Gullible’s Travels [June 30, 2013…one day after St Peter’s Day]


Made onsite visits to more than thirty parishioner groups in nine dioceses over the past few weeks: 

 Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Greensburg PA, Metuchen NJ, New York,      Philadelphia, Saginaw and Springfield MA…

 Many low-lights.  My overall impressions:

 1.  Accelerating decline across Catholic America as parishes are closed, churches locked up, and peculiar reasons are given by the ordinaries; some dioceses appear on the edge of collapse.

2.  While the tone and atmospherics in Rome are improving, the authoritarian actions and style of several U.S. bishops are becoming more pronounced.

3.  Many of the faithful in the pews are going quietly, but more than a few are pushing back, and they ask me one recurring question:

           Why is this happening?

            Answer: IMO, Compelling financial need. 

As a result, Catholic bishops are turning into weapons of Mass destruction.


If any of the ordinaries choose to reflect on their contribution to 2,000 years of Roman Catholic history, they should think back to the Latin adage,

 “Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice

[if you are trying to find your legacy, just look around].

 Comments on each of the dioceses, infra.

Still working on a posting about the Vatican bank.


 In Boston, three parishioner appeals against the deconsecration of churches built and maintained by the flocks are now docketed at the highest appellate level in Rome, the Collegium [bench] of the Signatura.  Odds of parishioners’ success are very low, but they decided to press ahead.

In the earlier phases of these appeals the archdiocese argued that the churches themselves were in disrepair.  Actually, this has been caused by years of diocesan neglect after the churches were locked up. 

Sharp reaction from the spokesman for the archdiocese, suggesting that these appeals have struck a nerve.

Btw…effective Monday, July 1, all parishes across the archdiocese become liable for an 18% diocesan tax (‘Cathedraticum’) levied on all parish revenues regardless of source.  Its tagline:  IFRM, as in Improved Financial Relationship Model.

Will this stabilize Catholic Boston’s financial situation?

 A French finance minister under King Louis XIV said that the art of taxation consists in plucking the maximum number of feathers from the goose while causing the minimum amount of hissing.  Not much hissing as yet, Boston’s Catholics are tired.


In Chicago, the demolition of a historic Catholic church on the fabled South Side has started:  St. James, built in 1870s, and now in the midst of a diverse neighborhood very much in need of the parish’s active ministries.

There has been a credible offer on the table from a developer, to repair and restore the church for a guaranteed fixed price of $4.5 million. 

What the archdiocese has chosen, instead, is to demolish this historic church at an estimated cost of some $4 million, and to replace it with a church-to-be-built; but no cost estimates have been given for the land purchase and the construction of a hypothetical new church.

It’s really not that complicated to figure out a break-even against the $4.5 million firm offer from the developer…

 $4 million plus X (the cost of a new church), where X is damned sure to be much more than  $500 thousand

 From Book of Revelation Chapter 13, Verse 18:

 “A certain wisdom is needed here; with a little ingenuity anyone [a bishop?] can calculate the number


In Cleveland, notwithstanding frequent mentions of clergy shortage, the local bishop (Boston homeboy, Arlington actually) has ‘accepted’ the resignation of a pastor, age 75, turning down the priest’s offer to remain in the saddle.  Also, “a nun has been told by her superior that she must stop worshipping with a congregation that severed itself from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland” (The Plain Dealer, June 19 last).  The priest who followed his breakaway flock has been excommunicated.

Bostonians will not be surprised.

Cleveland’s ordinary was the object of an Apostolic Visitation a few years ago, with focus on his management style.  And as noted below, eleven of his parish suppression and church deconsecration decrees were reversed in March of 2011, something without precedent.

Yet he remains in charge.


From Cicero’s Philippics, slightly redacted,

Quo usque tandem, Episcope, abutere patientia nostra?  [free translation, how much longer, pal?]


In Greensburg, PA, Fayette County, in coal country and a Marcellus shale play, the usual round of parish mergers, but with a twist: 

In this rural area with narrow winding roads and harsh winters, four thriving parishes are being merged into a fifth parish, and closed. 

But the diocesan bean counters seem to have overlooked the fact that the sum total of regular Mass attendees in the four to-be-closed churches is triple the seating capacity of the surviving parochial church

What will be needed is a kind of miracle of the loaves and the fishes, in reverse.

 During the 2008 primaries, candidate Barack Obama was taped at a fundraiser saying (just before the PA primary) something to the effect that all they have is guns and religion.

Of course he was loudly criticized, and had to walk the statement back.

