In theory, the Vatican operates according to a top-down structure of authority; in actual fact, the Vatican is a patchwork of departments, communities and individuals, all loosely bound by a sense of mission but without comprehensive management or rigorous oversight. And, I must admit, I prefer it that way. I appreciate the fact that functionaries often shoot their mouths off when they’re not supposed to, that documents are leaked and that, at the end of the day, the Vatican is marked more by human flair and fallibility than ruthless efficiency. I like the fact that even something as supposedly fine-tuned as a sainthood cause can be fumbled by an overzealous promoter.
The popular image of the Vatican is largely a myth. In the news and entertainment industries, the Vatican is portrayed as an organizational behemoth – monumental, powerful and cloaked in secrecy, a well-oiled machine quietly pursuing a global agenda with a hierarchy that marches in lockstep.
The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes and where slipups and misunderstandings are common. It’s a place where the pope’s choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis. It’s a place where the carefully orchestrated liturgies and ceremonies sometimes come unglued. It’s a place where Paolo Gabriele and Sławomir Oder fit right in. (The Vatican Diaries, Introduction, p. 12 e-book edition)
For the past month, the affairs of the Vatican have been regularly featured in the news, first with the surprise resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the unlikely (at least in the views of those with little to no actual knowledge of affairs) election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to the throne of St. Peter as the 266th pope, Pope Francis. It is not difficult to find opinions on the two events (and numerous possible antecedents that might tie the two together even more closely than a succession). Words like “conservative,” “reformist,” “hard-liner,” “out-of-touch,” “abuse,” “scandal,” etc. appear almost as often in newspaper articles as grammatical articles such as “a,” “an,” or “the” themselves. Yet despite this frequent use of “hot topic” words as a short cut to defining what has been transpiring, there is the sense that there is a dissonance between what various national medias (and their respective publics) think the Vatican must be and what it might in actuality be.
Recently-retired Catholic News Service Vatican reporter John Thavis’ recounting of his thirty years covering the Vatican, The Vatican Diaries, benefited greatly from the timing of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement, as the book was published just a week later. In it, Thavis relates his impressions of various Vatican officials, ranging from various Cardinals down to ushers in the basilica, and the fractured, disjointed hierarchy that often worked as much against other segments of the Curia as in unison. It is easy for those raised on media accounts to view the Vatican as a large spider in the middle of a vast web, controlling events with the efficiency of a spider. Yet as recent events, which receive some interesting interpretations from Thavis, have borne out, the Vatican is more of an ad hoc affair, operating best within the framework of a theological interpretation of its acts rather than a materialist-oriented corporation.
Thavis, over the course of ten chapters, explores the seeming dysfunction of the Vatican leadership through chapters that focus on singular matters, such as the reason behind the delay in the ringing of the bells when Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 (Ch. 1), the horrendous scandal involving the founder of the Legion of Christ order, Marcial Maciel Degollado (Ch. 3), or the troubled cause of Pius XII’s sainthood (Ch. 7). In each of these chapters, with some interludes (including the planned demolition of a recently-uncovered necropolis in Ch. 4 or the ribald Latinist Father Foster in Ch. 6) of a more comic nature, Thavis delves deeply into the murky world of Vatican interactions. What emerges is a vividly-described series of events that reveal a Church hierarchy that is at a crossroads. The ongoing scandal with pedophile priests and the coverups that some dioceses conducted during the reign of John Paul II in particular receives a lot of attention. Thavis does not take a forceful, denunciatory stance regarding Benedict XVI’s handling of the matter; he mostly exculpates the recently-retired pope, noting that Benedict XVI was frequently stymied by a Curia who had certain factions who were more eager to protect the vocation-generated Legion and its leader, Maciel, than they were in eradicating the pedophile element from the Legion’s ranks.
