ALTHOUGH Roman Catholics constitute the largest single religious community in the world and embrace nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population, relatively few people are aware of the prolonged, slow-motion coup that has been under way in the church since the election of Pope John Paul II in October 1978.
Although no phone lines have been cut and no one has been placed under house arrest, it is a coup nonetheless, fueled by the ideology and resentment of the defeated minority at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and its heirs.
This coup is comparable in shape and intent to the coup that so recently failed in Moscow. Ecclesiastical hard-liners, fearful of the loss of power and privilege, are attempting to reverse the new, progressive course set by Pope John XXIII and his council.
That course antedated by some 25 years the process that Mikhail Gorbachev set in motion in the Soviet Union: a restructuring of the Catholic church (perestroika) and a throwing open of the windows to let in some fresh air (glasnost) -- to use one of John XXIII's favorite expressions.
But the bureaucrats and their allies within the Catholic church opposed Pope John's program of renewal and reform just as their ideological soul mates have opposed it in the Soviet Union.
At Vatican II they actively resisted the decentralization of power from Rome to the local churches (called collegiality), just as the Soviet putschists resisted the shift of power from the center to the republics.
At Vatican II they opposed outreach to non-Catholics (ecumenism), just as the Soviet apparatchiks opposed the thawing of relationships with the West.
At Vatican II they rejected the principle of religious freedom, just as the Soviet hard-liners rejected the new freedoms accorded the media, intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike.
The intent of the coup in the Catholic church, as in the Soviet Union, is counterreformation and restoration, a reversal of the reforms of Vatican II and a restoration of the authoritarian and provincial Catholicism of the 1950s.
The elements of this counterreformation include:
* The disciplining of theologians (criticism cannot be tolerated);
* The reinstatement of loyalty oaths;
* The rejection of the legitimate aspirations of women and an indifference to their experience;
* The pullback on ecumenism, the imposition of a doctrinally narrow universal catechism that religious educators didn't ask for, don't need and can't use;
* The downplaying of the church's ministry to the poor and the politically oppressed (reflected in the Vatican's abiding anxiety over liberation theology and its tepid response to the murders in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four churchwomen in 1980, and of the six Jesuits in 1989)
* And, in particular, the packing of the hierarchy all over the world with institutional hard-liners.
Many similar elements were at work in the failed Soviet coup of last August: The reactionary officials ("patriots of an endangered order," one reporter called them). The censorship. The search for enemies. The reimposition of a party line. The appeal to the glories and greatness of another time and the attempt at restoration.
But the coup will fail in the Catholic church over the long term for the same reasons that it failed so abruptly in the Soviet Union.
It will fail, first, because history cannot be reversed. The struggle within the Catholic church between reformers and reactionaries is not a struggle between two different views of the future -- a crucial point about the Soviet coup made by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The struggle within the Catholic church is between the future and the past.
Second, the Catholic coup will fail because of the widening gap between the hierarchy of the church and its rank-and-file membership. As Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze observed, the Soviet coup failed because the coup plotters did not understand that "the years of perestroika had rid [the people] of fear. . . . And since [the people] were different and [the hard-liners] had remained the same, they could not conquer" the people in the end.
That is also the case in the Catholic church. The people have changed; the leadership, by and large, has not. The pope and his appointees may want to go back, but the majority of the people do not.
This Catholic coup will fail, third, because it is predicated on the astonishingly naive assumption that outmoded authoritarian structures can be resuscitated and sustained within a large, multicultural, international body like the Catholic church. But authoritarian structures are collapsing everywhere, from Albania to Zambia. They are a thing of the past, not of the future.
As the struggle for freedom and self-determination continuous to move inexorably forward, the world's holdouts are a diminishing lot -- Fidel Castro and the butchers of Tiananmen Square, for example.
The Vatican should be in better company.
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and former chairman of its theology department, has written extensively on matters relating to the Catholic church.