Three Days that have shaken France, Ten Days that may shake the Vatican

Three Days that have shaken France;
Ten Days that may shake the Vatican

France: January 7 through 9…
As the shock from those three terrible days across Greater Paris turns to numbness, attitudes crystallize and recriminations fly through the media.
While there has been justified criticism of the absence of a ranking American official in the iconic picture of January 10, showing about 40 political leaders with their arms locked together in solidarity, where were Catholic France’s cardinaux et évêques?

Consider the following statistics about France:
Total population of 66 million (World Bank);
Catholic population of 50 million (Vatican Statistical Yearbook);
Muslim population of 4.7 million (Pew Research Center);
Jewish population of 478 thousand (Institute for Jewish Policy Research).

So, with self-described Catholics about 10X the combined total for Muslim and Jewish faithful, one would think that the Church might be a rallying point for civil society of all faiths. But not so…
The sad truth is that in the emerging ‘post-9/11’ trauma in France, the role of the Catholic hierarchy is insignificant.

Santa Città del Vaticano: February 6 through 15…
From February 6 through 8, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors “will hold its plenary session,” meaning that this long-dormant entity announced in December of 2013 will finally have its official launch in early February of 2015 with all of its members assembled for the first time. The Commission’s president is Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley.

From February 9 through 11, the Pope’s advisory council of nine cardinals (aka the C9) will hold another session, in all likelihood rolling out long-anticipated recommendations for the reform of the Roman Curia through an initial phase of departmental mergers and consolidations. There is recurring talk of elevating an obscure body, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, to the full rank of a Curia congregation, i.e. a department.

And on February 14-15 a Consistory will be held, the anointing of 20 cardinals, of whom 15 will be cardinal-electors.

The connection between the recent events in France and the imminent events in Rome is, on the one hand…
A disheartening glimpse of the past – namely the squandered legacy of many centuries, evidenced by the sharp decline of Catholicism in France; and, on the other hand…
A cloudy view of the future through the lens of Pope Francis’ effort to reform and revitalize the Catholic Church.

By all accounts of last October’s Synod on the Family, the front-burner controversies for the leading Catholic hierarchy assembled were:
Whether to consider Communion for divorced Catholics, and
Language in the working document that records the Church’s stance on gays; and whether it should state,
“..are we capable of welcoming these people [sic]…in our communities?”

One might think that the religious hierarchy leading three-fourths of France’s population would be front-and-center in the public debate about the root causes of the sectarian violence aimed at Europe’s largest Jewish population, almost 500 thousand people.

Ok, ok, France’s rigid separation of church and state, going back to the Law of 1905, or perhaps to the French Revolution, has created a legislated No-Man’s-Land between the two domains.
But in recent years that has not deterred Catholic cardinals and bishops from intervening vehemently in the national debate about same-sex marriage in France.

Looking back at not-so-recent French history, with the collapse of France in the spring of 1940, a collaborationist government under the thumb of the Nazis was installed in Vichy. But the Nazis dominance in Occupied France until late 1942, and then their complete take-over, did NOT prevent many in the Catholic hierarchy from embracing enthusiastically the Vichy regime, which was in fact crypto-fascist.
Check out Casablanca for the details.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II it took a lot of damage control by the Vatican to address the French hierarchy’s involvement with the sordid Vichy ‘government’.
In 1946 Pope Pius XII bowed to Charles de Gaulle’s request that the tainted wartime papal nuncio be replaced, and in an inspired move the Pope sent to Paris as nuncio a down-to-earth monsignore, Angelo Roncalli, who in 1958 acceded to the papacy as John XXIII.

Putting aside centuries of deep involvement by the Catholic hierarchy in the governance of France…Cardinal Richelieu in the XVIIth century; defrocked Bishop Talleyrand in the Napoleonic era, and so forth…what could be the role of the Church in the crisis that now besets France?

