Pope to (many American) Bishops:

Paradigm Lost



The world media are giving considerable play to Papa Francesco’s series of interviews (12,000 words) now running simultaneously in several Jesuit-order publications (16?), including the prestigious bi-monthly La Civilta’ Cattolica, which began publishing in 1850 in Naples.  Link to English-language version in America magazine:




It will take some time to analyze and digest what the Pope has said.  The lede from today’s New York Times is a useful encapsulation, 52 words instead of 12,000:


Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday [September 19] with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.”


Btw…One of the prominent recriminators is the bishop of a very small New England state who echoed New York’s ordinary in expressing disappointment vis-à-vis the Pope.


Context is important:


  • The papal interviews were held over several days during the Roman August,  when “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” and the Curia Romana is on a prolonged summer break.  But not this Pope.
  • The venue was the ‘cardinals hotel’, Casa Santa Marta where the Pope has chosen to live; not in his formal apartment suite in the Vatican’s White House, Il Palazzo Apostolico.
  • The first Jesuit ever to be elected pope chose the heavy artillery of his own religious order’s media to broadcast his message; The Guns of August.
  • Perhaps most importantly, until the roll-out of the Pope’s carefully considered and edited views in La Civilta’ Cattolica, the Next Big Thing on the Vatican horizon was the report from the Gang of Eight Cardinals, expected in the course of their upcoming meetings with the Pope in early October.


This last point is worth bearing in mind:  the Pope has put on the table for discussion many of the vexing issues that to date have been ruled out-of-the-bounds of licit discourse within the Church. 


The Gang of Eight and the two ad hoc commissions tasked with looking at the Vatican’s financial activities are conducting Management 101 exercises, the analysis of secular issues…organization charts, mission statements, finance and accounting.  That is where the media attention has been concentrated.  But the risk in making organizational issues the focus of this fall’s discussion was that doctrinal content would have been overlooked, or subordinated to modifications of organization charts.  Form without content.  [Brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s masterful way of neutralizing the Washington bureaucracies by giving them make-work tasks.]  


A few weeks ago, the incoming secretary of state of the Vatican, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, brought several jaws to the floor by putting in play the issue of priestly celibacy, when he casually mentioned that this was a matter of tradition, not dogma.  The last time a ranking prelate tried to open up this topic, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes in 2006, he was slapped down with indecent haste by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and forced to recant in the style of the Stalin trials of the late 1930s.  Detail from the March conclave:  Cardinal Bergoglio sat next to his friend, Cardinal Hummes.   


The Pope has bypassed all of the traditional consultative entities in bring forward his views:  the Synod of Bishops, the Curia Romana, the national Episcopal conferences.


The American conference, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has by any reasonable assessment been very rigid on the issues most widely reported in the Pope’s interview:  “Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.”


Expect the usual crew of right-winger bloggers (one guy, one laptop) to come crawling into the sunlight rubbing their eyes with disbelief (John Le Carré, “We fear most in others that which we cannot accept within ourselves”).


The American vescovi have much more at stake than their laptops and a pirouette on cable news.  Their paradigm continues to be:  pray and obey; Father knows best.  But now, the prospect that emerges into their view from the swamp of Catholic America is Paradigm Lost.  Of course, this is only the beginning.  And no one can foretell what the outcome of this process will be.  However, the American bishops’ comfortable status quo has been disrupted. 


The dilemma that the Pope confronted over the summer might be illustrated by a metaphor borrowed from another Italian disaster.  There has been extensive media coverage of the extraordinary salvage operation involving the mega-cruise ship Costa Concordia, stranded off Tuscany’s Giglio Island.  For perspective, the ship is almost 1,000 feet long, and is 50% bigger than a Nimitz-class super aircraft carrier as measured by its 135,000 dead-weight tonnage. 


This might be a metaphor of what the Pope faces in right-sizing the Catholic Church, namely a behemoth which has been…


  • Immobilized for some time, apparently stable but at considerable risk;
  • Impaled precariously on underwater rocks;
  • Poised between the possibility of recovery and further catastrophic damage if it slides down to the seabed;
  • Steered into this predicament by a feckless captain with absolute authority, who scampered to safety as the real extent of the damage became clear; and
  • Faced now with an uncertain future – literally which port to head for – as the scope of its structural damage comes to light. 


The Pope states that the “Church is likely to fall like a house of cards’ as it plods along its current course.  Can you imagine how Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bertone might have dealt with an interview by Cardinal Bergoglio along those lines?


3 thoughts on “

  1. We need to “watch and pray” that Pope Francis does not become a prisoner of the Vatican. Yes, he is obviously aware of the pitfalls but the forces against him in the Vatican state are entrenched and not going to give up their power and dearly held views without a struggle.

  2. This seems to me like a luxurious honeymoon period — to soften rhetoric without making doctrinal changes will enlarge the tent temporarily…

    Stated another way, it is easy to look warm after the messaging ineptitude of Benedict.

    But what doctrines to change and how far? That will test the mettle of the leader for us, if he can take us (or most of us at any rate) to a better place. Francis has my prayers there — that will be a lot tougher than the charm offensive.

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