01Mar The Vatican is stuck in a monarchical past

A coincidental confluence of monarchical events occurred in 2005, during the period between the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI.

In a span of less than three weeks, John Paul died (April 2), Prince Rainier of Monaco died (April 6), Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles were married (April 9) in England, and Benedict was elected pope (April 19).

Through all of it the international media followed the flow of mourners, celebrators and ornately bedecked imitations of bygone eras as they made their way from castles to famous churches and back. It was a manner of reverse time-travel. All of the braided gold rope and draped epaulettes, feathered hats, shiny silver helmets, chests full of medals, gilded coaches, and endless reminders of dead kings and popes was enough to almost convince one that an age of Renaissance princes had somehow been recreated.

But there were differences, quickly apparent, among the pageants. In England and Monaco, amid joy and sorrow, the principals, privileged as they might be, walked as 21st-century intruders upon ancient ceremonials. They bore contemporary, real-life scars of tragic deaths and love gone sour. There was no retreat into some insular spirituality, no hiding away in a religious culture, though religion brought the most profound meaning to the events. The talk in these settings was not about some metaphysically infused heroic suffering. It was just suffering of the human sort, which is holy enough, the kind most of us bear no matter how elite, the kind where relationships need tending and there are children and others to worry about. In London and Monaco, the artifacts of royalty were symbols in service to a faded reality.

In Rome, the principals, privileged in their purple and red with matching skullcaps, in their fine lace and elaborate liturgical regalia, were ancient intruders trying to stave off 21st-century reality. In this monarchy, symbol is reality, or yet attempts to be, and the acting out daily occurs in the manner of court behavior and palace intrigue, much of it in secret and in service to a very alive clerical culture.

This triptych of monarchical display, England to the north, Monaco to the south and Rome in between, was itself an incisive analysis of the complex turmoil of the contemporary church. The Vatican is stuck, an ancient seed in amber waiting for someone to undo the encrustation and return it to the tradition’s fertile soil.

* * *

It is not merely the outward appearance of royalty that lashes the church to unworkable governance. It is more the daily expectation that royal privilege still applies. It is the presumption that somehow, in the 21st century, with the skeletons of unyielding hierarchy all around us, this monarchy will work where others have failed. The evidence, abundant and continuing to pile up, is that in many respects it is failing miserably. One wonders if the evidence will be part of the discussion when the cardinals sequester themselves next month to perform the most secret task in their secretive culture.

The churches of Europe are empty. The churches in the United States are emptying. Immigration and the growth of the church in the Southern Hemisphere are enough at the moment to balance the demographic nightmare and the effects of the ongoing scandal. If past is prologue, however, we know where this tale is headed. There is little reason to believe that the flawed template that has emptied the churches of the global North — a model so dependent on accumulation of power, exclusion of women and laymen, and an ever more insular clerical culture — will work differently in Africa, Asia or Latin America. One need not look long or far for the signs pointing toward a future unraveling of the institution in those places.

The horrid truth, most vividly exemplified in the priest sex abuse scandal and cover-up, is that church leaders have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the natural instinct of the clerical culture is to protect itself at all costs. That abuse occurs elsewhere, from homes to Boy Scout troops to schools and even other faith groups, may be consolation to some. As an institution, however, the church has shown itself to be singular in its determination and its elaborate schemes designed to hide so much sin and crime from so many for so long.

The cover-up of the abuse, with its intricate deceptions and denials, is the element proving ruinous to the church because it betrays the community at its deepest, sacramental level. Civil society will get its due, or as much of it as can be managed, however imperfectly, through law enforcement and the courts. The community, on the other hand, seeks healing that only the truth can supply.

* * *

Conclaves always raise hopes and expectations that a new figure in charge will mean a fresh direction, a new approach to fixing problems. But it is a naive hope if it doesn’t recognize what is glaringly apparent: The men most responsible for the greatest damage the church has suffered in centuries are the ones who will be gathering to select the pope. The cardinals assembled in conclave will include two from the United States — Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, both retired — whose careers symbolize the serious breach of trust that exists in many locations between hierarchy and the faithful. They will be joined by Cardinal Sean Brady, whose role in the cover-up of Ireland’s sex abuse saga goes back to his days as a priest and canon lawyer.

