e-mail us


A habit of thinking in centuries can be dangerous to our health


One of the hallmarks of Romanitas, the way of seeing the world shared by those who stroll the corridors of power in the Vatican, is the habit of “thinking in centuries.” It means taking the long view of an issue or controversy, a serene self-confidence forged by the Roman imperial heritage and 2,000 years of church history.

Broadly speaking, this “thinking in centuries” can take two forms: one, an unhurried approach above the rattle and hum of contemporary debate; the other, a belief in the sanctity of tradition, which usually means that God favors the status quo.

In its first form, thinking in centuries can be no bad thing. It can foster a calm determination to think through all the dimensions of a problem before acting. It can also allow disputes to be worked out quietly, without wrenching public argument. These are characteristics of good management at any level.

Yet as anyone who has ever needed something from the Vatican will attest, it can also be an excuse for simple inertia. Why tackle a project today, many curial bureaucrats seem to believe, if it can be put off until next year? “Unhurried” can thus be a polite way of saying “lazy.”

This insight helps explain why John XXIII, when asked how many people work in the Vatican, is said to have replied: “About half.”

It is in its second form, however, that thinking in centuries is truly worrisome. The belief that time will always vindicate the system is an invitation to arrogance, a way of insulating oneself from criticism.

To put the point in psychiatric language, this kind of thinking in centuries is a means of compensating for cognitive dissonance: When your world-view collides with reality, you either revise your view or somehow redefine reality. Vatican officials do the latter by basing decisions not on present realities but on an imaginary future rooted in (selectively remembered) past experience.

Don’t worry about the obvious pastoral damage resulting from the refusal to consider ordaining women, for example, or the clamor for local selection of bishops; today’s passion will be tomorrow’s outmoded cliché. That this assumption has sometimes proven disastrously flawed -- leading to, among other things, two great ruptures in the Christian family, the split between East and West and the Protestant Reformation -- is overlooked.

What is especially ironic is that today’s successors of the apostles seem to be repeating a mistake of the first generation of Christian leaders, only in reverse.

The first apostles expected Jesus to return immediately; this view is clear in Paul’s early writings, where he advises Christians to remain as they are and await the coming of the Lord. Paul thought not in centuries but in weeks, even days. While the Vatican seems to expect things to stay pretty much as they are, the earliest Christians anticipated immediate and radical change.

The process of rethinking this belief, interpreting the Second Coming as a more distant reality, is already evident in Paul’s later work. But in the meantime, most of what would become Christianity’s sacred literature was in various stages of composition, shaped by belief in an imminent Parousia.

This false view of time had toxic consequences. The earliest Christian authors developed no systematic social critique -- what was the point if the old order was about to be swept away? It’s clear from reading Paul that he believes Jesus has upset every form of oppression -- “We were baptized into one body with a single spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men.” Yet Paul’s general silence on social change allowed the books ascribed to Paul in the second century -- but not written by him -- to present him as an establishment figure (“slaves, obey your masters”).

Subsequent generations of Christian leaders endorsed, even participated in, systems of power and privilege without feeling they were contradicting any of their religion’s central tenets. Christianity’s social critique lay largely implicit and unspoken until Leo XIII began to tease it out in the late 19th century.

A mistaken view of time, in other words, led the first generation of Christian leaders into a serious omission. If the original apostles could miscalculate in their understanding of what the future would bring, surely it’s conceivable that those who claim succession from the apostles may be similarly off the mark.

Perhaps Vatican officials, without sacrificing any of the wisdom embodied in their legendary caution, could pay a bit more heed to the signs of our times.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s opinion editor. He may be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999