calling the shots in the Vatican?
It’s a question I get
often, usually in the wake of a move people find especially difficult to
understand. The recent decision to elevate four apostolic administrations
in Russia to full dioceses offers a case in point. It enraged the Orthodox
and makes the pope’s desire to visit Moscow more difficult to realize.
How, many wonder, could John Paul do something contrary to his dream of
a church that “breathes with both lungs?”
Consider these other
examples of seeming schizophrenia:
• The September 2000 beatification of Pius IX,
the pope who removed six-year-old Edgaro Mortara from his Jewish family
in 1858, and who re-consigned Roman Jews to their ghetto after briefly
liberating them in1848. Many found the choice difficult to reconcile with
John Paul’s March 2000 visit to Israel, where the pope left behind in the
Wailing Wall a note of regret for Christian anti-Semitism.
• The Vatican’s repeated overtures to mainland
China, including a statement by Archbishop Giuseppe Pittao in October 2001
that the pope is willing to be flexible even on the nomination of bishops,
seem at odds with the October 2000 beatification of Chinese martyrs. That
move irked the government, both because most of the martyrs were missionaries
linked in the communist version of history to colonialism, and because
the ceremony fell on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the birth of the People’s
• A 1998 Vatican commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem,
stating that the invalidity of Anglican ordinations is an infallible teaching,
certainly makes John Paul’s December 1996 gift of a gold pectoral cross
to Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, along with silver pectoral crosses
to his associate bishops, seem a remarkable act. A pectoral cross is the
symbol of a bishop’s office, and if, as the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith insists, Carey and the other Anglicans are not bishops, then
John Paul was in effect guilty of falsifying the sacrament. (I owe this
last observation to Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers).
One can, with the aid
of a little mental gymnastics, offer readings that render these things
consistent. The point is that a papacy concerned with the appearance of
coherency probably would have done things differently.
Some see these tensions
as evidence the pope is losing his grip. I believe the situation is more
complex, with four factors at work.
1. Wojtyla’s Style. No pope can personally
resolve all the questions that face him, and this reality has been amplified
by the administrative style of John Paul II. Cardinal Franz König
of Vienna, one of the electors who propelled Wojtyla to the papacy in 1978,
told me during a 1999 interview that when John Paul came into office he
chose to pursue certain big ideas, and to leave day-to-day management largely
in the hands of his lieutenants. He has pursued this policy ever since.
To take one example,
it is well known that John Paul does not have a keen personal interest
in liturgical questions. (That is not to say liturgy is unimportant to
the pope. Anyone who has ever seen him celebrate Mass up close is struck
by his reverence. But the mechanics of liturgy, as well as its politics,
have never engaged him).
At the moment, the pope’s
two key advisers on liturgy are from very different schools of thought.
Piero Marini, responsible for all the papal liturgies, is a reformer in
line with the post-Vatican II emphasis on participation and inculturation.
Jorge Medina Estévez, on the other hand, head of the Congregation
for Divine Worship, is a more conservative figure, seeking to recover a
bit of Roman-centered traditionalism. Marini’s liturgies often incorporate
practices that, according to Medina, are dubious. (Liturgical dance is
a leading case in point).
Some in the Vatican say
this pluralism is a good thing, a creative tension. Others see it as poor
management. In either case, it is a hallmark of the Wojtyla approach.
2. Age and illness. As the pope becomes
older and weaker, the range of things over which he can exercise personal
attention becomes more narrow. His limits are clear. Today John Paul is
often rolled through the Vatican on a large mobile staircase because he
finds walking taxing. He takes medicine to cope with the symptoms of Parkinson’s
disease, wears hearing aides in both ears at least some of the time, and
uses a laptop lectern in order to steady his shaking hands.
These facts must, of
course, be held in context. John Paul remains intellectually sharp, and
despite occasionally flagging energy and attention, is a good listener.
When he wants to, he can still assert his will, sometimes over the forceful
opposition of some of his subordinates. The Jan. 24 inter-religious summit
in Assisi offers proof.
Yet the pope’s attention
span is more limited, his good hours more precious, and hence the number
of decisions upon which he can expend personal energy is becoming smaller.
3. Competing camps. In English-language
journalism, we have personalized the terms “Vatican” and “Rome,” as if
there is a single being out there called the “Vatican” with a unified intellect
and will. We write phrases such as, “The Vatican wants …”
The truth is that it
is virtually unintelligible to speak about what “the Vatican” thinks or
wants, because there are competing forces inside the place with differing
Relations with the Orthodox
offer a perfect example. Doves inside the Vatican hold that since Catholicism
is the larger, richer, and more powerful branch of the Christian family,
it should always take the first step. Vatican hawks, meanwhile, accuse
the Orthodox of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and oppose allowing them to “dictate
In the dispute over the
new Russian dioceses, the Orthodox have argued that the move signifies
a Vatican desire to proselytize, or make converts, in Russia. What they
conveniently forget to mention is that the Orthodox themselves have bishops
and ecclesiastical structures in places such as Italy, France and England,
obviously not traditional Orthodox “canonical territory.” These structures
are not just for pastoral care of the Orthodox diaspora. Some are receiving
converts. (The February 2002 issue of an Orthodox church bulletin published
in Paris quotes an English Orthodox bishop raving about new Orthodox believers
coming “from all nationalities, origins and cultures.”) To hawks, Orthodox
finger-pointing about Catholic proselytizing thus seems disingenuous.
