Some writers whom I respect greatly have taken the occasion of the papal conclave to express a deep sense of frustration about the direction of the Church. My colleague Julie Hanlon Rubio has a very nice engagement with Paul Elie’s New York Times op-ed, in which he suggests giving up the pews for Lent. Peter Steinfels, whose book A People Adrift remains one of the most informed and rich engagements with the life of the post-Vatican II Church in America, wrote a story in the recent Commonweal, where he suggests:

Between Easter and Pentecost he can deliver the necessary shock therapy. To begin, Pope Novus, as we might call him, should declare that his predecessor’s wisdom in resigning reveals a permanent insight into the realities of a modern papacy. Henceforth, popes will either serve a term of twelve years or resign at the age of eighty-two, the choice depending on each pope’s reading of the church’s needs at the moment. Papal interventions to determine the church’s choice of a successor, something Benedict has adjured but another pope might not, will be formally prohibited.

Because the beginning of a papacy is the opportune time to deal with the delicate question of such transitions, Pope Novus should move to make future conclaves more representative. He might create a new position of “cardinal electors”; their only function would be to vote in a conclave. Cardinal electors would constitute one third of those voting. They would include the heads of the ten largest religious orders. The rest would be chosen biannually—and their names kept in petto—by the presidents of the bishops conferences of each continent. The number of cardinal electors would be proportionate to each continent’s Catholic population. At least half of them would be women. Heads of Vatican offices, although eminently eligible for election to the papacy, would not participate in the conclave unless they had become cardinals while serving as ordinaries.

I want to distinguish two things here. One involves the legitimacy of the frustrations expressed in these pieces. To me, these complaints are largely legitimate, although they can overstated – in historical perspective, the Church, and especially its leadership, have been far more corrupt. The extent to which parishes are filled with conscientious, pastoral priests and conscientious, engaged laity might have astonished people of past ages. None of this is meant to cover over the problems and inadequacies of both clergy and laity, or to suggest some kind of complacency. I think on balance there may be less of a “crisis” than sometimes suggested, but I agree that there are legitimate concerns. The picture is not the rosy “Catholicism 2.0” painted by a piece today in the Huffington Post by George Weigel and Michael Novak. I hope the new pope can foster better governance, and also that he has a pastoral sensitivity to the complex struggle many have with Catholicism today – one neither of simple embrace or refusal.

But what I am more interested in thinking about are the proposed responses to the frustrations. Actions like Elie’s boycott or Steinfels’ radical proposal about expanding cardinal-electors seem odd to me. I don’t see how they get at the real problems. But they also seem to suggest to me a kind of thinking about the nature of the Church that is problematically secular. Because I think Elie and Steinfels are so impressive, I don’t want to overstate this, but I also am more concerned precisely because such well-informed thinkers are making these suggestions. Put simply, the reform suggestions seem drawn directly from the typical playbook of liberal activism. They are precisely the kind of actions we suggest when an authority seems unresponsive, and in particular when they seem unresponsive to a particular segment of their constituency. These seem to be the wrong repertoire of actions for Church reform for exactly this reason, because it is frankly weird for me to think of Church leaders as having a “constituency” or being swayed because they are losing “customers” or “voters.” If you are a Hispanic Republican, and you are frustrated with your party on immigration, absenting yourself may make sense. If you are a disgruntled customer who thinks your cable company gives awful service, cut the cord or threaten to switch providers. But the Church is not a party, government, or company.

Reading Charles Taylor may give us some idea of the disconnect here. Taylor describes one aspect of the “modern social imaginary” as that of a “direct-access society.” By this, he means that premodern societies mediated access to how one belonged to the society, through some kind of hierarchy. But in modern socieities, we take for granted that the ideal is supposed to be “direct access” – I can call up and buy a stock or speak to my representative, simply because I am a part of the society. Taylor writes:

These modes of imagined direct access are linked to, indeed are just different facets of, modern equality and individualism. Directness of access abolishes the heterogeneity of hierarchal belonging. It makes us uniform, and that is one way of becoming equal. … Modern individualism, as a moral idea, doesn’t mean ceasing to belong at all…but imagining oneself as belonging to ever wider and more impersonal entities. (Secular Age, 211)

Taylor describes what this looks like in three further ways. It involves (1) a reliance on impersonal categorical relations regulated by universal laws, rather than informal, personal networks. It involves (2) a flattening of society that he refers to as imagining society “horizontally.” And it involves (3) “intermediate” societies as something separate from this having a voice in society. “Intermediate” associations are not “inter-mediating” in the sense of the term.

Of course, this idea of “direct access” is an ideal, and we often discover that reality doesn’t work this way. But here’s where we turn (rightly) to the repertoire of actions of protest and reform. We try to work against money giving “access” in politics, or we fight against racial or gender discrimination at the polls or in the workplace. We boycott this or that product to “send a message.” All of this is admirable.

It just isn’t the Church. Indeed, Taylor’s whole description of “direct access” society hinges on what he calls “a new understanding of time” that is not woven into “higher time.” There’s no Lenten cycle, no need to access Christ through the Body and Blood. All time is homogeneous, and we have “direct access” to God and to others. It seems to me that belonging to the Church is in fact not about “direct access,” but about participation in a vast, personal network, structured hierarchically, and oriented toward “higher time.”

This is the deeper theological concern I have with the descriptions of Elie and Steinfels: that they have “horizontalized” ecclesiology, and that implicit in that horizontalization is an erasure of anything but a me-and-God spirituality. The whole idea of ecclesial mediation is thrown out. As Taylor says, a “direct access” view doesn’t mean one does not belong or is not concerned about community. But the ultimate reality doesn’t rest on participation in higher time and the network. We all have direct access. As an aside, there are plenty of folks on the conservative side who evidence a very similar attitude, in their partisan identification of certain people and bishops as “right” and the like, and most notably in their ecclesiological individualism about the sacraments and about even the Bishop of Rome. In some sense, Americans are not naturally fitted to the Church, because we are so formed by direct access.

What I would call “the bad habits of direct access” then get put on display whenever there is frustration that one’s “side” lacks access to power. Conservatives so hate the CTSA that most simply stay away, and found parallel “societies.” Liberals are frustrated that basically no one in the college of Cardinals could qualify as a theological liberal, so we should reform the college of Cardinals. All these things strike me as reasonable paths to achieve structural change in a society, but as a significant misunderstanding of what the Church is. I don’t mean the Church is somehow pure, magical, and completely uncorrupt. That would be silly. I mean that the Church is the essential mediator – the sacrament – of Christ. We didn’t get Pope John because there was a big popular uprising of Catholics, nor because we altered the hierarchical procedures. We didn’t even get Vatican II for those reasons – it seems reasonably clear that the majority at the Council was in many ways “ahead” of where the laity were, and perhaps still are. Because I think the “People of God” theology they promoted was centered on the importance of lay holiness. I think we need to think about how holiness – and I don’t mean mere pious actions here – is the alternate mode of direct access that is supposed to be characteristic of the nature of the Church. Holiness is about wholeness, the fullness of mission, the fullness of identity in living out the call of Christ. What is that mission? What does it look like? I’m guessing we’re going to get different answers – but they will be interesting answers, a vigorous conversation worth having.

As we await a new pope, we should be reminded our vote is not the way we “influence” the Church. It is manifesting the holiness described so well in Lumen Gentium (40-41):

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.

The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.