That’s what happens to the truth, sometimes.  Just watch the first half of The Deer Hunter.


In Metuchen NJ, a vibrant Hungarian-American parish in New Brunswick is being suppressed; all of its metrics are strong, because  – who knew – there is a strong and continuing flow of Hungarian immigrants, to this day. 

The parish ‘feeds’ 100 children to a nearby Hungarian Iskola which ranges from pre-school to mid-teens.   The school is secular, but with the parochial church one block away the children can easily fit parochial religious education into their curriculum.

However, one block on the other side of the Iskola is a Hungarian Reform Church [Lutheran, quelle horreur] just waiting for the Iskola to fall into its lap as the Catholic parish is suppressed and the congregants are redirected to more distant venues for worship.

The New Evangelization?


In the Archdiocese of New York, a truly perplexing case…Almost six years ago, in January, 2007 under then Cardinal Egan an announcement appeared in the diocesan weekly about the decision to ‘canonically extinguish’ a trophy parish in Lower Manhattan.  But no decree was ever made public, and the ‘parish’ continued to function as a bona fide Catholic parish with the full menu of Sacraments.  So the flock thought that all was well…until September, 2012, when Cardinal Dolan suddenly wrote a letter affirming the 2007 decision of Cardinal Egan to ‘close’ the parish.  Which raises an issue under canon law that perhaps only a Jesuit could appreciate:  for the intervening five+ years (2007 through 2012) of this Zombie parish’s existence, dead but apparently alive, were the baptisms and weddings performed there legit?  Because these Sacraments may only be administered in parishes.

 In a strange procedural twist, the prefect of the Signatura (where the case is now pending) shared with the advocates for the parishioners a remarkable letter sent to him by the chancellor of the Archdiocese of NY, which states in part:

 “…the decision was made to sell the real property owned by [the parish], including the church building.  A contract of sale was entered into in March, 2013 to see these assets for $50 million, subject to the Holy See’s approval [emphasis added], with the purchaser ready now…

So much for the standard litany of reasons to justify a parish’s suppression.

The NY parishioners are not the only ones waiting with baited breath for the Signatura’s decision.


In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, shortly after his installation in September, 2011, the incoming archbishop replacing Cardinal Rigali warned that 2012 would be an annus horribilis; and he wasn’t kidding.

The parallels between Philly and Boston are uncanny:  

cardinals who slip stealthily out of town; major clergy sex abuse scandal; wholesale closings of schools and parishes; sudden revelations of multi-million dollar losses by the archdiocese; and riding to the rescue, O.F.M. Cap. (‘cappuccini’) as the saviors. 

But Philly has outperformed Boston in this race to the bottom:

 Two of its cabinet-level diocesan officials are now guests of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the next few years, tastefully attired in pinstripes: 

the former vicar for the clergy, and the former CFO…convicted for child endangerment and for embezzlement (about $1 million), respectively.

And the Philly clergy pension fund is – quelle surprise – busted.  Boston Catholics are allowed to hurry on, they have seen this episode.

From, June 18 last: 

“[Archbishop] Chaput said the [retirement] fund needed $90 million to be solvent but had less than $4.5 million [sic!]”

And, the spokesman for the archdiocese adds,

“4 million in Heritage of Faith donations were transferred into the priest pension fund of Jan. 31 [2013];”

Soooo, six months ago the retirement fund had been depleted to half a million dollars, against estimated obligations of $90 million…in other words, an asset base to support future obligations 180 times greater…wow, that is Catholic leverage.

 It gets worse…

Parishes and retired priests will have to contribute to the replenishment of the retirement fund [kick up points to the Family, as Tony Soprano would have groused]:

The assessment on parishes for the retirement fund goes up almost 30%; and

 “clergy living at the [diocesan retirement home] and other church-owned facilities are expected to contribute 40% of their pensions to the archdiocese”

 The current retirement stipend is about $12,000 per year, so retired priests in these centers will be left with about $600 per month.


Just a few days ago the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, reached the 75 anniversary of its founding.  When the ordinary, a former Philadelphia auxiliary bishop, celebrated Mass a few days ago at Saginaw Valley State University, a courageous diocesan priest celebrated a competing open-air Mass in an adjacent parking lot, to give solace to hundreds of parishioners displaced by the bishop’s decision to close almost half of all Saginaw parishes, from over 100 currently to an end-state of 56.

