Q) How long have you been writing about the Catholic Church?
A) Since 1962, when Time magazine sent me to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. That gave me a front row seat on one of the most significant events in the history of religion. I watched as the delegates at Vatican II tried to bring the Church “up to date” —to rethink many of the things that 20th century Catholics had always taken for granted, and then work out a new charter for what I call a “people’s Church.” For four years, the Church had a high, world-wide credibility as the Fathers of the Council tried to make the Church less Roman and more catholic, less a Church of laws and more a Church of love.
Q) How did the idea for A Church in Search of Itself come about?
A) In the fall of 1999, when it looked like the pope’s health was failing, I got a Rome assignment from Newsweek along with a book contract from Knopf to cover the drama of John Paul II’s demise and the election of his successor. I soon found out that Church politics was trashing Vatican II’s vision of a people’s Church. I started looking for cardinals coming to the next conclave willing to revise the revisionists.
Q) Your work looks more like a book on politics than a book about religion.
A) Yes, it analyzes the politics of power that’s a fact of life in every organization, even in the Church. It’s also a book about the condition of the Church that John Paul II left behind. And, on a third level, it’s a blueprint for some radical changes the Church at large is already making.
Q) What kind of Church did John Paul II leave behind?
A) If you take a global view, you’d have to say this thousand-year-old system is crumbling.
Q) A thousand-year-old system? Wasn’t the Church founded two thousand years ago?
A) I am not talking about faith in Jesus, something apparently as strong as ever, and growing in the least likely places. I am talking about the papal absolutism that was set up in the eleventh century. In 1086, claiming “divine authority,” Pope Gregory VII set up a rigid system, one that may even be more rigid today. For centuries, after the so-called Gregorian Reform, Catholics selected their own bishops in one way or another, sometimes by nomination of the prince or the king, sometimes by a vote of the people, or the priests. John Carroll, the first American bishop, was elected in 1789 by the new nation’s priests. It wasn’t until 1829 that Pope Pius VIII began to centralize everything in Rome. He started appointing all the bishops, making all the laws, interpreting all the laws, enforcing all the laws, and handling all the appeals. Now, popes don’t seem to understand the word “accountability,” and they give a bad example for the world’s bishops, and many priests, too. Many of them feel they are unaccountable.
People don’t like this. Many American churches are half-empty. Few young people attend church, and even fewer young women. They don’t trust their bishops, who rule from the top down in a bottom-up kind of world, most of the time badly, and in secret. Catholics are falling away from the faith of their fathers, not because they disagree with the Church’s faith-doctrines, but because the Church’s politics don’t make much sense. When the Vatican sneers at phrases like “democracy in the Church” and “women’s rights,” it loses its most well-educated members.
Q)In 1999, you went back to Rome on assignment from Newsweek magazine. What did you find there?
A)I met a number of cardinals–the men who would vote for a new pope to succeed John Paul II–and found a few inside headquarters who had some vision of a Vatican II-style, accountable Church. Then I traveled to other parts of the world, and found prelates open to change who would more likely favor a papal candidate who might make the Church more of a servant Church to its people, and to the world at large. More importantly, I found a good many other Catholics who were creating a more vital Church on their own, without waiting for Rome, the pope, or their bishop to tell them what to do. I used them to set up a great drama in my book about the changing of the guard in the Church, with the people on one side representing a party of change, and the clerics on the other side who had a personal stake in the status quo.
Q) In the book, you profile six cardinals on the way to the conclave to vote for a new pope. What was the reason for including them, and what do you say about them?
A) I wanted to show that the Church is so different in its various enculturations in different parts of the world, yet consistent with its message of Jesus Christ. In each chapter, I introduce a variety of people whose actions suggest different ways of “being Church”–North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Asian Catholics, I found, are much more open to those of other religions. They’ve learned to live with, and learn from, their Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim neighbors, without thinking they need to fear them, or convert them.
Q) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, is one of those six cardinals. Did you see him as a probable successor to John Paul II?
A) As the Vatican’s chief heresy-hunter, Ratzinger was the most prominent and articulate spokesman for the forces of no-change in the Church, perhaps even more conservative than Pope Paul II. I never thought the conclave would choose him. I imagined the conclave would do battle over a host of divisive issues that had been put on hold during the very conservative reign of John Paul II. As it turned out, there was no battle. 89 of the 115 cardinal-electors (all but two of them appointed by John Paul II) would go along with the candidacy of Joseph Ratzinger, who promised them the same kind of Church favored by John Paul.
Q) What can you tell us about the priest-sex-scandal in the United States?
A) Under John Paul II, the men in the Vatican tried to deny it. First they said it was just a story concocted by the secular press. When they couldn’t deny it any longer, they said it was an American problem, and ordered an investigation of the American seminaries, with a particular focus on candidates for the priesthood who were gay. In the process, they scapegoated a great many priests who were gay, but faithful and chaste.
Q) How do American Catholics get an accountable Church?
A) They shouldn’t leave it. We all need to bring updated answers to the basic question that faces every family (and every organization): “Who’s in charge, and how will they exercise their authority?” American Catholics need to make a move toward an autochthonous Church.
Q) What is an authochthonous church?
A) Autochthony, pronounced “aw-TOCK-thu-knee,” is an ancient model of Church governance. It describes churches loyal to the pope that glory in their own governance, their own married clergy, and their own liturgies. The pope has the power to approve such churches. Autochthony doesn’t mean autonomy. It means local control. It’s a way for American Catholics to take back their church.
Q) How can autochthony work in America?
A) Some American Catholics are pushing now for a national synod (or convention) in order to write a charter for a democratic Church. The delegates could follow a U.S. constitutional model–a three-part government: an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. They could call for the popular election of two parliamentary bodies–a Senate of Bishops and a House of Commons. They could call for an elected president (or executive board), and a judiciary appointed with the advice and consent of both houses.
Q) What will this accomplish?
A) It will give the people a sense of ownership, as well as a sense of citizenship. Once Americans have the right to vote in the Church, they will feel like first-class citizens with a voice they can exercise, not on questions of doctrine, but on questions of discipline. Once they have this power, the churches will fill up again.
Q) Is this likely to happen?
A) Never underestimate the power of public opinion. The people’s Church is on the march. I know some American bishops willing to see how they can create the kind of Church their people demand. They hope Rome will listen and grant that permission. If Rome doesn’t, there could be a battle, part of a drama that will unfold as American Catholics try to grow up American.
Q) What is your next book about?
A) I’m writing a novel that shows an American cardinal-archbishop leading the American Church into autochthony at the Fourth Council of Baltimore in 2008. It’s an imaginative foreshadowing of the next step in the natural evolution of our Church. The characters are everyday people, fighting for new possibilities in a people’s Church.
From the Hardcover edition.