They are three of the most prominent participants who will serve as reminders to others in the room of the ugly, secret truths about abuse of power and privilege that exist in chancery office files and rectories around the world, and of the utter lack of accountability required of members of the hierarchy.

Unable to vote, but overseeing the activities leading up to the conclave, will be the notorious Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, who has a long and well-documented record of protecting some of the worst perpetrators of fraud and sexual abuse the Vatican has known in recent decades. He attempted to block investigations and as recently as last year dismissed the abuse crisis as “petty gossip.”

In other settings, such perpetuation of ineptitude, disregard for the community and sheer corruption would be the engine of its own dissolution. After all, the Wall fell, there was an Arab Spring. Even Burma decided it had to change to survive.

The church has come some distance since the last century, when popes still had subordinates kneel before them, sometimes for extended periods, and when they yet believed the church to be “a perfect society, supreme in its own order.” The next pope will have to confront the question of how much further the church yet needs to go.

Also glaringly evident about the group of electors is that none is married and none is a woman. It would be extremely rare if any of them has raised children or been responsible for providing a household budget. Theirs is most often a world removed.

Whoever is selected will have to gauge whether his agenda overrides the compelling need to answer some fundamental questions: What caused so many of our leaders in so many places to violate the very core of our sacred texts? At what point in their training or in the course of their vocations did they come to understand that self-interest and protection of the clergy culture overrides all else?

And for the church in general: What do leaders do when fear no longer works to bring the crowds to church and to keep the faithful in line?

Benedict’s words at his last public Mass as pope were hardly triumphal. He acknowledged the “sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church.” One wonders if he had in mind the palace culture and the lust for power within it. He urged witnessing the faith “so that we can reveal the face of the church and how this face is at times disfigured.” That is a deeply disturbing image. The words acknowledge what we all know: The church is far from perfect.

Knowing that the profound goodness of God’s church will prevail — living as we do within the inexplicable mix of divine and human responsibilities — doesn’t excuse us from the work to be done. The institution has withstood two millennia of scandals and misdirection, ignorance and arrogance. It will certainly withstand this moment. First, however, the truth must be told. And then the palace and its culture might finally surrender to their rightful place somewhere in the distant past.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

26 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    I know my university days are long behind, because I wish I could write like that, all that delicious academic language……Tom Robert’s last statement is so unabashedly honest, and therefore, so refreshing………”And then the palace and its culture might finally surrender to their rightful place somewhere in the distant past”.

  2. Kevin

    Quite powerful and real, but depressing in parts too. He speaks a great truth that can remind of a possible, remaining sense of powerlessness before those people – and that the real and only option, truth – one day, is walk away forever and not look back. Cause if you do you will be turned to stone. After all the great work God does to carve our hearts of flesh.

    Reading about Sodano. Can’t deny it makes you heart sick.

    Some priests who had the courage to stand up recently gives me hope of needed change too though.

    “The cover-up of the abuse, with its intricate deceptions and denials, is the element proving ruinous to the church because it betrays the community at its deepest, sacramental level. ”

    It’s ruinous to what is needed brought to ruin long since – the utter ‘rot and filth’ that he speaks about in the rest of the piece. ‘rome’ is not the Church.

    “That the greatest precepts of the sacred texts were wholly betrayed”. ‘Day of reckoning’ comes to mind.

    Faith brings hope – hope, in time, and with some work, the realisation of love – the love of Christ.

    The edifice may crumble and the sooner the better.

    The true Rock will always remain however. In that I now place my trust – faith and hope – and let the rest take care of itself. 🙂

  3. Peadar O Duill

    If a monarchical past is so bad, how do we know that a democratic future would be so good? Sin will always creep into human structures, no matter of what kind.

