02Mar Robert Mickens reflects on the troubles of Catholicism

As preparations begin for the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the  Second Vatican Council, leaked documents have revealed inside the Roman Curia a series of scandals. But the troubles of Catholicism go well beyond them.  

   St Peter’s Basilica echoes with the sound of horns and trumpets blasting from the upper balcony as the Sistine Chapel choir sings a muscular version of Palestrina’s Renaissance classic, Tu es Petrus. Applause erupts as Pope Benedict XVI suddenly appears at the approach of the church’s long central nave.

He is a flash of gold – from the pastoral cross in his left hand and the large Fisherman’s Ring on his right, to the tall, heavily embroidered mitre on his head. The several thousand worshippers cheer him, straining their necks and cameras to capture an image of the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Papal footmen in white gloves and morning coats facilitate their efforts by slowly wheeling the Pope down the aisle on an elevated platform.

He is about to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving just a day after presiding over one of the most colourful and pageant-filled events in theVatican’s ceremonial repertoire, a consistory to create new “Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church”.

It is the fourth time in his nearly seven years in the Chair of Peter that Pope Benedict has held this millennium-old ceremony, this time creating 22 new cardinals. And despite the Second Vatican Council’s attempt nearly half a century ago to purify the Church of its worldly and court-like accretions, these men are still commonly known as “Princes of the Church”.

“After the council, the good news was that triumphalism in the Church was dead;’ neo- Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York insisted in a closed-door meeting just a couple of days earlier with his new confreres, But the ceremonies this past weekend, which Pope Benedict has described as a “particularly festive moment” for the Vatican, suggested otherwise. The Pope and his cardinals – indeed everyone in St Peter’s Basilica – seemed impervious to this contradiction. And for a brief moment, caught up in the excitement of the liturgies and receptions, they also appeared not to notice that the Catholic Church in almost all parts of the world is in crisis.

The problems are no more evident than at the heart of the Vatican itself. In the weeks preceding the consistory, some of its more acute troubles were made public through a series of embarrassing secret documents from within the Roman Curia that were leaked to the Italian media. These letters and notes –  all of which have proved to be authentic –  portray the Church’s central offices as being run by ambitious men jockeying for power in a sealed-off world shrouded by secrecy, political intrigue, financial corruption and gross mismanagement.

First, there was the case of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a lifelong papal diplomat, who was transferred last autumn from his job as “deputy governor” of Vatican City to nuncio to the United States.

For months he had protested vehemently against this change of post, saying it would be seen as a punishment for trying to clean up “corruption” and cronyism inside the Vatican.

His letters to the Pope and the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, highlighted a squalid side of the Roman Curia. The Governorate responded swiftly and in detail, describing the archbishop’s charges as either misjudgement or paranoia.

Next came a series of memos revealing that the so-called VaticanBank (officially the Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR)  had found loopholes to exonerate it from full compliance with the newly adopted international money-laundering regulations. One document reported that the IOR had recently transferred millions of euros into Italian bank accounts without notifying the proper authorities. Another, signed by the cardinal in charge of theVatican’s newly formed agency to monitor all such cash flow, complained that such reneging on financial regulations would be disastrous. Again, the Secretariat of State denied the charges, but did not contest the authenticity of the material.

Finally, there was a strange letter warning that Pope Benedict would die before next autumn (some interpreted this as an assassination plot). The text also claimed that the Pope was “on the outs” with Cardinal Bertone and was working to ensure that Cardinal Angelo Scola Milan succeeded him as Bishop of Rome. The anonymous letter, written in German, blamed Cardinal Paolo Romeo ofPalermofor revealing this information in conversations last autumn while visitingChina. The letter was sent to retired Cardinal Dario Castrill6n   oyos, who gave it to the Pope.Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, called its contents “nonsense”, but no one contested its authenticity.

Vatican officials say the most serious aspect to this latest mess is the fact that secrecy, long coveted as a virtue in the Roman Curia, has given way to indiscretion and public disclosure. They believe these incidents are part of an inside campaign by forces (likely to be loyal to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Secretary of State) to embarrass and discredit the leadership of Cardinal Bertone so as to leave the Pope with no choice but to replace him.

