Several [but not Seven] Pillars of Ignorance about the Church

Several [but not Seven] Pillars of Ignorance about the Church

[November 17, 2013]


As the holiday season approaches, international media organizations are developing reports on Pope Francis, his stewardship to date, and a sense of where he can be slotted along the spectrum of conservative-to-moderate-to-progressive.  Leaving that task to folks well above my pay-grade, I prefer to offer some observations ranging from Rome to the American pews, clustered into five (not seven) discrete areas: 

Papal Leadership Styles

The Vatican Bank

The Vatican Judiciary

Bergoglio’s Brother Bishops

November 22, 1963


Papal Leadership Styles 

About a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber provided the classical definition of leadership styles:  traditional, legal and charismatic. 

With 266 Roman Pontiffs across almost two millennia starting with San Pietro, the Catholic Church has experienced a wide range of CEO styles.  

But going back a mere century to the accession of Benedict XV in September, 1914 (just after the outbreak of The Great War), it is fair to say that among the nine bishops of Rome of this ‘modern’ era, Papa Francesco stands out, not only as the first-ever from the New World, but also because of his exuberant spontaneity which is becoming an integral part of his charisma. 

The only other pope among the other eight whose spontaneity was noteworthy might have been Pope John Paul I, (Albino Luciani, the 33-day pope), who had the habit of tossing aside prepared remarks drafted by the Curia Romana, conveying instead a sense of joy that contrasted with the demeanor of his dour predecessor, Pope Paul VI. 

Putting aside the brief interlude of Pope John Paul I, for the past hundred years the Church’s leaders have enjoyed unchallenged legitimacy based on several centuries of tradition and adherence to the Vatican’s legal structures.  The charismatic ingredient has been present in all cases, but to varying decrees:

Contrast the rock-star persona of the Polish Pope with the visible reticence of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI now the “Pope Emeritus.”

Yet looking more closely at the two most charismatic popes in living memory, John Paul II and Francis, there is a crucial difference between them: 

John Paul II reinforced his message with the powerful charisma of his wide-ranging travels and huge crowds; however, he relied heavily on the Vatican machinery to execute his clear doctrinal message, to enforce it where necessary, and to bring forward – as candidate cardinals and bishops – only those prelates strictly in line with his message.

On the other hand, Francis’ charisma – remarkable and growing – consists mostly of his New Look of humility and modesty, without any hard-edged doctrinal content.  At the most, a willingness to open a discussion on previously taboo topics (priestly celibacy?).  But no substantive changes to date.


In his masterful book on the Kennedy phenomenon (discussed infra), The Kennedy Imprisonment, author Garry Wills mentions some of the key features of charismatic leadership:


the product of crisis and enthusiasm…[with] an emergency character [from a study of Max Weber by Reinhard Bendix]”;

works through a loose organizational structure [Bendix]”; and

When it tries to supersede continuing forms of authority, it destabilizes itself [Wills; emphasis added]”.


This last comment is crucial, and may be a preview of coming episcopal attractions where many prelates, including a leading American cardinal, take it upon themselves to explain to lesser (laity) mortals what the pope actually means; more, infra.


The Vatican Bank (Istituto per le Opere di Religione, IOR)


An interesting item popped up yesterday in La Repubblica, a major Italian print daily, titled “IOR, The manual that explains how to foil suspect transactions.”  The instruction to all IOR employees begins, 

Procedures to block the recycling of the proceeds from criminal activities and the financing of terrorism.” 

 Now who could argue with that worthy objective?  Well, read on for the answer.

 Key features:

 All funds transfer transactions have to be scored on the basis of several criteria:

Geography, i.e. country of origin of transaction;

Size of client’s account;

Type of transaction (cash, negotiable instrument, etc.);

Involvement of offshore havens;

Profile of the client.


This last criterion merits a verbatim quote from the article:


“[translated] If the one proposing the operation is a cardinal the risk is high.  It [the risk] diminishes if it is something involving a bishop, a religious, or a lay employee or the Vatican.  The reason is simple:  if a cardinal commits something illicit, the damage [to the Church] is greater.”


All cash transactions of €1,000 or greater (a $1,350 threshold) must be ‘controlled’.  And while the norm for the Italian banks’ cash transfers is about 5% to 7% of all funds transfer operations, “[translated] for the IOR it is between 15% and 20% because of the many donations that the Church receives from all over the world.”  Ahem; or better, amen.