  4. Mary O Vallely

    Yes, I wish that too, ‘that the palace and its culture might finally surrender to their rightful place somewhere in the distant past.’
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one cardinal could just get up and say to the assembled 114, ‘Listen boys, let’s face it. Centralism isn’t working, is it? Whatever happened to the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity? This job is too big for any one man. I don’t want it nor do any of you, if we were to be truthful.Let us share out the tasks and responsibilities. Three/ four men could help share this burdensome office and hey, we don’t need the red shoes. Who cares about such things, for God’s sake. Benedict broke with precedent so we can too. The folks back home can manage without us until we get this thing right. Far better to stay here a year and choose wisely than hurry through the process and live to regret the choice. What do you think, boys,eh? Let us pray long and hard before we talk again. Come Holy Spirit into our minds that we may see the things which are of God.’
    Well, a person can dream and traditions can be broken… ok, and pigs may fly, I suppose.

  5. Jerry Slevin

    The monarchists are evidentally increasingly fearful. For indications, please see my, “Criminal, Not Spiritual, Convictions Top Concerns At Conclave”, at: http://wp.me/P2YEZ3-By

  6. Darlene Starrs

    There are a number of excellent articles regarding the Church’s current situation and the choosing of a pope. I would like to quote to you an article,entitled; A Vatican Spring”, which is an interview with the theologian Hans Kung. It’s important to note, he is the last of the theologians present at Vatican II……….

    ……”Behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.” In this dramatic situation, the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution.”It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the Church, for theologians, for women, and for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn’t let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based “shadow pope” like Benedict and his loyal followers.

    These are powerful words spoken by Hans Kung in the “The Opinion Pages of the NY Times. Hans Kung warns that if the Vatican passes up the opportunity to embrace reform and modernity, it will lead to disastrous consequences. I’m paraphrasing, but, he is not alone in his prediction. We will know very quickly after the Pope is chosen, given who it is and what we know of him, and after he’s made his first “pronouncements” and perhaps, examined that envelope that sits awaiting him from the three Cardinals, we will know, quickly, what the trajectory of the Church will be……….if it is positive change in a bad situation, or if it’s just more bad situation, which could lead to an irreversible break. We shall see…..

  7. Darlene Starrs

    Jerry Slevin’s article mentioned above is comprehensive and does take some time to read, however, it is well worth reading. It is absolutely astounding the degree of corruption, present, at the Vatican, but Jerry tells us, of the fallout yet to come……legal fallout.

  8. Eddie Finnegan

    The more I read on the ACP website in recent weeks, the more I find myself siding, however reluctantly, with Peadar Ó Dúill (@3): “If a monarchical past is so bad, how do we know that a democratic future would be so good?” That is, a “democratic future” as evidenced by the interminable, self-serving, repetitively convoluted blogposts such as that “experienced international lawyer and lifelong Catholic”, Jerry Slevin, constantly links us to and encourages us to promulgate like an endless chain of chain e-mail. What terrible fate awaits us if we fail to pass on your speculations, Mr Slevin? This website is already the willing host to too many of our own self-referential meanderings. When these wander over into self-reverential dogmatism, maybe it’s time for the rest of us to retire. No wonder your ‘ordinary’ local pastoral parish priest around the country doesn’t want to be bothered with all this opinionated stuff. There’s no longer any need for parody or satire since our more interminable international correspondents are their own best parodists. As a lifelong member of an international family of South Armagh brickies, I’ll find myself a ruined convent in need of a makeover to retire to and contemplate the world of Slevin & Co I’ve escaped from. Maybe I’ll call myself Pontifex2Emeritus in case I come across the odd old bridge in need of repair.

  9. Paddy Ferry

    Eddie, please don’t leave us — we would be so much the poorer without you. I have to admit I had to give up half way down Jerry’s most recent link above; otherwise I would never have got to bed tonight!!
    Jerry I am still proud that you are a fellow son of Tír Chonaill though I think you should now stop telling us that you are
    “an international lawyer and life long Catholic”. We know that now.
    Goodnight and God bless,

  10. Darlene Starrs

    I for one, who am not “wise” to the politics of Rome, enjoyed reading your article, Jerry, and I’m sure many others would too!