 A strange circumstance at the intersection of canon law and present-day technology:

In many instances the only notice of parish closings given by the bishop to the congregations was through a posting on the diocesan website.  Unfortunately, the rural parts of the diocese have lousy connectivity; and, more to the point, many parishioners are not Internet savvy – particularly the elderly. 

So when the announcement was posted, and the ten-day clock started to toll for the filing of a valid canon appeal, many loyal parishioners were helpless. 

Not a Christian way to treat men and women who placed their trust in the bishop.


Bishop Accountability has quite a cache of documents on the previous tenure of Saginaw’s ordinary in Philly.  The bishop, reportedly, is often away from the diocese, traveling to Philadelphia where there are civil suits arising from clergy sex abuse at a time when he was a senior diocesan official.    


The Diocese of Springfield MA is NOT the hometown of The Springfield Simpsons (that is Oregon’s prerogative).

However, the ordinary of Springfield holds the Bronze Medal for most parish decrees reversed by Rome, three

The Silver is held by Allentown’s ordinary, eight; and

The pride of Boston now in Cleveland holds the Gold, eleven.

But game is not over, yet…There are currently two Springfield decrees pending before the Signatura, and at least one of these cases will probably be adjudicated by the highest level of the Signatura, the Collegium, by the end of this year. 

Interestingly, the ordinary has also managed to get embroiled with secular law in both of these cases, as well as a third.

In the first case, the bishop sought an emergency motion to evict vigilers; denied.

In the second case, a probate judge awaits the definitive ruling from Rome before instructing the executor of a $640 thousand estate on where the proceeds should go; tangled back story here.

In a third case not involving a canon appeal by parishioners, the ordinary has taken on the City of Springfield regarding the city’s designation of a historic district which includes the diocesan Cathedral. 

‘His Excellency’ has lost at the federal district court level, and he has chosen to exercise his right of appeal to the federal appeal court for the New England district, one pay-grade below the U.S. supreme court.  Case to be heard in October.

 Perhaps it was not a shrewd move on the part of His Excellency to seek relief from secular courts, although this is  entirely within his secular rights:

In litigation there is the ever-present danger of discovery, including documents between the diocese and the Vatican; some day this might ‘pierce the veil’ of the Holy See, sovereign immunity notwithstanding.

Also, the decision to go up the appellate ladder has another set of risks:

If the bishop loses the appeal, he would enshrining more firmly into case law a judicial decision that might bite other ordinaries in their cassocks.  This was the outcome in Massachusetts on the issue of property taxes levied on locked-up churches.  The Archdiocese of Boston took the issue just one step short of the highest court, lost, and now local taxing officials have taken note, given the sizable number of locked-up churches throughout the Commonwealth.

Finally, the Diocese of Springfield is not exactly flush with cash, and unless the law firm involved is doing this pro bono, (hah), the meter is running.            



This is a long posting, but – with no claim of modesty – my current experience in handling many parishioner appeals is bringing into focus the fact that the dysfunction is not limited to one or two dioceses, known for their wayward ways…it is systemic.

There is a common view that the Catholic hierarchy in America is monolithic…not so.

Each of the (almost) 200 dioceses in the U.S. is a fiercely autonomous fiefdom.

So it is hard for the ‘Dicasteries’ (departments) of the Vatican to get an accurate overall picture when many bishops are ‘economical with information’ (to borrow a lovely phrase from the British civil service), and when there is little shared information, with each reporting unit putting things in their own format – something reminiscent of stove-piping in the intelligence community.

 Slightly more than a decade ago, in early January, 2002 before the Boston Globe series on clergy sex abuse started, the general view would have been that all was more-or-less well in Catholic America.  Today ask yourselves this, what will things look like in ten or elevn years? 


The Vatican Bank…there ya go again!

The Vatican Bank…there ya go again…

 Lead item in most Italian media today, June 28:Monsignor Nunzio Scarano arrested by Italian police on accusations of money recycling

 Might not seem to be a big deal, except for the following:

The monsignore  works at the Vatican’s office for the Administration of the Holy See’s Patrimony, ‘APSA’, the nerve center for control of the financial holdings of the Holy See; and

Just a few days ago, in a sudden move Pope Francis announced the formation of a ‘commission’ to report on the activities of the ‘IOR’, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, yes – the Vatican bank.

 The IOR is emerging as the central issue on the agenda for reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, a task entrusted to the Gang of Eight group of cardinals.  The G-8 has been marching at a stately pace, with its first formal meeting scheduled for October.

Having just completed a swing through seven U.S. dioceses in the past ten days, ‘all politics is local’ according to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, I am sorting out some vivid impressions from the pews.  