What no senior Vatican official seems willing to admit or able to grasp is that there may be something more serious going on. Certainly, there have been other moments of governing crises and lapses in the last few decades – and each time they were overcome. Each time also, as calls arose for change, the Pope would state that true church reform could only come about by “spiritual renewal” and “internal conversion’: It is a conviction that Pope Benedict has repeated many times, including this past weekend to the College of Cardinals. While Popes Paul VI and John Paul 11 made modest “reforms” to the Roman Curia, they failed to address the lingering and deeper crisis.

Quite simply, the crisis is this: the structures of the Catholic Church are no longer adequate for life in the modern world or responsive to the developments of the Church’s own ecclesiology and self-understanding. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins,” warns the gospel. “Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins:’

The “new wine” that came forth from the Second Vatican Council – the rediscovery of episcopal collegiality and shared governance between the Pope and the bishops, the awareness of the Church being a communio of all the baptised, the full participation of the laity in the liturgy and the mission of the Church – risks being lost because the post-conciliar Church has not been able to provide “new wineskins” or new structures to sustain such a kind of Church. The skins have not yet burst, but there are signs of them springing leaks, which the men in Rome are struggling to plug. One glaring example makes the point. Despite the council’s teaching on shared episcopal responsibility, the lack of structural changes means that the Bishop of Rome continues to hold absolute power in a governing system akin to a male-only monarchy. This model is foreign to the living experience of the vast majority of Catholics, even the clerics who come to work in the Roman Curia from across the globe or hold positions of authority in the Church around the world. The case of Australia’s deposed Bishop William Morris was a reminder that supreme authority rests with the Pope and that he can take away a bishop’s authority at any moment and for any reason. As supreme lawgiver, he can deny justice or treat another bishop as a subject rather than a confrere, because – as canon 1404 states “the First See is judged by no one”.

In about eight months’ time, the Church will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the moment in the Church’s history when the institution embraced the belief in itself as a communio, in which the members shared an equal dignity as “priest, prophet and king” through the conferral of baptism. That some should be ordained to further service and responsibility in the community is essential, but that the rest (especially the female half of its embers) should be completely denied a voice in how that community is organised is contrary to Scripture and common sense.

Vatican 11 placed new emphasis on ancient principles, but there is grave concern now that the unwillingness to modify church structures dating from the Tridentine era, or create new ones, will make it difficult for the Church today to fulfil the wishes and prayers of the
council fathers. Could the fiftieth anniversary be, rather than a celebration of aggiornamento, or updating, a time of mourning lost opportunity?


Robert Mickens

The Tablet 28 February 2012


8 Responses

  1. Peadar

    The attitude of the cheering crowds in St Peter’s is what we call normal. People love pageantry, and there is nothing wrong with it. Jesus accepted the strewn clothes and shouts of Hosanna, just as he accepted the “waste” of precious ointment, and wore a seamless garment, an expensive piece of clothing in the day. It is, as I say, normal to be lavish and exuberant in praise of God, and of his Vicar on earth. What is not normal is the odd attitude of Mr Mickens. It is the strange, and now totally outmoded, approach of the 1960s liberal. It is totally out of touch with popular reality. It is closed up in its own bizarre cocoon. And, I think, it is dying out.

  2. Eddie Finnegan

    S.C.V.: Stato Cittá Vaticano. Se Cristo Vedesse!
    But I guess they’re only upholding Tradition – Borgia tradition.

  3. Martin

    The richness, the pomp, and the ceremony are very good. Catholicism is a lively, vibrant, incarnational religion. We are not ashamed or embarrassed in the face of beauty and adornment. The Vicar of Christ is rightly adorned with the light of Christ in his vestments and attire. It would be a very sad day when all the costumes are put away. Beside, ought the Pope go about in a shirt and tie, or perhaps t-shirt and jeans? Catholics aren’t doom and gloom merchants, nor complainers. I see little optimism in this piece by Mr Mickens. On the contrary, Catholics are naturally filled with hope, a theological virtue.

  4. Eddie Finnegan

    “But what went ye out to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in the courts and palaces of kings.”