This somewhat obscure item may explain something that has drawn more attention from the international media:  chatter about unhappiness with the pope among chieftains of La ‘Ndrangheta which is the Calabrese version of La Cosa Nostra (Sicily) and La Camorra (Naples and Campania).  Anti-mafia prosecutors have been surveilling the Goodfellas for years, and recently picked up cell phone intercepts.  From the U.K.’s The Independent, a leading daily, on November 13:


Pope Francis’s life is in danger from ‘ndrangheta…a magistrate in the southern city of Reggio Calabria…has said that the Pontiff’s crackdown on financial corruption in the Vatican has angered bosses in the brutal crime syndicate.


Earlier this week the Pope, as head of Lo Stato della Città del Vaticano, paid a courtesy call on the President of Italy.  Without any escort cars, Francis traveled across the Tiber to the Quirinale Palace in a four-door Ford compact, shunning his armored Mercedes limo.

So, a technical change in the IOR’s vetting of funds transfer operations has displeased some folks. 

As Lenin did in fact say, “everything is connected with everything else.”


The Vatican Judiciary 

In the course of last week the Vatican’s supreme-court equivalent, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, held its fall plenary session in Rome.


For many anxious American parishioners whose canon appeals against parish suppressions and church closings have been working their way through the Vatican appellate system, there were decidedly mixed feelings when it became clear that no parishioner appeals were on the docket, hence at least another six months of waiting until the 2014 spring session.


Based on several active Signatura appeals in which I am involved, from Boston, New York, Fall River, Philadelphia, Scranton, Saginaw, Indianapolis, Youngstown, Metuchen, Syracuse and Springfield MA (not Springfield OR, home of The Simpsons where Rev. Timothy Lovejoy keeps the First Church of Springfield open and full), I sense mixed feelings among my parishioner brethren:


Disappointment that their years of waiting stretch out even further; but hope that some of Pope Francis’ pastoral spirit will work its way through the labyrinths of the Vatican’s tradition-heavy judiciary.


In these appeals we have emphasized that when Pope Francis was the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires he would urge his pastors to move out into le periferie, even renting garages for the worthy purpose of bringing the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments to the people where they live their daily lives.  That would appear to reverse the dynamic in many American dioceses, where closing parishes and deconsecrating churches flies in the face of the New Evangelization, since the parochial infrastructure of many American dioceses is being destroyed by the men, entrusted with their care, who have failed in their episcopal mandate in Canon 1752, the very last one in the Code:


“…keeping in mind that salvation of souls, which in the Church must always be the supreme law…”


Interestingly, the November docket of the Signatura was taken up by ‘priestly’ cases:  laicizations; and disputes between ordinaries and pastors.


Bergoglio’s Brother Bishops


The bickering is subdued, but with a tuned ear some of it may be heard, in sotto voce whispers.  The two clearest signals come from ranking German prelates, and from American Catholicism’s ancestral See – Baltimore, during the recent meeting of the American bishops’ conference.

 This episcopal discontent is now simmering at a low level.  But it bears careful monitoring because if it spreads (‘proliferates’) the odds of an unpleasant event climb rapidly. 




In my previous blog I reported on the Bishop of Bling; o.k., o.k., Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Ordinary of the Diocese of Limburg.

As reported recently in The Tablet, the indispensable British weekly newsletter with its astute Vatican commentary, the bishop “hopes to return to Limburg.” 

His exile from the diocese of which he is still the head has taken him, over the past few weeks, from the German College in Rome to a Benedictine Abbey in Bavaria. 

On the Rome front, the Pope’s spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, has stated that this is an issue for the German bishops’ conference to address.

However, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has chosen to weigh in strongly on behalf of the Limburg ordinary. 

Moreover, there is speculation that Pope Francis’ chief-of-staff, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the Papal Household of Pope Francis, and seminary classmate of the Limburg ordinary, may be engaged. 

And of course, the Pope Emeritus, who as Benedict XVI appointed Tebartz-van Elst as bishop of Limburg, is now literally in the picture, living within the tight confines of the 105-acre Città del Vaticano in a small converted convent where he shares quarters with Archbishop Gänswein. 

Finally the ‘mother diocese’ of Limburg is the nearby rich and powerful Archdiocese of Cologne, where Cardinal Joachim Meisner continues in office, in spite of having vaulted past his pro forma retirement age almost five years ago, and reaching the age of 80 this Christmas. 

All in all, potentially quite a support network for Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.


Yet if ever there was a cut-and-dried test case for the Pope’s heroic efforts to eradicate episcopal displays of luxury, this is it – untainted by any pesky doctrinal issues. 


Baltimore, on the margins of the USCCB        

As widely reported, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held its General Assembly there last week. 

