Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Church and a Culture of Power

Our old friend, Cardinal Burke, (then Archbishop)
dressing up for another trip into his fantasy world
of bygone days of glory.  Perhaps he needed a strong
masculine figure earlier in his younger years. 
The final reason I want to give for the deterioration of papal authority, indeed Church authority in general, during—and since—the pontificate of John Paul II is the perceived wealth of the Church.  Note: perceived wealth.  I am reluctant to say that the Papacy or the Catholic Church is wealthy.  It is a bit like saying that the United States is wealthy.  There are wealthy States and there are States where there is much poverty.  The Catholic Church is not a single entity.  Financially each diocese is self-administering as is each religious order.  There are dioceses where there are considerable assets and there are dioceses with few assets.  Just as even poor States have budgets measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, so too even poor dioceses have huge budgets—though, of course, not at all comparable to any State budget.  One would say that relative to other nations, we are a wealthy nation and our citizenry are—by comparison to much of the world—wealthy.  So too the Catholic Church is a much bigger financial organization than other religions, but relative to the size of its membership probably not out of the same ball park as other religious groups.  The central administration of the Church, the papacy, is an enormously costly operation but then its expenses are also enormous.  The Holy See, as the administration is known, maintains diplomatic missions with over a hundred nations.  It was one of the oldest entities to send and maintain embassies and probably the oldest to do so on a continual basis to the present.  I don’t see where Jesus explicitly authorized embassies as part of the mission he entrusted to his disciples, but I would have to admit that over the centuries papal diplomacy has often played a crucial role in history  (not always to the good) and papal diplomatic channels were very important in both World War I and World War II as well as the Cold War, so they could be subsumed under the Church’s commission for peacemaking (Blessed are the Peacemakers—you remember that one from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: something or other) if not always for evangelism.  In other words, I am not criticizing the Church for its actual wealth of which I think it is a pretty good steward.  The problem is its perceived wealth.  I have lived in Rome off and on over the years and still go there frequently (like next week) and I continued to be dazzled by the splendor of the Churches.  By and large I detest baroque style but you know it was costly to build (and costly to maintain, but that is the Italian Government’s, not the Church’s, problem).  I have been to the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, the British Museum and dozens of other art collections.  The Louvre and the Hermitage are comparable to the Vatican museums but nothing else.  “The pope should sell all this art” some people exclaim and maybe he should. After all,  Jesus didn’t need art—“the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head,” if your remember.  But the problem is that great art doesn’t belong to the Vatican or the Louvre or the Prado.  Great art belongs to civilization as a whole and whether it is the French Government or the Russian Government or the Holy See—they are only the custodians.  I wish we had never gotten into the art business but now that the Church has it, they also have a responsibility.  And as long as it pays for itself (and the Vatican Museums are not cheap for entry)—well, it is a bit like babysitting a kid: you can’t put it up for sale just because it becomes an embarrassment. 
     I think the problem is not the budgets it takes to run a diocese or a religious order or even the Vatican.  I don’t think the problem is the basilicas or the Michelangelo’s.  I think the problem is the “culture of wealth” that the Church inherited from a previous generation when bishops were princes and the Church itself was a monarchy and which needs to be dismantled and replaced today.  During the Renaissance and Baroque eras until the French Revolution the alliance of “Throne and Altar” made bishops princes and endowed prelates with all the trappings of great men of monarchial states.  Cardinals and bishops and prelates and abbots lived in palaces with leagues of servants and carriages and silver and gold plate off which they dined.  They wore ermine and silks and were accustomed to have people kiss their hands on bended knees.  They were entitled to titles: Excellency and Eminence and whatever.  I doubt Jesus was impressed but the whole idea was that everyone else would be.  The bishops and great men of the Church were drawn from the noble families and they moved comfortably in the corridors of power.  (Karol Wojtyla, aka John Paul II, was the first Archbishop of Krakow not to come from the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)  The Gospel was something read at Mass, not something generally believed or preached, but the system worked—at least according to the norms of the world in which the Church found itself.   
     Of course the Church paid dearly for this alliance at the time of the French and subsequent revolutions.  But peace was made, monarchy and Church restored at the Congress of Vienna, and while the earthly powers gradually learned the lesson and moved away from the monarchial models—the Queen of the Netherlands keeps riding around on a bicycle as did her Queenly Mother and Grandmother in their reigns—the Church seems slow to understand that model has changed.  The various monarchies that survived World Wars I and II drastically reformed their courts in the 2oth centuries reducing the pageantry (and expense) and Paul VI did the same in the late 60’s with the papal household.  But damn if that stuff doesn’t come creeping back.  Cardinal O’Malley sold the Archbishop’s Palace in Boston (in part to pay the settlements against the Archdiocese for the sex-abuse suits), but how many other Archbishops and bishops have spent considerable funds buying and furnishing very elegant homes for themselves.  When a priest I know complemented Archbishop John Myers of Newark on his matching Episcopal ring and cufflinks—antique Roman coins—“His Grace” (as he like to be known) dismissed it saying: when you’re the Archbishop you never pay for these things.  In order to simplify the public ceremonial of the Church and to move it away from the baroque courtly appearance of earlier centuries, Paul VI did away with any number of prelatial accoutrements such as the monsignoral and episcopal mantelletta or the fur hood of the winter cappa magna (and discouraged the use of the cappa magna itself though he only banned it in Rome) but that hasn’t stopped the Tridentine Revivalists of Summorum Pontificum from raiding the closets of their dead predecessors to dress up once again in princely finery.  The result is not only to turn sacred worship into a costume ball but to focus on ideas such as “power,” “pomp,” “majesty” attributed not to God—with which no one would have a problem—but towards the Church and Churchmen.  That model reduces Catholicism to an anachronism and trivializes our faith.   
       We need new models to express our identity as a Church, but even as most bishops, thank heavens, turn away from this ridiculous prince-bishop model, too many seem to choose the corporate CEO model instead.  We don’t need shepherds in eight-hundred dollar suits who belong to the Country Club and the University Club so that they can entertain bank presidents and County Executives.   You go to a chancery office these days and it looks like a prestigious law firm or advertising business.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we need a certain professionalism in how the Church is run, but we don’t need the corporate culture. 
        Last week I had the occasion to attend an event over which a Byzantine Rite bishop presided.  I was embarrassed because during the preliminaries I was speaking with him and didn’t know he was the bishop until after he walked away.  I had thought I was speaking with some simple priest or other.  (I mean “simple” here as “unassuming” neither as “mere” nor “stupid.”)  During the Liturgy—which is certainly not ritually bland—he comported himself with an unassuming reverence and attention to prayer.  Afterwards he mixed very easily with parishioners, waiting in the buffet line chatting with those around him and unselfconsciously telling some jokes and making amusing and self-deprecating observations.  There was nothing of the great man about him.   Of course the various Eastern Rite dioceses are smaller in numbers but far more widespread than our Roman Rite dioceses.  Nevertheless I was impressed at the more simple and pastoral impression the bishop gave.  Simple and humble would have much more impact than the self-important style we too often see. 
      Ironically, I wrote this before seeing the gospel for today with its sobering reminder that stone will not be left upon stone.  We need to remember that too—that the earthly and institutional dimensions of the Church are not destined to last.  Something to think about, Your Grace. 

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