    You’re right, Martin. Let’s not be skinflints. A bit of pomp and circumstance never did us a bit of harm. And whoever said a Pontifex Maximus Romanus had to dress like an OT prophet. That’d be just plain silly, or rather plain and possibly silly. Why should the Devil have all the best tunes, or even the flashiest gear? It’d be a poor day if a pope couldn’t get into his best glad rags for a Te Deum to celebrate a Battle of the Boyne, or a Tu Es Petrus for this “particularly festive moment” of creating 9 new Italian, 16 European and 3 North American popemakers out of 22. (Forget for a moment that catholic used mean universal – after all 67 of all the 125 popemakers are European, and 30 Italian.) And if the Devil can wear Prada, why not the Pope too – and a touch of Gucci and Versace thrown in for bling, so long of course as Casa Gamarelli has its monopoly on the main outfits. If only Denis Guiney in 1940 had had the good sense to set up Clerys Clerical on the Via della Conciliazione instead of O’Connell St, Ireland would have cleaned up on all those papal and cardinatial zucchetti and mozzette, watered silk cappae magnae and lambswool pallia not to mention all the gay galeros. We’d have been in clover and Eamon Gilmore wouldn’t have a leg to stand on as far as the Villa Prada’s economic return to the State goes.

    Robert Mickens wasn’t really getting worked up about that spot of papal pageantry – he was just clearing his throat. Nevertheless, Peadar and Martin, the papal and cardinatial regalia has little enough to do with the strewn garments of Palm Sunday or Good Friday’s seamless robe; much more to do with the gorgeous apparel of those who lived delicately in the courts and palaces of medieval kings and renaissance princes.
    When Cardinal Ratzinger reminded his fellows, on the eve of the 2005 conclave, about the filth in the Church, maybe they shouldn’t have just been thinking of what elevated churchmen usually identify as filth and pollution in the lower orders of clergy and laity. Maybe they should have concentrated for starters on what we in the lower orders might see as good old-fashioned greed, corruption, simony, in-fighting for patronage and place-seeking preferment among the Church’s great and not-so-good. They could have kicked off their conclave or their consistory by asking: why does a civil servant, doing a deacon’s job, have to be a Prince of the Church ? And why does he have to have a career structure plus a bonus culture to do what the Galilean fishermen used do for nothing? And why does he have to be a man? And if so, why the hell does he have to be yet another Italian in a world which was not 24% Italian last time I checked? (Mind you, some of my best friends are Italian)

  5. Martin

    The Pope is the prime minister of the Davidic Kingdom. He ought to be well-dressed. Additionally, costumes are worn by more than just clergy. Judges and barristers wear funny wigs and cloaks; police officers wear combat gear; academics wear funny hats and gowns; chefs wear white; etc… We never hear any criticism of their outfits. The Pope’s attire symbolizes his God-given authority and his having ‘put on Christ’ in his role as the pre-eminent alter Christus.

    The garb is meant to highlight the light and beauty of Christ during liturgical functions. As such, it points away from self, toward Christ, whereas a cleric who likes to dress in civvies (as many do) is at risk of drawing attention to himself. By respecting precedent and tradition, humility is fostered.

  6. Mary Burke

    Martin, where have you been living? There’s a debate going on for quite some time about whether judges’ wigs are appropriate in the 21st century.

  7. Eddie Finnegan

    What I don’t understand is why Martin and Peadar have fixed upon one or two brief paragraphs of the Mickens piece while ignoring his remaining 16 paragraphs. What the Pope wears for a particularly colourful ceremony is not really what Mickens is saying here. My own OTT take on Roman tailoring was not intended to distract from the sort of shenanigans we might expect from a Berlusconi cabinet rather than in the governance, or lack of it, in the Vatican’s curia. I’d worry more about the Pope’s Prime Minister Bertone and his predecessor Sodano and all the little underlings at their beck and call than about whether Benedict is “prime minister of the Davidic Kingdom” or whether his occasionally retro-wardrobe choices somehow reflect the glory of the transfigured or risen Christ.

  8. Kevin Walters

    Quotes from previous posts
    First Communion has become a charade, a fashion show, a circus.
    A glass coach was brought down from the North to carry the young person to church for Confirmation.
    It could be argued that imitation is the best form of flattery.
    This is one of the dangers of pomp and ceremony as it has more in keeping with the values of the World than with the Spirit. Jesus puts it into context with the words
    “Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one these” (Lilies of the field)
    The seat of our faith is simple trust in God and is comparable to the beauty of the single lily Jesus speaks of, that relies on God to grow, blossom, send forth its perfume and multiply we are asked to do the same.
    I am sure that the reflection of the simplicity of our hearts reflected in simplicity of rite is pleasing in God’s sight.
    In Christ

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