Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trouble Right Here in River (Tiber) City II

Melozzo da Forli: Angel Playing a Lute
The only angels in the Vatican are in the
the art museum
Yesterday’s posting was an interesting article by Philip Pullella and published by Reuters claiming that there is an internal war, or as Pullella puts it “a sinister power struggle”  going on in the Vatican for control of the Catholic Church.  It talks of corruption, intrigue, financial irregularities, prelates backstabbing one another, plots to control the next papal election and even a possible attempt on the pope’s life.  If you have read various entries on this blog—especially about the medieval and renaissance papacies (see entries for  January 15, April 18, June 6, 9, 18,  2011)—you will know as we pray: sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper in saecula saeculorum, or in the vulgar tongue: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. 
      At the root of the problem seems to be a deep ideological division between Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the current Secretary of State and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous Secretary of State.  (Papal Secretaries of State are more like Prime Ministers in terms of the power they hold; they are not just Foreign Ministers as in our country.) 
     Sodano ran a notoriously corrupt machine when he was in office.  He protected Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, from his accusers who were charging him with sexual abuse of seminarians. In the event the Maciel saga was far more sordid than anyone had ever thought. (see entries for June 2, Sept 22, October 27, 28, 2011)  Not only were the charges of abuse against young men substantiated, but Maciel apparently fathered two illegitimate children.  Maciel threw vast amounts of money at Vatican officials to not only shield himself from investigation but to enhance his reputation and influence.  Cardinal Sodano was a key player in this scheme, protecting the wayward priest even from the reaches of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) who was one of the few in the Vatican who seemed genuinely interested in cleaning up the sex abuse crisis and restoring the Church’s reputation.  Bertone’s appointment to replace Sodano was seen as an attempt to clean up the Vatican, but as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Bertone now seems to be no better than his predecessor. 
      As Benedict has aged word has it that Bertone has eased the reins of power from the pope’s hands into his own.  The debacle surrounding the Vatican’s turning down the re-election of Dr. Lesley-Anne Knight as Executive Secretary of Caritas International (see entry for June 7, 2011) shows just how much power the Holy Father has ceded, willingly or unwillingly, to Cardinal Bertone.  According to Pullella (and common gossip in Rome) Bertone is stacking the College of Cardinals with his cronies as he readies for the next papal election.   He certainly has pushed forward a disproportionate number of his fellow Salesians (the Religious Congregation to which he belongs) to various posts in the hierarchy.  It’s Bertone’s Church these days.  
      I remember when Benedict was elected that a priest being interviewed from Rome by RTE (The Irish National Television Station) referred to the Curia as “That rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignors.”  It evoked a reaction from several commentators but to those of us who live in Rome, it was an understatement, almost an euphemism.  We had hoped that the change of regime would sweep it clean.  Benedict, or rather Cardinal Ratzinger, was—for all his harshness—one of the few prelates with an unquestioned integrity.   Nevertheless, I have thought from the get-go that the election of Benedict was a poor choice.  Despite stories to the contrary, he wanted the election and he worked hard to get it.  I was living in Rome during the final years of John Paul’s papacy and one could see then-Cardinal Ratzinger slowly and patiently (and much less conspicuously than Bertone today)  constructing the machine that would carry a conclave in his favor.  I said that Cardinal Ratzinger was a man of integrity and I don’t believe he was seeking the papacy for power but rather that I think he believed that John Paul had taken the Church down some paths that needed to be corrected, if not reversed.   He was painfully aware that John Paul was weak theologically.  He saw John Paul as far too open both to other religions and to other Churches within the Christian fold.  (As a historian, I prefer not to use the theological distinction between “churches” and “ecclesial communities.”  It may be theologically precise, but it’s snotty.)  I think Benedict had some ideas on Liturgical Reform he wanted to implement as well. He seems to have wanted to restore a Pius XII sort of mysterious majesty to the papacy after the grandfatherly John XXIII and John Paul I, the Hamlet Paul VI, and the ol’ soft-shoe John Paul II.   And he was more ready than John Paul to give room—or I should say “even more room” to the “Traditionalists” who rejected Vatican II in an attempt to corral them back into the Petrine fold.  At the same time, I think he wanted to be somewhat less polarizing than John Paul and use a more dialogical model of reconciliation.  Like most academics, Benedict was naïve and I think he achieved very little of his agenda.  The Church is no better off at the end of his regime than it was when he became Pope.  In fact, I think it is considerably worse.  His olive branch to the Traditionalists has been met with only more demands from them.  His rigidity on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue has only isolated Catholicism more at a time when secularism has taken up its holy war against the public face of any and all religion.  His liturgical plans have not materialized (and for that I am grateful).  Instead of austere majesty, the Papacy is just sinking into archaic irrelevance.  And even as a lean and hungry Benedict once stood next to an aging and increasingly ineffective John Paul II, now the lean and hungry Bertone  guides the tremulous hand of Benedict.  The Church deserves better.  I don’t mean the Curia Romana or the Papacy deserve better.  Pullella’s article makes it clear that much as in Catherine of Siena’s day, the Curia Romana and its ambitious officials deserve the stench and fury of the everlasting fires.  I mean the Church—you and me, the People of God—we deserve  better. 

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