The IOR situation requires a careful assessment…will post something over the coming weekend. 

Vatican Gay Lobby … “Shocked, shocked” Part II – Other Stuff

Pope Francis’ recent mention of a Gay Lobby in the Vatican has now circled the globe.
While this item has been the focus of mainstream media coverage, there were several other newsworthy papal comments that have not had extensive play.
Also, a few commentators have wondered whether the Gay Lobby statement was reported accurately, or perhaps misperceived.

Many of you have probably not seen the transcript of the one-hour Papal audience on June 6 last giving the remarks of Francis, translated from the original Spanish and posted on the website of Rorate Caeli, described as a ‘traditional’ Catholic group. So I offer my take on some of the Pope’s other significant quotes, because we are not yet into the first 100 days of the Bergoglio papacy, and his unplugged comments provide valuable clues about Rome’s future directions. These noteworthy quotes, IMO:

A jab delivered to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,”They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder” [meter la pata, i.e. to put one’s foot in it];
Regarding the Vatican bureaucracy, “It is necessary to shake things up,” [dar vuelta a la tortilla, i.e. flip the pancake];
On other lobbies or pressure groups inside the Church, “There are some restorationist groups…One feels in 1940;”
Concerning reform of the Church, a shout-out to three of the cardinals in the Gang of Eight entrusted with the responsibility of recommending changes; “I am very disorganized;”
And as a finale for members of religious orders and for Catholics in the pews, “Place all your effort in the dialogue with the Bishops;” hmmm, does the mean the USCCB?

As noted below, the overall context of the Pope’s comments makes it abundantly clear that the comments were reported accurately, probably transcribed as delivered, and should be taken at face value.

1. There is a direct verbal shot aimed by the Pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the lineal descendant of the Inquisition Office; cfr. Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I for more detail).
As we know, CDF was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from the early 1980s until his accession to the throne of San Pietro in 2005.
Keep in mind that there is a very active ‘issue’ ongoing between CDF and the American Leadership Conference of Women Religious. So it is noteworthy that Francis has the following advice for six Latino religious leaders, including three women, on how to handle blasts from CDF:
“…they [CDF] will make a blunder, this will pass! Perhaps even a letter…will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such things…But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward…”

WOW! Do not worry about CDF? Under Cardinal Ratzinger that might have triggered an investigation, especially if coming from a Jesuit.
If the General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, had mentioned publicly the possibility of a ‘blunder’ by the Politburo member in charge of ideology, Mikhail Suslov, the crenellated walls of the Kremlin would have toppled.
The enforcement of ideology is the glue of faith-based systems.

2. The flip the tortilla (shake things up) comment should be taken in conjunction with the Pope’s later mention of the Curia Romana:

“The reform of the Roman Curia is something that almost all Cardinals asked for…preceding the Conclave. I also asked for it…the cardinals of the Commission [Gang of Eight] will move it forward…There is [Cardinal] Rodriguez Madariaga [from Honduras]…who is in front of it [sic]…there is [Cardinal] Erraruz [Ossa from Chile]…The one from Munich [Cardinal Marx] is also very organized.

Sounds like some papal signals about the much-anticipated review of the Curia, notably:
(a) the Latino center of gravity within the Gang of Eight, after Rome’s long neglect of Latin America;
(b) a signal about the leadership of the gang, Cardinal Rodriguez “who is in front of it;” and,
(c) the suggestion of a core group consisting of three of the eight cardinal-gangbangers.

And when the Pope mentions that “almost all Cardinals” asked for reform of the Curia during the pre-Conclave meetings, by subtle omission he is criticizing his own ‘prime minister’, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who gave a spirited defense of the Curia during the pre-Conclave meetings – and probably administered a death blow to his own favored candidate, Cardinal Odilo Scherer.

3. The Pope’s mention of “restorationist groups” may be taken as a pointed reference to the schismatic Saint Pius X Society, i.e. the Lefebvrists.
Pope Emeritus Benedict invested a lot of time and emotional energy in trying to end this schism, perhaps too much. One of Benedict’s most noteworthy gaffes rocketed around the world in January of 2009, with the Vatican announcement of the lifting of the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops including Bishop Richard Williamson – an on-the-record Holocaust denier. The announcement was literally dropped into the Vatican Press Office on a quiet Saturday morning, January 24, 2009, probably in the hope that it would slip into the public domain unnoticed.
Another piece of very clever Vatican news management: the Vatican’s press statement about the Lefebvrist bishops coincided, to the day, with the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement of the Second Vatican Council – results have been contested over the intervening decades by the Lefebvrists.