This resistance to “reform,” if such a word has to be applied to a patchwork entity that has a surprisingly-decentralized structure, appears frequently in other chapters. For Benedict XVI, it seems to have been a long, wearying affair that sapped him of energy and perhaps of hope for achieving his pastoral duties, as this passage taken from the final chapter, “The Real Benedict,” would seem to indicate:
By 2011 the real Benedict was beginning to look a little like Charlie Brown, convinced he couldn’t win in this world but plugging away regardless, with a demeanor that often seemed either dispirited or wistful. As a concession to the crowds and the cameras, the pope occasionally forced a smile. He launched what he hoped would be his legacy project, a Vatican agency to promote “new evangelization” in traditionally Christian countries. The agency played to the pope’s primary theme of rediscovering the rightful place of God in personal life and in society. But Benedict had no illusions about its success, speaking openly about the dominant “culture of death,” the powerful pull of materialism, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor and the fact that Catholics in Europe and the Americas were leaving the church in droves. Benedict appeared resigned to the idea that the church was condemned to struggle against the cultural mainstream, perhaps as a minority – even in places where it had once shaped civilization.
The pope operated with such detachment that one might legitimately have suspected him of having given up hope on the sorry state of earthly affairs. Visiting a Rome parish one day, he probably shocked his listeners when he posed these dark questions: “If we look around the modern world, where God is absent, we have to say that it is dominated by fear and uncertainty: Is it good to be a human being or not? Is it good to be alive?” (Ch. 10, p. 354 e-book)
Although this chapter (and the book as a whole) was written some months before Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is easy to see here the germ of his resignation. If, as it seems to be true in Thavis’s account, the Curia is divided deeply over matters such as the prosecution of the pedophile priests or how best to address contentious issues such as condom usage (Thavis quotes a high-ranking member of the Curia who notes that there likely will not be an official policy on condom use in toto due to dissenting opinions within the Curia), then the Pope Emeritus’ comments alluding to his inability to fulfill his pastoral duties adequately are more likely a reflection of deep, internal divisions than a new scandal that is about to be revealed.
As a look “behind the curtains,” The Vatican Diaries is a fascinating portrayal of a Vatican in turmoil. It may also provide a preview of the sorts of challenges that await the newly-elected pope, Pope Francis, as he now ascends to the papal throne. Yet what sort of pope will Pope Francis be? If Benedict XVI was dogged for a time by his (involuntary) service in the Nazi Waffen SS, then what about a pope, who as a Jesuit provincial in 1970s Argentina, might have been complicit in some of the atrocities of the Dirty War? This story of possible collaboration and turning in fellow Jesuits for torture is a salacious one at the moment, as it provides not just an opportunity to define the new pope before he has written his first encyclical, but it also can be tied in to the global web of coverups and denials that have plagued the Vatican for the past few decades.
Despite this possible black mark (after all, there is conflicting information in regards to the future pope’s actions during the Dirty War, not to mention that he as Archbishop of Buenos Aires issued an apology for the church’s inaction in protecting more citizens), there are those who expect that Francis will prove to be a “reforming” pope. This, however, is not to say that he will overturn centuries of Church doctrine on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage (over which he fought a bitter, losing campaign in 2010 in Argentina), or other social/religious matters, but that he might move the focus away from strict denunciations toward reconciliation with those who are poor and suffering. There certainly is material in his 2011 book that he co-wrote with leading Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (On Heaven and Earth), that can support these views. Take for instance this comment on justice and religion:
Creo que el que adora a Dios tiene, en esa experiencia, un mandato de justicia para con sus hermanos. Es una justicia sumamente creativa, porque inventa cosas: educación, promoción social, cuidado, alivio, etcétera. Por eso, el hombre religioso íntegro es llamado el hombre justo, lleva la justicia hacia los demás. En ese aspecto, la justicia del religioso o la religiosa crea cultura. No es lo mismo la cultura de un idólatra que la cultura que crea una mujer o un hombre que adoran al Dios vivo. Juan Pablo II tenía una frase muy arriesgada: una fe que no se hace cultura no es una verdadera fe. Marcaba esto: crear cultura. Hoy, por ejemplo, tenemos culturas idólatras en nuestra sociedad: el consumismo, el relativismo y el hedonismo son una muestra de ello. (Ch. 4)
I believe that s/he that adores God has, in that experience, a mandate to provide justice for his brothers. It is a highly creative justice, because it invents things: education, social welfare, care, relief, etc.. Therefore, the fully religious man is called the just man, for he leads justice to others. In that respect, the justice of the religious creates culture. Not the same culture of idolatrous culture but that which makes a woman or a man who worship the living God. John Paul II made a very bold statement: a faith that does not become culture is not a true faith. Mark this: to create culture. Today, for example, we have idolatrous cultures in our society: consumerism, relativism and hedonism are signs of this.