Today there is a Catholic grass-roots infrastructure of 15,000+ parishes to serve France’s 50 million Catholics, or 300 parishes per million.
(This is more intensive coverage than America’s 17,000 parishes for 70 million Catholics, about 242 parishes per million, disproportionately concentrated in swing Electoral College states).

But if you dig deeper into Catholic France, the overwhelming Catholic presence is much less than meets the eye:
The French Bishops Conference reports to Rome that only 5% of self-described Catholics are regular worshippers, i.e. about 2.5 million people in the pews.
Contrast this with Muslims, where the Council of Imams reports that 75% of France’s 5 million Muslims are regulars at Friday prayers, i.e. 3.75 million faithful in the Mosques; 50% than the soi-disant Catholics, with one-tenth of the worshipper base.
Worse, while there are indeed 15,000+ Catholic parishes, more than half of them are without a resident pastor (Vatican stats).
Which explains why deconsecrated Catholic churches are for sale (cfr. the recent Wall Street Journal article, Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale).
In parallel, imams are lining up for building permits to erect Mosques, with lavish financing from several Arab petro-states.

A few addenda:
The shortage of clergy is for real in Catholic France, not merely a contrivance of diocesan bishops who decry the clergy shortage while quietly telling religious orders to clear out (cfr. Boston, Cleveland, Syracuse, Metuchen and Philly…you catch the drift).

France’s Muslim population of almost 5 million is probably an undercount, but even at this reported level, while Germany has a slightly higher Muslim population, France has on its territory the highest percentage of Muslims and Jews in Western Europe; in today’s context, an explosive mixture.

This is precisely the moment when French civil society should rally at the grass roots level, mobilized in no small degree by France’s communities of faith.
But beyond some ritualistic condemnations of violence, the Catholic hierarchy is off-stage. Catholic France is in an advanced state of decline, and the Catholic hierarchy is irrelevant as the nation now lurches into an uncertain new era where Islamists will intensify their murderous assaults against France’s Jews.

Most students who have suffered through a course in Medieval History know the classic story of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453:
Under siege by the Ottoman Turks ringing the city, during the final days Constantinople’s council of elders was debating the most important theological issue of the day, the sex of angels (boy or girl?).
Strange how more than half a millennium later, the Church Universal is still so hung up on “pelvic” issues.

Vatican City
Coming less than two years since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy, the imminent events in Rome during February will probably be the defining period of Pope Francis’ brief papacy. There is a logical connectedness among these important gatherings, scheduled to unfold in rapid succession over a ten-day span.

From February 6 through 8, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors “will hold its plenary session,” meaning that this long-dormant entity announced in December of 2013 will finally have its official launch.
The Commission president is Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley; its secretary (and for a year its sole staffer) is the Rev. Robert Oliver, formerly the canonical adviser to Boston’s disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. Considering Law’s track record on protecting minor’s in Boston until his stealthy departure in December, 2002, one may well wonder about the canonical advice His Eminence was receiving during the 1990s.

From February 9 through 11, the Pope’s advisory council of nine cardinals (the C9) will hold a plenary session, in all likelihood rolling out its long-anticipated recommendations for the reform of the Roman Curia through mergers and consolidations. Cardinal O’Malley is the ex officio representative for North America.

And on February 14-15 the Consistory will be held, anointing formally 20 new cardinals.

The O’Malley Commission puts the issue of clergy sex abuse of minors squarely inside the Vatican as something that can no longer be sloughed off as the problem of an individual diocese, or a religious order, or a particular national episcopal conference.
The imminent launch of the O’Malley is belated recognition that the Church’s nightmare is not over, and in fact is re-emerging on a global scale, well beyond the ability to cope of national bishops conferences.
Stay tuned for the report of the UN panel which held hearings last year in Geneva.
It is also worth noting that there is now a defined entity within the Vatican State itself that bears formal responsibility for clergy abuse oversight. To date, at the level of the Vatican there was merely appellate, case-by-case oversight by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
So beware the law of unintended consequences: this organizational development may encourage aggressive tort attorneys [oops, a blatant redundancy] to update their research on the legal responsibility of the Vatican as a sovereign state, through the exceptions set out in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. Lawyers, start your engines.