The Pope’s casual mention of Golden Era imagined by these restorationists brackets the period running from “1940” and until “60 years” [ago]. That defines a time span from 1940 through 1953, which falls entirely within the papacy of Pius XII, Pope Pacelli whose death occurred in 1958, the year when 21-year old Jorge Mario Bergoglio entered the Jesuit order. In other words, the papacy of Francis’ youth leading to his vocation as a Jesuit.
Pope John’s announcement of Vatican II was a reaction to the stagnation of the Pacelli regime.
If all of this seems too subtle, kindly remember that we are dealing with the first-ever Jesuit Pope, whose tribe values subtlety.

4. The papal comment about placing all of one’s efforts “in the dialogue with the Bishops” means – in context – with the national conference of bishops; for America’s Catholics this would mean the USCCB. Hmmmm.
Knocking on those doors reminds me of Dante’s mention of the inscription on the Gate of Hell: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate [abandon all hope, etc.].

End Comment
Back to the Gay Lobby quote, catalyst for the media’s intense coverage of the June 6 audience…one of my savviest Rome contacts has brushed aside the Lobby quote as “il segreto di Pulcinella” – Pulcinella’s secret, i.e. something known to anyone with at least a room-temperature IQ. Pulcinella is a stock Neapolitan character from La Commedia dell’Arte, traditional Italian street theater; his ‘secrets’ are known to all, except for Pulcinella who is clueless. Sort of like the media and NSA, with the New York Times playing Pulcinella.

The photo of the June 6 audience shows a circle of six visitors sitting around the Pope, all in close proximity, with no papal throne in sight.
The meeting was in Spanish, and the Rorate Caeli posting states,

A transcript of the pope’s words was made by those present…Whoever knows the Pope…can have no doubts about the accuracy

Some legal eagles might raise the ‘expectation of privacy’ argument, suggesting that the account was a breach of the audience’s ground rules.
They should heed an old adage of the KGB, [sidebar to the re-branded FSB, “miss you guys, wasn’t Vlad Putin stuck in middle management when he quit?”]:

Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead

Actually, a legendary Italian politician, seven times prime minister, who died recently at the age of 94, went beyond the KGB’s admonition with his own suggestion about keeping secrets:

If you don’t want something to become known, you shouldn’t confide it even to yourself

A Gay Lobby in the Vatican? “I am shocked, shocked” (Captain Renault)


During a Papal audience on June 6, Pope Francis reportedly mentioned the existence of a gay lobby in the Vatican.  The audience was with six religious (three men and three women) from ‘CLAR’, the Latin American Conference of Religious .

An account of the Pope’s remarkable remarks on a wide range of topics was posted on a Chilean website, with extensive pick-up in mainstream Italian media, on CNN and in the blogosphere.


Some preliminary comments, as I prepare (carefully) a longer blog post…

The Vatican spokesman gave a terse ‘no comment’, not a denial.

The conversation was in the Pope’s First Language, Español; no wiggle room based on a linguistic lapsus

Interesting that the word ‘lobby’ was used, not ‘group’ or ‘clique’.   

Fair to speculate that this was not a gaffe, but perhaps a subtle indication of other things to come.  However, during my May trip to Rome a ranking prelate in the Curia spoke about the staff’s fear of the Pope’s off-the-cuff (‘a braccio’) comments.


All roads of conjecture in Rome lead to The Report, the 300-page secret document prepared last year on the Vatileaks scandal, submitted to Pope Benedict in December, and probably the proximate cause of his resignation. 

Thirty Days that Shook the Catholic World
[June 10, 2013]

The thirty days that elapsed earlier this year from February 11 (when Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign) until March 13 (when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. was elected on the conclave’s fifth ballot) were book-ended by two historic developments:

No reigning pontiff had resigned over the previous 598 years; and

The first-ever Western Hemisphere pope, who described himself as coming “from almost the ends of the earth,” was elected quickly by super-majority, on the second day of the conclave.

With intense speculation about the priorities of Pope Francis and widespread expectations of Curia Romana reform, it is easy for all but the most avid Vaticanisti to lose sight of what transpired during the thirty days between Benedict’s announcement and the election of Francis.