Out of a field of ten candidates to succeed New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan for a three-year term as president, Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz carried the day.

His tenure will take him through next year’s Congressional mid-terms and the 2016 Presidential marathon, as the leading spokesman for Catholic America.  More on the role of the American Church in politics, in the next section.


In an interview with CBS This Morning on November 13 Cardinal Dolan was asked an astute question by Charlie Rose

“[from the transcript] …regarding a survey to the world’s one billion Catholics and asking them for their opinions on many issues including same sex marriage, contraception and divorce. To many, this was seen as unusual to ask for opinions on already supposedly clear church doctrine.  Dolan said while the church doctrine is clear on these issues, the pope was asking his followers how the church can be better.” 

Dolan’s reply, 

“[emphasis added] What [the Pope is] asking about is how can we present it better? How can we be more effective at teaching? And how can we reach out with love and compassion to those who find it difficult to live up to church teaching?”

“Pope Francis is shrewd – he said that ‘the people that know about marriage and family best are – guess who? Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers..'” 

how the church can be more compelling


Let’s reflect for a moment, the “beautiful liberating teaching” about condoms? 

The “timeless teaching” of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 Papal Encyclical on contraception?  Ooops, I meant ‘regulation of birth’.


IMO Dolan’s comments are quite revealing.  And eerily reminiscent, but not in a good way, of the perfunctory consultations held with parishioners throughout Catholic America over the past decade, during the ‘pastoral planning’ for parish closings. 

Dolan’s First Avenue chancery in Manhattan is just a few blocks from Madison Avenue.  Perhaps His Eminence has in mind some help from the Mad Men in messaging, marketing and selling, since the timeless teaching content itself is apparently not up for discussion. 

Pushed to its logical conclusion [truly reductio as absurdum] what Dolan seems to be saying is, ‘just get the Papal website right, fix the glitches, and all will be well’.




Btw…The inset, above, is a screen-grab from the Baltimore CBS interview, and something about it caught my eye: 

Throughout almost all of the the CBS interview, the incoming USCCB president,  Archbishop Kurtz (on the right), has his iron pectoral cross clearly in sight; Cardinal Dolan’s shiny yellow pectoral is obscured by His Eminence’s hands. 

In the Vatican’s Palazzo Apostolico, there is hardly a gold one in view since Pope Francis has opted for a pewter pectoral 

Maybe New York’s ordinary didn’t get that e-mail.


Philadelphia’s ordinary, Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., also had some interesting sidebar comments about Pope Francis, from Baltimore:

“…Is there discontinuity between the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and the new kind of leadership of Francis?  I think no…”

“…we should look at him after a year, rather than trying to size him up at each speech…

“…I was not criticizing the Holy Father…”


And he urged caution against those who

“…want to use the pope to further their own agendas…”


Hmmm, Catholics listening attentively to words and gestures from the Summum Pontifex of their Church, and then incorporating His message into their daily lives, and – yes – into their spiritual agendas.  What else is a Pope for, Your Excellency?


And another gem from Philly’s bishop about Pope Francis:

“…the first non-European in a very long time…and the way you see things from South America and the Southern Hemisphere is very different from northern Europe…”

 Yep, those southern Hemispherics ain’t like us northerners, gotta watch ‘em real careful-like.


November 22, 1963


The coming week will have extensive coverage of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, half a century ago. 

Until that tragedy, President Kennedy’s signature trip to Texas was the one that occurred in the closing weeks of his 1960 campaign, when he went to the Lone Star state to deliver a speech on September 12 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a Protestant Clergy group with heavy Southern Baptist participation.  The speech, in a hostile venue, was an attempt to tamp down the anti-Catholic sentiment growing in volume and vitriol.  Politically it was a helluva gamble.


Given JFK’s eventual razor-thin majority in the 1960 national popular vote, about 112,000 votes out of 67 million cast (two-tenths-of-one-percent), it is not clear how successful his Houston speech actually was.  But the key quote, truly a profile in courage in that setting, ran:

 “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote…”


Contrast this with what Archbishop Chaput said on camera during a Catholic News Service interview in October of last year:

We’re Catholics before we’re Democrats. 

We’re Catholics before we’re Republicans.

We’re even Catholics before we’re Americans because we know that God

has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us.


That kind of statement from a leading Catholic prelate in the closing weeks of the tough 1960 campaign would have probably tilted the election to Milhous

To which most cardinals and bishops of today’s USCCB might say, 



In contemporary America, JFK’s separation of church and state is about as effective as a swimming pool, with a sign at one end reading ‘Urination Section’, and on the other end ‘No-Urination Section’.