Ten Days In

NCRep editorial on Pope Francis. I’d like to take a look at some of the conclusions drawn in the middle of the piece.

The editorial board suggests that the hierarchy has been behind the times in assessing the state of the Church and the deepest needs we face, both within the Body and in the world. I think this became painfully evident to the cardinals. Clearly they weren’t distracted by the combination of celebrity, legacy, and grief as they were eight years ago:

It became evident that the church’s troubles had grown to such proportions that they could no longer be ignored, not even by the gathered cardinals. This interregnum and conclave were quite different in tone and content from the last precisely because subjects that were swept aside in the tide of sentiment accompanying John Paul’s death came roaring back to shore. Curial corruption and infighting had been documented and were no longer a matter of mere speculation. Figures like the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado and his order, the Legion of Christ, still seen eight years ago as unfairly under siege, were now, beyond dispute, a world-class fraud and a failed project respectively.

The condemnation of Fr Maciel is devastating, but too true.

As for the curia, corruption may well be too strong a word, given what we know. But corruption is eminently plausible, given what we see: not only the infighting, but also the careerism. And then we have scandals with banking, conservative prelates’ sexual escapades, leaks, and such. This would be my strongest criticism of the previous two popes. Their role as the Church’s guardians of unity cannot be understated. Each, perhaps, was blinded by their own fallibilities to the notion that unity extends more broadly and deeply than uniformity on public issues. The handling of bishops and conferences has been particularly difficult for these men, and in some locations, especially the United States, a near total failure. What we’ve been handed is a classic case of Old Testament lament: why do the just suffer and the guilty prosper? More on that:

John Paul II’s notions of heroic priesthood lay in tatters, his episcopal appointments too often a collection of hot-blooded and imprudent ideologues who love to parade around in yards of silk and fine lace. Eight years ago the gathered cardinals would have smirked at talk of a church in crisis; this year they spoke of it themselves.

The silk and lace I can tolerate. I just want competence. Cardinals Wuerl and George, to name the two most high-profile American prelates, and touted for the intellectual heft they brought to the USCCB, have been far from stellar thinkers. Lack of prudence is clear. Willing to be led by the nose by curialists with agendas doesn’t speak at all to their leadership style. Cardinal George couldn’t be bothered with his own archdiocesan review board and placed children in his parishes at risk from a known predator. Clearly, some cardinals have learned something by the repeated smackdowns delivered to the Catholic Right from the Iraq War to the 2012 elections.

I wouldn’t want to lose John Paul II’s “notion of heroic priesthood.” Let’s just call it unneccessarily limited and inadequate. Every Catholic believer should be a hero in the sense of an outward looking, joyful, and confident presentation of the Gospel in every corner of the world. It might be nice if one in every thirty or forty Catholics were a priest. Then the JP2 Method might work. But the Church has never been awash in priests everywhere. An active and engaged laity is the key. JP2 gave us plenty of fodder to start that. Let’s honor it by building on it and moving beyond the clerical focus of the past two pontificates.

The 34 years of Wojtyla and Ratzinger comprised a three-and-a-half-decade attempt to rein in the impulses of the Second Vatican Council. The first 15 post-conciliar years were alive with a rich, if at times messy and excessive, enthusiasm for the possibilities of this Christian community called Catholic. Wojtyla and Ratzinger set out to re-square the corners and redraw the lines. What once was so outward-looking became inward and withdrawn, in Francis’ term, “self-referential.” Both popes spent an inordinate amount of time and energy going after those who raised inconvenient questions or explored areas of theology that didn’t fit their prescriptions of church. All the while, the real sins against the community were being committed by priests and hidden for years, under elaborate schemes and at unconscionable cost, by the community’s bishops.

It’s been clear to the Catholic imagination, at least in America, that the past decade has continued the adventure of those who couldn’t shoot straight.

In a word, the past several years has seen the screeches of the antigospel preached louder than the message of Christ.

Francis will, very soon, have the opportunity to show how serious he is about re-establishing integrity and sound judgment within the church with appointments to major sees, such as in this country the Chicago archdiocese, and with appointments to the Curia. Our hope is that his humility and sense of service and concern for the poor will guide his choices. Without such qualities, his wish that the church look beyond itself will remain unrealized.

This is right. It has to be about more than symbols. My sense is: thanks for the symbols. Let’s wait out the discernment period with patience, and then we’ll see how well Pope Francis can accomplish a rejuvenation of the Gospel within the hierarchy. And in the meantime, it’s as good a season as any for the rest of us to present and proclaim the real Gospel to those around us.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Ten Days In

  1. John Mack says:

    I remember when Cardinal Spellman of New York, hardly a liberal, told the Vatican to “leave my theologians alone” when the theology faculty of Fordham U issued a statement to the effect that although abortion was wrong it was possible and legitimate for a civil authority not to see it this way and thus make it legal. Spellman could not tolerate any Vatican intrusion on what he saw as his authority as a bishop.

    • John Mack says:

      Forgot to add. Because of Vatican interference, or because he thought the Fordham statement to be prudent, Spellman did not issue a rebuke. What a contrast to the jolly but imprudent ideologue Dolan.

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