Difficult to discern the longer term consequences, but some dots can be connected:

 Benedict’s decision has set a modern precedent for something not unlike the American Constitution’s 25th amendment regarding presidential succession in the event of disability; and

 During these crucial thirty days some significant personnel moves involving the Vatican bank were made, while the media were busy handicapping the run-up to the imminent conclave; a clever move to hide things in plain sight, but not really bella figura, (i.e. a good image), given the bank’s checkered history, and not the last that has been heard from that peculiar institution.

A separate post on the run-up to the conclave will come at a later date, to keep this one to a manageable length. In brief:

(a) A possible review of eligibility for the conclave in the wake of the self-exclusion of Edinburgh’s Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, and the embarrassing presence of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger [the LA Dodger] Mahony; Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali slipped in under the radar; and

(b) The overt politicking and blatant media posturing of the U.S. cardinal electors who were finally told to stop their daily press briefings, held in counterpoint to the Vatican’s strenuous effort to manage the conclave message, with 5,600 accredited media men and women in Rome.


Benedict’s Decision

At around noon, Monday February 11, Rome time, the Italian news service carried Pope Benedict’s announcement of his intention to resign, made during a speech he delivered in Latin, which sailed over the heads of most of the audience.

Personal note: at the time (6:00 AM Eastern), I was on the website of Il Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper and concluded immediately that this was bogus, the work of hackers. Lesson Relearned: we process the unknown in the context of what we think we know.

Benedict’s decision drew a wide range of comments. One of the most startling came six hours later from Cracow, Poland, where Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s longtime personal secretary, said, the lesson of Pope Wojtyla’s life is that one does not climb down from the Cross.

In retrospect there were very faint warning signs, notably Benedict’s visit in 2009 to the tomb of Pope Celestine V in L’Aquila, who resigned in 1294, overwhelmed by the task:

Benedict put his pallium [symbol of office] on his predecessor’s resting place. But at the time this did not draw much notice. Perhaps, characteristically of Pope Ratzinger, the gesture was too subtle for most of the 1.2 billion faithful.

Another portent was in the fall of 2012 when renovations began on a building inside the confines of the Vatican’s 105 acres, the Mater Ecclesiae, formerly a cloistered convent which was in some disrepair at the time. Now suitably rehabbed, it is the residence of the Pope Emeritus.

Perhaps the catalyst for the specific timing of the February 11 announcement was on December 17 last, when a troika of over-age 80 cardinals delivered to Benedict their 300-page report on the Vatileaks scandal. There is only one specimen [thus not a ‘copy’] of the report, but there is speculation that its’ contents shocked the Pope into making piazza pulita (a clean sweep) of the Curia Romana by his resignation which automatically triggered the resignations of all Vatican prefetti (senior officials). Journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, deeply involved in the Vatileaks saga, commented,

“It is above all the Curia and its system of power…All of the high brass of the Curia lost their jobs in one clean sweep…cleared the decks giving his successor the chance to start anew”

The longer term consequences for the papacy are hard to fathom. Perhaps Benedict’s resignation will be codified into the constitution of the Vatican, Universi Dominici Gregis. Or it might become modern precedent, to deal with physical disability (cfr. John Paul’s last years), or deep psychological anguish (cfr. Paul VI, after the ordeal of the kidnap and murder by Red Brigade terrorists of his friend of three+ decades, Aldo Moro).

The damned Vatican bank, again

Some commentators argue that there is no such thing as a Vatican “bank”, if the term means a commercial bank that takes deposits and makes loans. Hogwash. Think of the ‘bank’ as a Wall Street hedge fund, minus the deep spirituality of most NY fund managers. The Vatican bank, formally the Istituto per le Opere di Religione [‘IOR’] was created by Pope Pius XII in the midst of Word War II (‘hmmm’, as Marge Simpson would say). There are dozens of books about its sordid history, unfortunately many of them untranslated from the Italian, and jammed with dense legal and financial arcana. But just for the flavor of things…

 Try parsing the difference between a Bank Comfort Letter and a Bank Guarantee; legions of lawyers argued (lucratively) about this for years, but after wrangling and strenuous denials of IOR liability, in 1986 the bank mooted the issue by settling ‘voluntarily’ with creditors for about $250 million.

 And consider the curious death by strangulation, in June of 1982, of Roberto Calvi, found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. As head of Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano, his bank had a network of deals with the IOR; at the time a coroner ruled death a suicide; however, 20 years later a ‘forensic report…established that Calvi had been murdered’ [Wikipedia]. To date, no hedge fund manager has been found swinging from a rope tied to the Brooklyn Bridge.

