End of the Empire

Over the weekend, Pope Francis announced that he would no longer be granting the title of "Monsignor" to priests under the age of 65.  Basically, it appears that the title will now be some kind of lifetime achievement award, as opposed to a feather in the cap of parish priests.  As the sun rises in the East, some of the more conservative elements have taken to criticizing this move, arguing that the Littles in the pews like it when their priest gets a fancy title, or accusing the Pope of iconoclasm.

In and of itself, this move means more or less nothing.  I have never met anyone who actually thought that the title means anything, except perhaps the careerist priests that seem to be the target of this change.  The careerist will always be with us, no matter how many baubles you get rid of for them to chase.

There are, however, psychological and symbolic reasons why I think this announcement is very good news for the Catholic Church.  Let's take a moment and break down the title for a minute--Monsignor is Italian for "My Lord."  Perhaps you have noticed, but there aren't many Lords running around.  Only the Brits really have them--everyone else has recognized that the notion that one person has certain privileged derived exclusively from a hierarchical, non merit-based office is at best hopelessly archaic, and at worst in open contradiction to the values of modern societies.  We don't have Lords because we do not organize ourselves on that basis any longer, and save for a fringe few (who, in all likelihood, would be the ones to benefit from those titles) we agree that this is a good thing.

So, why should we still have that concept in the Catholic Church?  Is it proper to refer to a priest, or anyone else in the service of God, as a Lord?  Is that the kind of values we want to be communicating?  Even if the person granted the title of Monsignor is the most humble and least careerist person imaginable, I still would say it sends a bad message for there to even be such a position.

There is more to this than simply the discrete title of Monsignor.  This has to do with the way in which Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has absorbed the trappings and values of the soil out of which it grew--the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire was a vast, multicultural enterprise, which needed strong forces of unity and centralization to keep the natural centrifugal forces at bay.  Roman military power was certainly a key lever, as was Roman trade and Roman infrastructure.  But another key component was civil religion

Christianity came of age in the context of the Roman Empire.  For the first 300 years of its history, it was attempting to survive in the face of persecution from that Empire, while it sought to preach to those who were part of the fabric of life of that same Empire.  With the revolution of Constantine in the early 4th Century, the script was flipped, and it quickly became the dominant religion of the Empire, and a key part of the political landscape.  It explicitly incorporated Roman terms and concepts into the faith--the title "Pontifex" ("bridge-builder") for the Pope was originally used for Caesar, a basilica was originally a Roman government building, etc.  For the next 1600 years, Christianity set about, explicitly or implicitly, to create a spiritual version of the Roman Empire, whether in parallel with its political counterpart, or instead of it.

In doing so, the values of Rome became the values of Christianity, at least institutional Christianity.  Try this thought experiment.  Think about the institutional church, and come up with a list of values that the institutional church represents.  I suspect you will find that many of those words come directly from Latin terms--order ("ordo"), uniformity ("uniformitas"), stability ("stabilitas"), hierarchy (also "ordo"), authority ("authoritas").  It's not an accident.

Rome, and all of the pretenders to the mantle of Rome, have passed away in the civil sphere.  But the idea of Rome still lives within the Christian religion.  The notion of civil religion, and even the notion that Christianity should be concerned with the civil state, is an unchallenged premise among the religion Right (and, in a different way, among much of the religious Left, too).  The centralized, top-down, autocratic model of leadership remains part of the fabric of Christian governance--that, too, is a legacy of Rome and its descendants.

None of this, by the way, is limited to the "Roman" Catholic Church.  The Orthodox Churches are just as "Roman" in this respect.  Ironically, so are a whole bunch of Protestant churches--a celebrity pastor running a megachurch is an emperor in his own sphere.  Nor is it limited to so-called "conservative" churches--here's what appears to be an example in the liberal Episcopal Church of top-down governance that has people upset.

So, where does all of this leave us?  Whenever this topic comes up, it usually devolves into a debate over "Constantine--good or bad?"  I think that is unhelpful, and in any event beside the point.  Good or bad, it happened, and its effects still linger in the Christian Church.  The real question is whether the legacy of Empire, and the Empire-builders, is helpful or harmful to the Christian message in 2014.  Because, if it is harmful, then we as Christians need to act to shed those harmful bits, lest the truth of the Christian message becomes obscured and compromised by the remnants.  As Pope Francis recently said, we must be sure that we do not vaccinate people against hearing what Jesus has to say.

To put it another way:  I am very confident that Christianity is still highly relevant in the second decade of the 21st Century.  I am far less confident, and in fact somewhat skeptical, that these trappings of Empire--what used to be called "Christendom"--are still relevant.  And, if they are not, we need to take a serious and sober look at what needs to be jettisoned.

Ending the practice of calling certain priests "My Lord" is not the answer to this difficult question.  But, it seems like a step in the right direction.


jimbo said…
Doesn't your post assume that it is possible to meaningfully separate Christianity from the "trappings of empire"? Doesn't that completely ignore the doctrinal influence that "the empire" had on Christianity? If one wished to honestly lessen the effects of "empire" on Christian teachings, why not start with a reevaluation of the heretical gospels, which were excluded from Scripture only because of the imperial tendencies of the early church?
MPLichtman said…
I think it is similar to term limits on legislators. You don't want someone to just stay in the job forever. It also relates to Pope Francis' focus on the real mission of the Catholic Church, rather than building a better hierarchy. His spiritual values are in the elimination of "show."

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