  11. Joe O'Leary

    Paul Surlis speaks up: http://consortiumnews.com/2013/03/03/the-catholic-churchs-lost-hope/

  12. Darlene Starrs

    Thank you Father Joe for providing the above article address.
    It is an excellent article. In the article, is referenced, another, article, by a Timothy Shriver, entitled: “Vatican needs a mystic”, It was printed in the Washington Post on March 1st. Does anyone have current access to the Washington Post and could share this article? I would like to read the whole of it.

    When I read the above article, the words that came to my mind were:

    There is a shortage of priests, is it possible that we will have a shortage of cardinals?

  13. Paddy Ferry

    Joe, thank you for the link to the excellent piece by Fr. Paul Surlis. There seems to be a growing consensus –at last — that things simply cannot continue as they have done for the last 35 years.

  14. Soline Humbert

    Timothy Shriver’s piece on a mystic pope…http://m.columbiatribune.com/opinion/oped/next-pope-should-be-a-mystic/article_d532459e-82e9-11e2-904c-10604b9f6eda.html

  15. Joe O'Leary

    I dont think there has ever been a mystic pope, and probably for good reason.

  16. Eddie Finnegan

    “Martha, Martha, you are busy over many things.”

    My one lasting reaction to that particular line in Luke has always been, “Well, it’s good that someone’s doing something about the kitchen.”
    Seems to me that the Vatican needs “a mystic Pope” just now like a hole in the head. I suppose, as we used say, it’s a damn poor parish can’t afford to keep one gentleman of leisure, and probably it’s a poor family can’t afford to keep one mystic on the dole. If what Timothy Shriver had hoped for was a mystic Catherine of Siena or even Francis of Assisi to remind the next Pope what he’s in the job for, I’d say Amen to that.

    Still, great to see Paul Surlis speaking out loud and bold.

  17. Kevin

    I know a woman I’d have pope in a heartbeat – our beautiful Teresa Mee here. Been telling her that for years now. 🙂 She has more wisdom in her wee finger than the lot of ’em put together.

    Would a ‘true mystic’ even wish to be a pope ? Though from readings from some mystics of various traditions – they can be deeply orthodox too.

    I like what the Islamic mystic – Rumi, suggested for those seeking to know what it means to truly love God. He told his followers they must first go into the world, and learning what it means to fall in love could be inspired to seek the source such love and in time learn to love God who is not seen. (If we cannot learn to love what can be seen – we can’t love what we don’t see) Makes much sense. I think at some level he impacted the mysticism of the likes of the Great Teresa and others at that time.

    Or maybe we’d get a spiritualised clone of Maggie Thatcher. Ewwwww. Or maybe the best thing to happen. She’d have balls for garters, earrings and other bit n’ piece and sort out the boy from the boys. :p I jest.

    I’d really love to meet some of the people from here – for real. I am nothing in reality what I can seem like on this flippin’ thing – much quieter, reserved. 🙂

    Love to meet though – Joe sounds very interesting, you Eddie, the ladies and a few others. Maybe one day 🙂

    Just out of curiosity – any here from monasteries that offer retreats, a private one with the intent for intense prayer etc ?

    Would pay for a week or so. Been thinking about this for years but don’t know anywhere. Ideas ?

    Take care.

  18. Darlene Starrs

    To the degree that anyone faithfully lives “in Christ” and ultimately “dies” in Christ, is someone who is a mystic……John Paul II, while, not perfect, I believe, had at least a mustard seed of faith, and to that degree, he was a “pope” as mystic.

  19. Kevin

    Any of you in the North could care to meet of an evening ? Nothing major, long drawn, just spontaneity of getting to know you..

    If so – just say. Only take a few of us.

