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Thoughts on Popular Revolutions: in Egypt, in South Africa – in the Church

Events in Egypt are dominating the headlines all around the world. It is always dangerous for outsiders to comment too definitively on the internal politics of foreign countries, but inevitably many of us will have thoughts of our own, and will consider the implications for their own countries.  Bill Lindsay’s reflections on this theme at Bilgrimage led to an exchange in the comments between myself and another reader, which I would like to share (and expand on) here. After some specific response to Bill’s post, I reflected on the implications for the Catholic Church:

My own reflections lie in analogy and implications for another autocratic and corrupt empire of an entirely different kind – the Holy Roman one, based in the Vatican, but with global reach and influence. Just like the Egyptian (and Tunisian) people this year, and the East Europeans, South Africans, Ukrainians and Filipinos before them, Catholics will not continue indefinitely to blithely accept control from the top, with no possibility of meaningful input from below.


Vatican control and influence in the lives of Catholics takes a fundamentally different form to the political control in Arab states, and the Catholic revolution will look different. But the principle is the same, and the revolution is most certainly coming – if it has not already begun.

Bilgrimage reader “lokionline” responded with a request for more detail.

Terence, I like your analogy with what is happening in Egypt with the RCC. I tend to agree. Yet, outside of blogs like this one, I despair of any sign of this revolution within the church going members of the RCC itself.

If you have seen these signs, however faint, I would be very grateful if you would point these out.

I cannot even have a conversation about a return to the spirit of Vatican II within my local church or the one my mother still attends. She will not even discuss these things anymore, avowing that the ordinary Catholics like her, don’t care what Rome and the Pope does or what others think; as long as they feel their local church community is relatively strong they are content and don’t really bother themselves with events beyond their own parishes.

There is little or no dialog at the level of the mass-going Catholic outside of community events and programs. As far as they are concerned they ‘are’ the church. Rome and the debates about cultural issues do not concern them, only their own local faith community warrants attention. I am afraid I see none of the signs of revolution or even ‘evolution’ among this group.

This was my response – now slightly expanded, with addition of some links to earlier posts which provide more detail for these observations:

There are several strands to my conclusion. The first part lies in your own observation: that your mother will not even discuss these things anymore, avowing that the ordinary Catholics like her, “don’t care what Rome and the Pope does”. This would have been unthinkable some years ago, but is now routine. It is well established in research that on many areas of church teaching, especially but not only on sexual ethics, ordinary Catholics do not accept and simply ignore Vatican doctrine.

Others are simply walking away from the Church. This is a silent revolution, but nevertheless real and important.

But perhaps the most dramatic sign is the extraordinary trend for several different groups to be simply going ahead and doing things for themselves – DIY Catholicism. We see this in the increasing strength of the womenpriests movement, of numerous “former” priests continuing to offer freelance ministry services (eg for weddings and funerals), the high proportion of priests who ignore their vows of celibacy (in some areas more or less openly), and most dramatically, in some parishes which have simply ignored attempts by their bishops to close the parishes or remove parish priests by simply decamping to secular premises, outside of diocesan control.

As is clearly shown in the picture from Egypt that illustrates this post, even the soldiers have joined the popular movement. Similarly, even within the formal church, the signs are there: in the regular examples of religious women openly disagreeing with the bishops (as in the US health care reform issue), and in the recent major conference of moral theologians, widely described as a new Council of Trent, which was arranged entirely without Vatican intervention, and included participation by clerical and lay theologians of an astonishing range of backgrounds. In Argentina, a group of priests directly opposed the bishops, and spoke out in favour of the bill to recognize all families equally. In Ireland, there is an organised group of priests calling for far-reaching reform. Even at the highest levels, ever since the abuse scandals broke, there have been signs of open dissent and disagreement – muted, but still significant.

As a South African, I have a strong consciousness that the most important factor in the dramatic end to apartheid was that long before the transition became a formal part of public politics, it had already become an established (but unrecognized) fact of life. The old laws had to go, and the resistance movements brought into the open, because for years before, the people had been simply ignoring big swathes of the law.

In the same way, I suspect that in many respects, fundamental change in the Catholic Church is already well under way, in that the balance of power has shifted irrevocably. We just have not yet admitted it publicly.

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