Part of the inconsistency
of papal policy-making, therefore, is the natural tug-of-war between differing
blocks of opinion.
4. End of the regime. No one knows how
much longer John Paul will serve, but we are nearer the end of his pontificate
than the beginning. That reality generates psychological dynamics that
also breed contradictions.
When a papacy nears the
end, its architects tend to want to nail down its legacy, complete all
its unfinished business. Hence the flow of documents and disciplinary decisions
from offices such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and
the Congregation for Divine Worship becomes more intense. The Council for
the Family, for example, is producing documents at a remarkable pace, in
part because Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo wants them to be on the magisterial
record. (A new treatise on “The Family and Procreation” is now in the pipeline).
At the same time, many
Vatican officials cannot help thinking about the next papal administration.
Because they cannot anticipate what the character of the next pontificate
will be like, the tendency is to gravitate to the center, keeping lines
of communication open.
A classic case of this
dynamic at work: On July 6, 2000, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation
of Legislative Texts issued a document that, for the fourth time under
John Paul II, asserted that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may
not receive the sacraments. Yet just six months later, in January 2001,
German bishops Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper are named cardinals. Both
men in 1993 had signed a very public letter permitting divorced Catholics
to receive the sacraments under certain circumstances, a provision that
was struck down by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Someone obviously felt
a concession to the reform wing was in order, even if the nominations of
Lehmann and Kasper left some observers scratching their heads.
The bottom line is that
Vatican policy will always have its puzzling aspects, and we are entering
a historical moment in which the contradictions seem likely to widen. Perhaps
Catholics can take cheer from Walt Whitman: “I contradict myself? Very
well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
* * *
Someone in the habit
of waiting for other shoes to drop might ponder this point about Russia.
There are thousands of
Greek Catholics on Russian territory, many of whom were exiled to Siberia
under force of Soviet arms from places such as Ukraine. They are so-called
“Eastern rite” Catholics, who follow Orthodox liturgical and theological
traditions but are in union with the pope. At present these Greek Catholics
in Russia have no ecclesiastical structures. Privately, it’s well known
that some of those who show up for Mass at Latin rite churches in Russia
are actually Greek Catholics. Others don’t go to Mass at all, or take part
in local Orthodox liturgies.
Vatican hawks argue that
the Greek Catholics in Russia, like anybody else, have a natural law right
to pastoral care. They hope the Vatican will send an apostolic investigator
to study the problem, who might recommend the creation of a structure such
as an apostolic administration. Doing so would doubtless trigger yet another
eruption in Catholic/Orthodox relations.
The idea faces other
roadblocks as well. Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz, head of the new
Latin rite archdiocese in Russia, is also said to be opposed, because he
doesn’t want his tiny Catholic community further divided.
* * *
Two recent items in the
Italian press illustrate the way media focus on conflict can distort the
reality of the church.
On Feb. 2, a group of
Italian transvestites made their annual pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in
Montevergine, in the south of Italy, home of the Mama Schiavona.
It’s a sanctuary that dates from the pre-Christian era, centered on a mother-protector,
and it’s traditional at carnival time for male devotees to approach the
Madonna dressed as women. Transvestites have long seen in the Mama Schiavona
a sympathetic figure, and some 100 made the trip this year.
During a procession,
a young priest noticed a few of the transvestites simulating what he thought
were sexual acts as they danced, and shouted “shame on you.” The abbot
of the sanctuary then repeated the reproof in a homily. The contretemps
was picked up by local TV, and thus became a scandal. Some accused the
abbot and the church of launching an anti-gay crusade.
To me, the interesting
point is not that a public spat led to hard feelings. It’s rather that
a Catholic shrine and its pilgrims have for years, without incident, tolerated
the participation of transvestites in their annual devotion. Indeed, even
the abbot at the end of this affair confirmed, “We don’t want to expel
The second item is related.
Bishop Pier Giorgio Debernardi of Pinerolo recently declared that one of
his priests, Fr. Franco Barbero, is “no longer in communion with the Catholic
church.” The act was triggered in part by a newspaper article in which
Barbero defended the transvestites of Montevergine.
It turns out that Barbero
has, since 1978, welcomed in his parish gays, lesbians, persons of other
faith communities, and divorced and remarried Catholics. He has officiated
at commitment ceremonies for gay couples. Bernardo was able to offer this
ministry for some 24 years without so much as a nasty note.
Whatever one makes of
the need for discipline when disputes go public, the journalist in me finds
all those years of quiet tolerance at least as newsworthy. What, really,
is “the mind of the church?”
* * *
Recently I wrote in this
space about a Thai bishop, John Bosco Chuabsamai Manat of Ratchaburi, who
has become sympathetic to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, founded
by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I wrote: “He [Manat] was the first
licitly ordained Catholic bishop to speak at a Lefebvrite seminary.”
Several readers pointed
out that aside from the fact that Lefebvre himself was licitly ordained,
at least two other fully licit Catholic bishops have spoken at society
seminaries. They were Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, and Salvador
Lazo of San Fernando de la Union, the Philippines. I am happy to make the
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