  20. Darlene Starrs

    It would behoove all of us to remain, objective, reasonable, respectable, and compassionate! I am sure the Association of Catholic Priests prefer to have discussions on the website that promote local and universal community as well as, thoughtful and supportive discussion, which, can create “real insight”. We cannot “cheapen” their work, or ours, of the Church “doing theology”. The Church today, at all levels, and in particular, the Vatican, as it is the focus, of the above article, is in what I call a deadly serious, spiritual, CONFLICT OF INTEREST. That is to say, while the agenda for Christ, is to continually, “spiritualize”, the Bride of Christ, individually and collectively, we have a “bastian” of power at the Vatican, who would appear to have little or no resonance with Jesus Christ. While, not all of us, obviously, have an understanding or regard, for the Church’s mystics, who are eternally with Christ, and the Church, it can be said, that only the person, who lives and dies every day in Christ, is able to, lead the Church, through, this time in history, to God. I would hope that there are Catholic Christians, who not only respect, the saints and mystics, who have gone before us, as role models, but who can appreciate anew, what GIFT, the mystic(s) are for the Universal Church. In fact, I will borrow from St. John of the Crosses…work…..”The Living Flame”, is supposed to be, the Church, individually and collectively…the Living Flame of Christ……As well, St. John, speaks of the 3 veils that a mystic passes through……if applied to the Church, the first veil, is an exodus…exodus from the “spiritual slavery” of the World…..While we are sent to the world, and physically live in the world….we belong to Christ…..That first veil, I suggest to you, was Vatican II. Vatican II was a removal from being so entrenched in the world, that we were losing sight, of our spiritual dimensions, and that is why, John the XXIII, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, says, Open wide the windows…let the fresh air in….So, Christ has had his Bride, the Church, on a course of spiritualization,,,,but,,,,the Vatican, has been pushing back and pushing away, this work of Christ. So, we are in a serious CONFLICT OF INTEREST, in terms of what Christ wants for the Church, and for how Christ wants the Church to take his message to the world….I suggest,…that the next veil, would be a good time for Vatican III. Father Gerry O’Hanlon has suggested, we need a Vatican III. Let us please be respectful of one another when we take to write, otherwise, we are no better, than the ones, that we accuse, of being inattentive, disrespectful, and dismissive.

  21. Eddie Finnegan

    Darlene (@20), I think you’ll find that those are the sort of qualities most of us adhere to most of the time on this site. Where occasionally a little robustness of response, allied to a little touch of healthy scepticism, appears in someone’s comment, it might behove the rest of us to conclude that, though it may jar a little with our own style of discourse, here too may lurk an alternative approach to objectivity and reasonableness. While not everyone feels the need to wear their respectability, compassion or even spirituality on their sleeve, “Real Insight” may occasionally be found therein. As for anyone’s comment “cheapening” the work of the ACP, or in this case the thoughts of Fr Paul Surlis, perish the thought!
    But as for my, or anyone else’s scepticism around much of the talk of mysticism today (as distinct from sainthood and saintliness) well, one woman’s mysticism may be another man’s mystification – or vice versa.

  22. mjt

    Talking about satire, we can still learn from Swift who
    “..spar’d a Hump or crooked Nose,
    Whose Owners set not up for Beaux.
    True genuine Dulness mov’d his Pity,
    Unless it offer’d to be witty.”
    I think you are right; there are too many such beaux about, aye and belles too. And when they start strutting thon stuff, it behoves you to give it to `em with both barrels!

  23. Paul Burns

    In a large hall today in one of the world’s ancient capital cities, scores of mostly elderly men are convening to select their new leader and set out policies for the future. They are all wearing the same style of dress. Speeches will congratulate themselves on past achievements with little or no mention of past misdeeds.

    They will also ignore requests from many of their grass roots supporters for more responsible, accountable and transparent government. Indeed, their deliberations are held in secret with all communication with the outside world banned including the use of social media.

    Thus the communist party of China agrees its future. Meanwhile in Rome …

  24. Veritas

    Tom Roberts is stuck in an adolescent 1960’s style liberal time warp. Here’s the good news – the Catholic Church increased in number by 15 million alone last year. So cheer up Tom ; and for God’s sake lighten up also. Don’t be so miserable, you’re giving liberals a bad name.


    May I suggest if people have the time to read an excellent article by Rev. Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy on the matter of pope Benedict’s resignation and the future of the Petrine Ministry which complements well the above piece….”Benedict XVI’s Resignation: Life in a System Made to Fail Jesus”, link: http://www.emmanuelcharlesmccarthy.org/category/action-against-violence/

  26. Soline Humbert

    Thank you Martin for the link. Food for thought and prayer!

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