The statements here are all orthodox; there is nothing that runs counter to the Church’s teachings. Yet the focus on justice, through God, on matters such as education, social welfare, relief, etc. is certainly not what one thinks of when the word “conservative” is bandied about. There is little “conservatism” in a faith that seeks to redress societal wrongs and to address the aching need in people’s lives. This is made even more explicit in Ch. 10, on Death:
En los Evangelios aparece el tema del juicio final, y se hace de una manera vinculada con el amor. Jesús dice: A la derecha irán todos los que ayudaron al prójimo y a la izquierda, todos lo que no lo hicieron, porque lo que cada uno de ustedes hizo, me lo hizo a mí. Para los cristianos, el projimo es la persona de Cristo. (Ch. 10)
In the Gospels appears the theme of final justice, and it is in a manner linked with love. Jesus says: To the right will go all which help his/her neighbors and to the left, all who do not do this, because what you do to one, you do to me. For Christians, the neighbor is the person of Christ.
Yet there are issues in which Francis would be considered “conservative,” especially in regards to abortion. Here is his full comment on abortion in the book:
El problema moral del aborto es de naturaleza prerreligiosa porque en el momento de la concepción está el código genético de la persona. Ahí ya hay un ser humano. Separo el tema del aborto de cualquier concepción religiosa. Es una problema científico. No dejar que se siga avanzando en el desarrollo de un ser que ya tiene todo el código genético de un ser humano no es ético. El derecho a la vida es el primero de los derechos humanos. Abortar es matar a quien no puede defenderse. (Ch. 14)
The moral problem of abortion is of a pre-religious nature because in the moment of conception is the genetic code of the person. There already is there a human being. I separate the theme of abortion from any religious concept. It is a scientific problem. It is unethical to stop the further development of a being that has the genetic code of a human being. The right to life is the first of all human rights. To abort is to kill someone who cannot defend him/herself.
Similar comments are made in regards to marriage between individuals of the same gender, in that Francis notes the Church’s opposition to it as much on biological grounds as on moral ones (marriage being foremost for procreation). Yet in the chapter on same-sex marriages (Ch. 16), he makes it clear that he separates the issue of marriage from the rights of gays and lesbians to live lives free of persecution. This is a theme that appears repeatedly in other parts of the dialogue he conducted with Rabbi Skorka: there are actions that the Church unequivocally considers to be sins, but that at the heart of it lies the commandment to love others as one would love God. This would seem to set up a conflict between what is written and what is to be done, but Francis appears to emphasize the treatment of others over the actions of others. This can be seen in his previous ministry to those who were afflicted with AIDS or those who were indigent: one may or may not be able to “help themselves” in a situation, but this does not preclude caring for those fellow human beings who need assistance in order to make their lives slightly more bearable.
After reading Sobre el cielo y la tierra, it is difficult to view Pope Francis as being constricted by American political terms such as “reformist,” “conservative,” or “moderate.” Easily his views and actions could move back and forth between that axis of political thought, leaving the observer struggling for words to define him. If I were to hazard a guess, Francis’ papacy will be defined by a commitment to orthodox principles, but with a more direct, humble application. As the Vatican’s foibles and scandals are revealed to the public, it appears that Francis was elected in order to redirect the focus of the Curia away from doctrinal interpretations and toward a simpler, more pastoral approach toward ministering to the needs of the Catholic Church’s parishioners. Francis seems to not be as given to writing treatises as was Benedict XVI, but there is the hope that he will be a spark that will make the phrase renovatio mundi more meaningful in the changing world to come. However, there will be resistance to this, if Thavis’s book is any indication. For now, it will be interesting to wait and see what will come in the days, weeks, and possibly years to come from Francis’s papacy.