In 2003, when The Da Vinci Code first appeared, a University classmate pressed a
copy of it into my hand, saying: "You must read this. It totally blows the
lid off the Catholic Church."
Of course it did no such thing. The only lasting effect was that, for years afterwards, I believed Opus Dei were fictional. But my long-term immunity to Dan Brown's conspiracy-weaving was no reflection on the quality of his work. My militant atheism, my personal politics and—perhaps first among these—my Scots-Irish cultural Calvinism all furnished me with a deep, unexamined reserve of anti-Catholic feeling. I would not have considered myself anti-anybody in those days; or, perhaps more accurately, anti-anybody-worth-respecting. I had been raised in an egalitarian, socialist-minded family and had lived in several countries. I even had a Catholic grandparent. How could my credentials be less than sound, my antipathies anything but reasoned? I read Dan Brown not with the thrill of discovery, but with the quiet satisfaction of the complacent sectarian. All religious institutions were suspicious, the Vatican especially so. Nothing he had to say about it could surprise me.
Now, in 2014, my politics have not changed and neither has my culture. Only my theology has morphed—unexpectedly but unarguably—towards Catholicism. I have a patron saint, a Jesuit spiritual director and a new, tentative habit of prayer. I have, after considerable argument with myself and others, begun to construct a grown-up relationship to the troublesome aspects of social doctrine. But it takes more than a few years in the messy and diverse world of everyday pastoral Catholicism to undo generations of inherited memory. My old convictions lie low beneath the skin, and the Vatican—even with kind, canny Francis at its head—still looms in shadow form somewhere at the back of my imagination, a great baroque storehouse for every disturbing or unpleasant thing I encounter along the way. I suspect that only time and experience will fully dispense with this old habit of mind; but reading Quo Vadis, Mary McAleese's short but comprehensive work on collegiality in the code of canon law, has done much to hasten the process.
What McAleese presents is neither an apology nor a manifesto, but a study. The body of the work (which originated as a Masters thesis) is devoted to a detailed analysis of the treatment of collegiality in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. This might seem like a dry topic and, at times, it is: the academic approach makes it a difficult read for the canon law novice. But persistence pays off. In choosing collegiality—patchily invoked in Code and Council and never adequately defined in either—as her focus, McAleese cuts directly to the heart of church governance. Collegiality, or the lack of it, proves to underlie some of the greatest concerns regarding the church's relationship with its Head, with its bishops, cardinals and priests, with religious communities and with the faithful: transparency, accountability, participation, communication.
Quo Vadis was published in 2012, a year before Francis' election, but the chapter on the Second Vatican Council in particular presents irresistible parallels to the present day. The thirst for reform in some quarters and the fear of it in others; the way a simple gesture, the opening of a dialogue or the raising of a question, could provoke (over)optimistic enthusiasm and visceral, reactive opposition all at once. This mix of heightened expectation, acute anxiety and the tendency, on all sides, to leap from limited and immediate reform to a paradisiacal or apocalyptic future complicated the proceedings of the Council, and it can only be familiar to those who have watched Francis' early papacy with any degree of engagement. The Vatican II narrative that emerges here is one of a reforming process limited and hampered by the choice of "safe" ambiguity over clear, but potentially divisive decision-making. At best, it is an interrupted reform; at worst, a dead one. At a time in which a single pastoral phone call from the Pope can spark a wildfire of panicked media speculation about the wholesale abandonment of Church teachings, it is sobering to read.
The Church of Quo Vadis is not one that can easily be fixed, but neither is it Dan Brown's dream. Though relatively simple in concept, it is infinitely complex in practice. The gaps in its structure allow for the possibility of useful and appropriate reform, but they also allow for inconsistency and a lack of oversight, and this in turn can have disastrous, life-altering consequences: as ongoing investigations into clerical abuse have shown. To mythologise the Vatican, to make it a faraway dark Otherwhere, does not only cancel out hope. It also neutralises real problems by rendering them safely otherworldly, the product of distant quasi-supernatural forces. Quo Vadis is an excellent antidote.