Why the Catholic Church Can Never Be Reformed

Gregory Paul

In the wake of the 2001 Boston Globe exposures that did the most to uncover the depth of the Catholic pedophile scandals, many imagined that the issue would recede with time. That is not happening. Instead, increasing numbers of governments are mounting large-scale investigations into incidents of abuse within their borders, and the Church of Rome has proven persistently unable to address the problem fully, even under the often over-vaunted reformer Pope Francis. In the wake of this relentless series of scandals and cover-ups—encompassing not only sex but vast financial scams involving underworld elements and assorted other abuses committed by Catholic clergy—there have been similarly relentless calls from outside and from within the Church for the world’s oldest, largest Christian organization to belatedly reform itself to meet modern institutional standards of self-control and ethics.

Understandable as such demands are, they are profoundly naive. Most who call for reform are simply too ignorant of the Catholic Church’s core structure to understand that it is abjectly impossible for the Church of Rome to engage in the radical internal changes true reform would demand. It simply cannot make the required changes and at the same time remain the Catholic Church.

Here’s why the required internal improvements would so dramatically alter the nature of the church that it would become a different organization.

According to its doctrine, the Catholic Church is the first and only true Christian church. The argument for this claim runs as follows:

  • Jesus not only did exist but was the actual Son of God—and part of the Holy Trinity, the god that created our universe.
  • Among his Twelve Apostles, Peter was assigned a special position by Jesus, and he became the first Bishop of Rome, in other words, the first pope.
  • All popes since Peter have been selected in a direct line of descent under a constant stream of papal authority that derives directly from Jesus who is God.
  • It follows that the Catholic Church is the Mother Church and that therefore all other Christian sects are lesser if not errant institutions, because they lack the Mother Church’s direct connection to Jesus/God.
  • Because all popes derive their authority from the Creator himself, the clergy enjoys Divine Rule.

The Roman Catholic Church is therefore foundationally an autocracy in which the laity has no direct ability to help control church policy through democratic means. That is because if non-clerics take any substantive role in governing the organization, then it will be under the direction, at least in part, of the whims of popular opinion, not the perfect dictates of the one ideal god. Lay church members can request changes, but the clergy is entirely free to ignore their petitions—and that is usually what they do, their purpose being to carry out the will of God, not that of his subjects who must submit to divine authority.

It is a logical system in the sense that if Jesus were a real entity who was and is the one Perfect Lord God and so forth, then there would be no room for democratic action by his mere mortal creations. That the Roman Catholic Church is the only church that can even begin to make such an amazing claim of divine authorship is one reason many Catholics stick by the establishment even while they recoil at its perfidies.

Because Jesus/God was a guy, and all his disciples were men, it is clear that God wants only males as clergy. It follows that the Roman Church is a strict patriarchy in which women need not apply for divine sway. Obviously, this is an ethical disaster waiting to happen. To have a collection of men ruling via alleged divine autocracy that is almost certainly fictional—without any direct democratic contribution from ordinary folks, women included—is an ideal recipe for producing horrid results on a regular basis.

This is not mere theory; it is hard fact. As Karen Liebreich explained in a recent Washington Post essay, clerical sex scandals go back centuries—actually, clear back to the Roman Empire. Up into the late 1900s, the church operated an archipelago of de facto slave-work complexes for wayward youth, an often-deadly travesty exposed in the 2002 motion picture The Magdalene Sisters. Even that was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Much as the global public did not really catch onto the scale of the sex scandals until the turn of this century, most remain unaware of the depths to which the church and its Vatican Bank immersed themselves in financial depravity, including twisted alliances with major organized-crime elements. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II were deeply involved in this corruption, as has been well documented in the mainstream press (for a quick orientation, check out Gerald Posner’s book God’s Bankers). Nor are earlier popes blameless. Yours truly in the pages of Free Inquiry detailed how the Roman Catholic Church helped put Hitler into power (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” in two parts, FI October/November 2003 and December 2003/January 2004).

Some optimists dare to hope that Catholicism can retain its dictatorial core structure while somehow improving its level of ethical performance. But this flies in the face of human nature; to expect this is naive to the point of recklessness. For the Church to achieve any dramatic improvement, it will need to do the two things that are absolutely necessary to achieve normal standards of decency:

  • Adopt a strong democratic component and
  • Integrate women into the clergy.

Here’s the problem with that.

For the Catholic Church to change in this way would mean that it was no longer run on the sole authority of the creator of the planet and the Church. The command of the pope that stems directly from the Perfect God would no longer be full; it would be contaminated with strands of defective popular opinion. The Mother Church would no longer be the Mother Church; the Roman Catholic Church would no longer be the Catholic Church. It might retain the name, but it would in effect be just another Protestant sect with its operations directed at least in part by its lay members.

This is a core reason many conservative Catholics oppose real reform. They grasp that, after such changes, no Christian church would then be able to claim direct and full authority from Jesus.

And they are right about that.

Therefore, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s did not change the basic structure of the church, for doing that would have effectively established a new church. Today, meaningful reform will still, and inevitably, have the same outcome.

So, Catholics have two stark choices:

  • Remain the Mother Church and, if one is mature about it, expect big scandals to continue;
  • Or remake the institution so radically via nonsexist democratization that it can no longer claim the full authority of the alleged creator.

Were this to happen, it would fall to the status of a humbler and more human institution and (one hopes) tamp down on the scandals that human organizations are heir to.

Gregory Paul

Gregory S. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010).


In the wake of the 2001 Boston Globe exposures that did the most to uncover the depth of the Catholic pedophile scandals, many imagined that the issue would recede with time. That is not happening. Instead, increasing numbers of governments are mounting large-scale investigations into incidents of abuse within their borders, and the Church of …

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