But fast-forward to the present. About a year ago, in May, 2012, the president of the IOR, Signor Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was fired, summarily and publicly, by the bank’s board of directors. He had been hired in 2009, after a careful screening process, with deep experience in the banking industry as the head of Spain’s Banco Santander affiliates in Italy; Santander’s ties to Opus Dei are a matter of record. With impeccable Catholic credentials, he was handpicked by the Vatican’s Secretary of State (prime minister in all but name), Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. And he gets ousted after less than three years.

The presidency of the bank remained open for almost nine months, when – quelle surprise – just a few days after Pope Benedict’s announcement, and thus in the midst of a tsunami of media coverage about the upcoming conclave, some decisions regarding the bank slip into public view, with little pick-up by the international media:

 On February 14 an Italian news agency reports that a Belgian board member, Monsieur Bernard de Corte, will become the bank’s president; this is denied promptly by the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi;
 A mere two days later, it is announced officially that the position will be filled by Herr Ernst Von Freyberg, also a board member, a prominent German businessman, and a leading Catholic as a member of the Order of Malta;
 On the day of the Freyburg news it is also officially announced that a member of the bank’s supervisory board of cardinals (not to be confused with its board of directors), Cardinal Attilio Nicora, has been removed, to be replaced by Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, a close associate of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone;
 And finally, in mid-February just days after Benedict’s announcement, the high-ranking Vatican official in the Secretariat of State responsible for monitoring the IOR – Monsignor Ettore Balestrero – is promoted to archbishop, to be sent to Bogotà, Colombia as papal nuncio – with diplomatic immunity. As ‘under secretary of state’, Monsignor Balestrero had been the eyes and ears of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, tasked with monitoring the IOR.

If you are confused, then those who engineered these maneuvers truly deserve a hearty Mission Accomplished.

And one has to ask, why the rush to set in stone senior-level bank personnel decisions that had been left open for most of a year? Why not leave this to the next Pope?

To put things in perspective, consider a very imperfect analogy from four decades ago towards the end of the Watergate saga. Put yourself in the timeframe of June/July of 1974 when the end of the Nixon presidency was in sight, and ask yourself what would have happened if Milhous had fired the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and had replaced a pesky Fed director with a pal – say Bebe Rebozo? And quickly transferred General Al Haig to Brussels as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, with no need for the nit-picking of Senate confirmation (which did indeed happen a few months after Nixon’s resignation)?

On another personal note, during the conclave I tried to use a credit card at the Libreria Vaticana to pay for some (expensive) reference books. The cashier informed me that credit cards could not be used because as of January 1, 2013, Italy’s Central Bank had blocked the clearing of credit card transactions involving the IOR. Plus ça change.

End Comment

The future of the IOR will have to be addressed by the Gang of Eight cardinals tasked with advising Pope Francis on the Curia Romana. The legendary Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, former IOR president, famously commented, the Catholic Church cannot be run on Hail Marys.

But, per an old Latin saying, Corruptio optimi pessima est…

The corruption of the best people is the worst thing

The Gang of Eight will have to choose.


Quo Vadis Papa Francesco?

Quo Vadis, Papa Francesco?

[June 4, 2013]



These days the dominant preoccupation within the Curia Romana (the Vatican’s bureaucracy) is to figure out the broad priorities, organizational changes and shifts in policy of Pope Francis.  As the first hundred days of his papacy come to an end on June 21, the clearest papal signals to date involve the prospect of more collegiality; important stylistic changes; and perhaps some warnings for the senior prelates who lead three thousand ‘Ecclesiastical Territories’ around the globe, mostly archdioceses and dioceses.

And there is High Anxiety in Rome because of two unusual moves by the Pope:


He has reappointed the Curia’s senior officials (prefects and secretaries) “donec aliter provideatur,” i.e. until otherwise provided for – so they are all temps; and


He has selected eight cardinals (aka the Gang of Eight) to advise him on the governance of the Vatican, but the Gang does not meet formally until October. 


It’s going to be a long, hot summer.



The signs of more collegiality and the elimination of displays of pontifical luxury have been the topic of widespread reporting.  Starting on his fifth-ballot election in the evening of March 13, Papa Francesco has been referring to himself as the ‘bishop of Rome’, not as ‘the pontiff’.  And he has thrown aside some of the more garish ornaments of the previous papal regime:  the Prada slippers, the ermine-trimmed stole and the large ruby embedded in a solid-gold pectoral crucifix.


He continues to live in the cardinals’ hotel, the Casa Santa Marta inside the confines of the Vatican, limiting the use of his lavish papal appartamento in the Palazzo Apostolico to ceremonial meetings. 


