Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Year of Faith--and a disheartening history

John XXIII, Benedict's
Forgotten Pope?
When Pope Benedict announced a “Year of Faith” to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, he never mentioned in his apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, the pope that called the Council, John XXIII.  Benedict cited his predecessor John Paul II several times and he even referred to Paul VI but he never once acknowledged “Good Pope John.”  That is no mere oversight.  Papal statements don’t make oversights.  It can be seen as nothing other than a clear and deliberate snub of Pope John. 
The late Father Alcuin Coyle, a Franciscan Friar who worked at the Franciscan curia in Rome for many years and had a wonderful nose for Roman Gossip once told me that the Vatican was resisting the beatification of John XXIII despite having over 20 miracles to the credit of his prayers.  Of course, eventually the powers that held sway at the time had to give in and permit the beatification as the clamor of the faithful was too great.  To balance out the ticket the symbol of ultramontane pre-Vatican II Catholicism, Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878) was beatified in the same ceremony.  There seems to be little enthusiasm in the Vatican for the movement to push John XXIII on to sainthood.  John remains a very popular figure among rank and file Catholics but is seen by many in the Vatican as a traitor to all they have worked for and believe in because of the way his Council almost overturned their stranglehold on their bureaucratic power.
The Roman bureaucracy had long been building up a monopoly on Church authority.  I am not speaking of the Pope here and of whatever authority is proper to the Petrine Office, but rather of the immense officialdom that oversees the day to day administration of the Church.  Throughout the nineteenth century the Roman Curia expanded its power as modern communications—originally the telegraph, later the telephone, the radio, and television, and in recent decades the internet has facilitated direct and immediate communication between Rome and dioceses scattered around the world.  In the Napoleonic era and then at the Council of Vienna, concordats with the European powers took away the rights of the clergy in most dioceses to elect their bishops and replaced canonical election with papal appointments.  Missionary countries—and at the time that included the United States—were never granted the rights of episcopal election. After Vatican I and the Decree on Infallibility in 1870 the papacy was supreme in its authority over the western Church and the Curia ever increasingly tightened its stranglehold over all decision making.  The papacy of St Pius X was a time of particular centralization with the Machiavellian Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val as Pius’s chief minister.  The final years of Pius XII, particularly the years after his 1954 illness, were another period in which the Curial officials were able to strengthen their own power at the expense of the pope on one hand and local bishops on the other. 
The stranglehold that this bureaucracy held on Church decision making was one of the things that John XXIII was determined to break and his calling the Council brought the bishops of the world together to provide a challenge to the Curia as a Council not only provided the bishops with a voice of their own but had the authority to change structures of Church administration.  This they did—or attempted to do—with the Conciliar Decrees.  Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church), and Christus Dominus (The Decree on Bishops) effectively redefined the role of the Curia and its relationship to the bishops.  The trouble was, however, that the bishops went home at the end of the Council and the Curia stayed. The bishops had left a wounded animal.  The election of John Paul II marked a policy of return to the status quo before the Council.  The Curia had already begun its program of reconsolidating its power in the final years of Paul VI when the Pope, all but paralyzed by a combination of age and depression resulting from the hostility with which his encyclical Humanae Vitae was received, more and more withdrew from everyday governance of the Church.  Who knows what John Paul I would have done had he lived, but John Paul II aggressively supported a return to centralized power.  Some say that John Paul never understood the idea of collegiality and the role of his brother bishops, but I think he understood it well and rejected it. Shared authority didn’t fit into his somewhat narrow experience of having lived under totalitarian regimes for most of his life and the experience of the Polish Church that required lockstep obedience to the Primate if the Church were to resist the Communist rulers of Poland after World War II.  John Paul may have thought that restoring the Curia to power strengthened the papacy but in fact he could never get the control over the Curia himself.  It had become an agency “under” the pope only in name as various desk-jockeys from mighty Cardinals to lowly monsignori  began issuing decrees and decisions independent of the Pope and of one another—creating a morass of contradictory policies coming from Rome.             
Benedict may have thought that he could alter that—take control of the wild animal and tame it under his leadership but he has been mistaken.  In fact, the whole problem of the papal butler, Paolo Gabriele, stealing papal papers and turning them over to journalists was meant, at least in the butler’s mind, of exposing that the Holy Father is no more than a captive of a cabal of Curialists that are steering the Church in the direction they think it should go.  Well, God bless Pope Benedict but perhaps more than a “year of faith” commemorating the Second Vatican Council we need a John XXIII and a new Council to pick up the pieces and put us back on track. 
Incidentally, today is the 54th anniversary Pope John XXIII's coronation

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