanae Vitae teaching on contraception. So accurate, so true! I felt heartened by your writing. It lifted my spirits.

    The world in which this type of ‘command’ Catholicism would work, no longer exists. Yet many Catholics believe that this is the only way to stop the Church from falling apart at the seams. For them ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est’ (Rome has spoken , the case is closed) is a necessary bulwark against the Trojan Horse of modernity.

    The latest edition of this form of governance is the recent statement by the CDF on same-sex blessings. Result – ‘Negative’.

    For my part, and coming from a trained psychoanalytic background, I would ask the question – what unconscious forces gives rise to an image of a God that would make such a statement as this possible, or indeed an organisation to act in a ‘command’ style of governance as described by the post above?

    Alas, the answer is for me personally – not a God that I recognise. The God that I love and worship is a God of forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, compassion, tenderness, mercy (the root of which word in Greek is healing ‘oil’ – a much unrecognised link unfortunately)), empathy, tolerance and above all, love beyond words.

    The opposite of this, for somebody with my background, is a form of minor insanity in its various forms – greed, resentment, diminishment, destructiveness, cruelty, sadism, envy, hatred, wish for revenge, etc. The sort of stuff with which psychoanalysts have to deal with on a daily basis in their clinical practice.

    The current statement by the CDF, and I am quite sure they are totally unaware of this, is a statement of extreme violence against the so-called same sex ‘sinners.’ This is not a physical form of violence or a verbal form of violence per se, but underneath its smooth façade, there lurks a certain destructive disdain, and lack of compassion, that is in essence, a form of violence against our fellow human beings.

    But they, and many others believe that they are right in this policy. Our Church thus seems riddled with conflict between right and left, between conservative and liberal, between supporters of Pope Francis and his detractors, and so on and so forth etc., etc.

    What are we to do? Well, I’m getting on my new camel and heading for the desert!

    I believe the Desert Fathers found much solace and wisdom there in the early years of Christianity – it was a time of great turmoil for the Church. So, I’m making a journey to the desert of my heart, to see what I find. I fear I’m in for a great shock! Nothing else for it for me I’m afraid.

    I will if possible, sent some despatches, that’s if I can find that damn stylus and parchment! Now where did I pack them!

  2. soconaill

    That option, the search for the Lord in the desert, in disillusionment with a failing clerical institution, is well catered for by e.g. Richard Rohr – as I am sure you already know, Peter.


    Always, always prayer reminds us of the presence of the Lord in whatever circumstances. In that sense disillusionment seems to be part of the ‘faith journey’ – away from reliance upon failing institutions – while the people close to us need our resilience as well as our love and support.

    Perhaps in this journey we are also discovering the full import of Jesus’s reference to the ‘lost sheep’. The lost sheep of the House of Israel of Jesus’s own time are now followed by the lost sheep of the disillusioning institution – and it may be the natural historical fate of institutions to become sclerotic, corrupt and disillusioning.

    Yet, anywhere, to recall the Jesus of the Gospels is to recall the gentle shepherd who gathers his lost sheep anew – and to come to know Abba also, who sees us ‘far off’.

    We look forward to your ‘despatches’!

  3. Kevin Walters

    “Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who himself failed? But apparently, that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the non-divine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”

    Jesus Christ categorically rejected the use of violence but do we have a “Recognition of the True Cross” within our own hearts because even today as Christians, do we not, still condone violence?

    From Donum Vitae “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”

    The term ‘Just War’(Theory) continually shatters the reality of this teaching given by the Church?
    The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

    Prior to Luke 22:36, we have Luke 22:35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out without purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered”
    So, from now on we see the divide between the true believer/follower who trusts in God alone whereas those who rely on possessions need to protect them, as in
    Luke22;36 “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one” and since the time of Christ, we see the continual escalation of violence.

    But of course, society at large must be governed by the rule of law and we need a police force to enact it, etc. But the use of Violence–‘an act of physical force that causes or is intended to cause harm’ was condemned by Christ when Peter struck the High Priest’s slave, cutting off his right ear He said, “Put away your sword,” Jesus then told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword”

    Before writing the poem below my initial thought prompting me to write it was, can anyone imagine Jesus Christ carrying a gun, never mind using one, dropping a bomb on civilians/soldiers from an aircraft, or sticking a bayonet into anyone, etc? I think not, as we see His disarming action when we approach Him on The Cross and when/if this disarming action is encountered in a real-life situation, it confronts our own values and for a Christian, it should induce humility.

    “Attach bayonets! courage and glory are the cry, do or die
    First over the Parapet
    John leads the Ferocious attack
    While opposing Hans reciprocates the advance to the death dance
    In crater of mud both stood
    Eye met eye one must die
    But who would hold true to the Christian creed they both knew?
    ‘To be’ the sign of the Cross,
    To ‘give’ without counting the cost
    Abandon bayonet, bowed head, bending knee, faith/love the other did see
    Worldly values gone the other in humility now holding the same song/pray.

    Two quotes from another poster on another site, in italics.
    “But it (Violence)must sometimes be used in self-defense” I am sure that we all would respond and defend a loved one or vulnerable person if they were been attacked and attempt to restrain the attacker within the confines of the law and violence could occur but it would not be premeditated. In English law, if a burglar entered your house and in attempting to restrain him, you killed him, you would not be guilty of murder but if you had kept a machete under the bed to use in the possibility of an attempted break-in and you killed the intruder with it, you would be prosecuted for murder as the occurrence would be premeditated. So yes, our intent is the key.

    “According to you we must let Hitler get away with his plan since we cannot fight back”

    Jesus tells us that His kingdom (Values) is not of this world. We are not to be alarmed by wars or rumors of them. And by implication partake in them. Terms such as collateral damage (definition: 1. during a war, the unintentional deaths, and injuries of people who are not soldiers. Are just a cover to justify the premeditated ‘ever-increasing violence’ of war.

    I personally believe that as Christians we cannot fight back with the weapons of the world for to do so is to contribute to the never-ending ‘increasing’ cycles of injustice within war, leading us further into the “Signs of the End of the Age” see Matt 24:1-28 but we can fight back with His teachings on love/truth/justice that are found within the Gospels when we also recognize/embrace the reality of The Cross (The Way the Truth and the life)

    ‘After nearly 2,000 chaotic, planet-destroying years of going our own way (always ‘In His Name’, of course!) isn’t it time, at last, for us to follow Jesus in truth?’

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. Aidan Hart

    I surmise that Pope Francis is going slower in introducing the necessary reforms of the Catholic Church ( married clergy, women priests and deacons, lay involvement at all levels and up to the Vatican itself etc) than he might otherwise wish because he wants, at all costs, to avoid a serious split within the Church, particularly within the American Church and upper levels of their hierarchy. A third Vatican Council might speed things up!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This