To the dismay of his security staff, he plunges into the Sunday crowds in Piazza San Pietro, which have swollen in size since his election, with the fervor of a Bill Clinton.  And he frequently tosses aside remarks prepared by his staff, speaking instead off-the-cuff (‘a braccio’), the ultimate nightmare of advisers to Heads of State.


These symbolic changes have played well in most of the media, but some skeptics in the commentariat caution that substance trumps style, and that there is not much substantive change in evidence.


Two rejoinders to this:  if newly elevated world figures do not define themselves in their first 100 days, then the media will do it for them.  And in a faith-based organization with world-wide reach and 1.2 billion adherents, symbolism is a vital aspect of authority. 


On the substantive side (de decernendo in Vatican-speak), one of Pope Francis’ recurring themes is the need for prelates to get out of their diocesan centers and go into ‘le periferie’ to meet those marginalized by society.  In one of my recent canon appeals to Rome against a parish closing in the U.S., the concrete example of Francis’ tenure in Argentina was cited against the prospect of a church being locked up:


His Holiness, when He was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires, recommended that parishes rent garages where priests, deacons and Eucharistic ministers could give Communion, teach the Catechism…”


And in his recent May 23 homily to the Italian Bishops Conference (‘CEI’) he had a few pointed comments for his episcopal audience (translated from the italiano):


A lack of vigilance…makes the Pastor tepid…It tantalizes him with the prospect of a career, the enticement of money and with compromises…it makes him lazy, turning him into an official, a state functionary concerned with himself, with organization and structures…”


There is no record of any of the vescovi in the CEI audience seeing themselves in that light.


Notwithstanding the Pope’s comments about ‘organization and structures’, this is precisely the focus of his Gang of Eight.  As widely reported, these cardinals have been picked for geographic diversity, consisting of the following members (alphabetically):


  • Cardinal Bertello, governor of Vatican City
  • Cardinal Errazuriz Ossa, Santiago, Chile
  • Cardinal Gracias, Mumbai
  • Cardinal Marx, Munich
  • Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, Kinshasa
  • Cardinal O’Malley, Boston
  • Cardinal Pell, Sydney
  • Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, Tegucicalpa


The group’s secretary is Archbishop Semeraro, ordinary of Albano (close to Rome).


The ink was barely dry on this announcement when the Vatican felt it necessary to tamp down frantic speculation about the future structure of the Curia.  In mid-May the Vatican’s Pravda-equivalent, L’Osservatore Romano, reported a senior Curia prelate’s on-the-record comments (translated from the italiano):


  • It’s somewhat strange:  the Pope has not yet met the group of chosen advisers and already advice is pouring in…Having spoken with the Holy Father I can say that at this time it is absolutely premature to advance any hypothesis concerning the future structure of the Curia…”


And the senior prelate added,


  • This is a consultative body, not a decisional one, and in truth I cannot see how the choice of Papa Francesco [to commission the group] could call into question the leading role [of the papacy].”


Apparently, some of the unsolicited advice “pouring in” has involved (a) the creation of new senior posts in the Curia, (b) the abolition of the Vatican’s notorious ‘bank’, and (c) unsolicited advice from the Gang’s secretary – who is supposed to record, not recommend. 


From the pick-up in the tempo of my own cases, the Curia’s machinery has re-started, even if the Vatican’s senior prelates are now serving without the benefit of term appointments.  The Collegium [panel of 5-6 judges] of the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican’s supreme-court equivalent) meets this week.  And there are some interesting stirrings, including a very recent Signatura decree involving the safeguarding of the church of a suppressed American parish, with the court leaning in the direction of the faithful (the appellants challenging the ordinary)…to be reported soon in another post. 


Circling back to the beginning of this post, what will be the broad priorities of the Pope, the safest answer, “too soon to tell.” 


However, nothing is new under the sun.  Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Papa Roncalli, the Blessed Pope John XXIII.  I was serving at a NATO command in Italy at the time, and still have a vivid recollection of that remarkable papacy.  The conclave that followed moved quickly to elect Cardinal Montini who took the name, Paul VI.  The compelling reason for speed in filling the sede vacante was the scheduled visit to Rome of the U.S. president who happened to be the first Catholic to hold that job. 


At the beginning of Papa Roncalli’s reign in the fall of 1958, one of the dominant questions for the Vatican was the need for reform of the Curia Romana.  In an unusual move the Pope convened a press conference where he was asked,


How many people work in the Vatican


He paused for effect, and then said with a straight face,


About half.