It is unlikely that a pope today would be taken prisoner by a political leader, but that does not mean that the popes exercise their authority unimpeded. The final years of the papacies of Pius XII and John Paul II presented some troubling questions over who was truly overseeing the Church at the time. Much has been made of the influence of Mother Pasqualina Lehnert, the major-domo of Pius XII. This German nun, often termed La Popessa, had organized Pius’ household for over forty years, beginning during his term as Papal Nuncio (ambassador) to Bavaria in 1917. Always a strong influence on Pius, after his serious health decline of 1954 she had almost total control of access to him. No one, even the Dean of the College of Cardinals—at that time the Vatican’s number 2 officer (Pius, serving as his own Secretary of State)—could have access to the pope unless she permitted it. For the last four years of his life, all papers passed through her to the pope. While the situation was never as grave as her detractors portrayed it—with her exercising papal authority in Pius’ name—it did create serious administrative issues and all but stalled Church administration. Cardinals, bishops, and prominent laity found they could do an end-run around the Vatican bureaucracy by going directly to Mother Pasqualina. In fact, the very first act of Eugène Tisserant as Cardinal Dean upon the death of Pius was to banish Mother Pasqualina from the Vatican—allegedly told to move out, bag and baggage, that very day.
The situation toward the end of the pontificate of John Paul II was different. There was no La Popessa here, no single person of influence. Yet it was clear that the pope was increasingly incapacitated by the 1990’s. Curial officials made use of the lack of oversight to expand their own powers and influence, often squabbling in rivalry with others over who had jurisdiction in particular instances. Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s chief private secretary, like Mother Pasqualina had total control of access to the Pope, and allegedly, unlike Mother Pasqualina “sold” that access—getting individuals access to private audiences or attendance at the Pope’s morning mass in his private chapel for sums up to $50,000. Dziwisz was closely tied to Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was accused by numerous former seminarians of having sexually abused them. Despite the number and credibility of allegations, neither Maciel nor the Legion of Christ were never held to accountability during the pontificate of John Paul, one of the most serious flaws in his papacy. Only in the current pontificate have the charges of sexual and financial impropriety been duly investigated and been found to be even more outrageous than previously charged. Another case in which John Paul’s incapacity resulted in the Curial “old boy” network triumphing over good judgment was the nomination of Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced archbishop of Boston, to a cushy position in Rome. Law’s arrogance in defending clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse is what brought down the wrath of Americans—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—on the American Episcopate. While the majority of American Catholics still seem to have great confidence in the clergy, particularly their own parish clergy, the American bishops have largely become shepherds without sheep. The Catholic Church in America is prone to this problem in any event as our Protestant culture predisposes us to see the Church congregationally—that is to identify Church primarily with the local congregation to which we belong. In fact, American Catholics tend to see the Church on two tiers: there is “the Church”—i.e. Rome; and there is their church—that is the parish community to which they belong. Bishops seem only sort of middle-men; local agents of the central authority as it were. If the American Catholic knew how much of his Sunday collection-plate dollar went to the bishop, he would be very unhappy. But what little credibility bishops have in America has been all but destroyed in the sex-abuse crisis where so many bishops have not dealt effectively with pedophile clergy. Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston, is the poster boy for bad bishops. It was not the protecting of accused clergy that did him in—it was the unmitigated arrogance with which he defended himself and his indefensible policies. Finally forced to resign just to quiet the outrage, he was rescued from serving retired nuns as their chaplain in rural Maryland and installed in the palatial quarters of the Archpriest of the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. And then, despite these being said to be the most luxurious cardinalatial apartments in the Eternal City, he undertook to renovate and expand his suites. This is part of an old-boy system in Rome where they take care of their own. It is not that they don’t care about the public-relations aspect of the Church; they honestly don’t understand that in today’s world they are being held accountable and their failure to be responsible seriously undermines the credibility of the Church and indeed dichotomy of what the Church teaches and how so many of its leaders function undermines the credibility of the Gospel itself in as that it reduces, or at least appears to reduce, the Gospel to snake-oil whose sale is only meant to enrich those who “sell” it.
The papacy of John Paul II is one of the most paradoxical papacies in the history of the Church. As one commentator for the BBC said, echoing Charles Dickens, when John Paul lay dying: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. John Paul’s policies gave the coup de grace to European communism and provided the restoration of democracy in the countries of Eastern Europe. His internal policies in the Church were another matter with an ever deepening gap between progressives and conservatives. This division was only aggravated as he aged and gradually lost power to the curial machine which took on a life of its own.
It was hoped that the election of a curial cardinal to the papacy would bring the curia and its various bureaucrats back under control. Popes like Pius XII and Paul VI who had curial experience usually knew how to keep the Curia working for them rather than trying to run the Church their way in spite of the pope. Popes whose previous experience had been as residential archbishops—popes like John XXIII and John Paul II—had more difficulty in managing the politics of the Curia. So Joseph Ratzinger, having spent so many years in Rome as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should have been able to bring the Curia back under papal control, but experience is showing that he can’t. The recent controversy where Cardinal Bertone, the papal Secretary of State, blocked the nomination of Dr. Lesley-Anne Knight for a second term as General Secretary of Caritas Internationalis is one example of how the papal hands are tied. Dr. Knight’s election to her first term met with a hostile reception in certain Vatican circles, apparently for no other reason than she was a woman. The papal audience at which she and the rest of the executive committee were to be presented to Pope Benedict all but turned into a brawl when some Vatican monsignore just refused to believe that such an important person might possibly be a woman and tried to remove her from her reserved seat and force her to the back of the hall in the Apostolic Palace where the reception was being held. It took a cadre of Caritas officials to put a protective ring around Dr. Knight in order for her to keep her assigned place. Similar episodes have been reported at ecumenical welcomes when women bishops from various Protestant groups have been due to be presented to the pope. Curial officials have long memories and before this year’s General Assembly of Caritas, Caritas was notified that the Vatican would not approve a second term for Dr. Knight. When Cardinal Rodriguez-Maradiaga, the president of Caritas Internationalis went to intervene with Pope Benedict the Pope supposedly threw his hands up in the air and said that he had no say in the matter. It was beyond his power. The decision had been made. Incidentally, Bertone is one of six members of his religious congregation, the Salesians of Don Bosco, in the College of Cardinals. ,
The reputation of the Curia is far from good in other ways beyond their internal bickering and jockeying for power. While Italians tend to take a more jaundiced eye than we Americans about the weaknesses of human nature—after all can you imagaine an American politician getting away with what Sylvio Berlascone gets away with?—and while most clerical misconduct goes unnoted in the press, it is not unknown to see a story in the Roman newspapers about some low-level Vatican official who has been caught picking up a transvestite prostitute or having sex in a public park. A 1998 double murder/suicide involving two officers in the Swiss Guards, attributed to the one officer’s being refused a promotion, is rumored to involve a homosexual relationship between the two guards. Vatican immorality may not be at the extravagance of the Borgia’s Banquet of the Chestnuts, but the Curia certainly aren’t the angelic choirs either and there seems to be no one to whom anyone is accountable.
It would be good to think that a Gregory VII or an Innocent III could reform the Church from within but although Vatican II has brought many changes, and I believe changes for the good, it has not brought genuine reform or renewal. A weakness of the current structure of Church leadership is that there is no person or group who has the authority to call the Church leadership to realign itself to the demands of the Gospel.