The C9’s recommendations on the Curia, all but certain to be endorsed by the Supreme Pontiff, will begin to rearrange the Vatican’s organization charts – probably in a more comprehensive manner than has been seen in decades.
For starters, it is widely thought that the Pontifical Council for the Laity will be elevated to the higher status of a congregation, i.e. a formal department of the Vatican.
The breadth and depth of the Nine Cardinals’ recommendations will bring into focus how serious the Pope is about devolving power from the center in Rome to the periphery, i.e. to the 5,000 dioceses and eparchies around the globe.

And the Consistory signals the Pope’s vision for leadership at all levels – in the Curia, in major dioceses, and in the re-balancing of the continental geographic blocs within the College of Cardinal-Electors, which holds the power of papal selection.

As Stalin once observed, accepting from Lenin in 1922 the then-obscure position of general secretary of the party’s Central Committee, policy is personnel.
The all-important details of the consistory have been picked over thoroughly by the Vaticanisti. The key points:
Not a single norte-americano to be found in the batch, although some U.S. Sees could have justified a red hat as the ordinary;
Only one member of the Vatican Curia has been selected, the incoming head of the Signatura who by law must be a cardinal;
Two prestigious Italian Sees that would have easily rated a cardinal-in-charge, will have to make do with mere archbishops: Turin and Venice; and
Some rather unusual Sees will soon be headed by cardinals, notably Yangon, Tonga and Cape Verde.

Not too much of a stretch to discern a weakening of the Italian-American grip on the cardinal-electors in the College; at the March, 2013 conclave, this contingent consisted of 39 red hats, precisely one-third of the present-and-voting 117 prelates in the Cappella Sistina.
Considering that for the early ballots of Conclave voting a two-thirds majority is required for election, it is remarkable that the cardinals from two nations with only 10% of the world-wide flock held a 33% veto power.
And it adds insult to injury to keep in mind that in Italy and the U.S., churches are emptying out.
Perhaps as a healthy corrective to this voting imbalance, there are trial balloons coming out of Rome on the possibility of expanding the College of Cardinal-Electors, something not fixed by dogma, but at the discretion of the Pope.
Per a recent report of Italy’s news agency ANSA,
Pope Francis is considering the feasibility of expanding the number of cardinal electors…to 140 from the current 120.”
Stalin was right – policy does come down to personnel.

Alongside this Vaticanology, one should also bear in mind the thunderbolt hurled by the Pope at the Vatican Curia, which was assembled in the Palazzo Apostolico’s baroque Clementine Hall for what was expected to be a pleasant Merry Christmas address on December 22 last.
Instead of auguri, the cardinals and bishops were on the receiving end of a harsh papal speech.
Per the official account of his remarks [translated below] here are some gems:

The Curia “like any body…is exposed to sickness…The sickness of considering oneself …’indispensable’”
“…those who immerse themselves in work, invariably neglecting. ..sitting at Jesus’ feet
the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening…those who…conceal themselves behind paper and become working machines
The ailment of excessive planning and functionalism
Spiritual Alzheimer’s…progressive decline of spiritual faculties
“…existential schizophrenia: the sickness of those who lead a double life, fruit of the hypocrisy typical of the mediocre…those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic matters…”

Care to name your candidates for the top five American chanceries where much of this is in evidence? Try:
Braintree MA
Philadelphia PA
Cleveland OH
Newark NJ

End Comment
In the wake of last October’s Synod, it has become clear that the center of gravity of opposition to Francis is within the American hierarchy.
Much of the pushback is sotto voce, but on-the-record comments about confusion caused by the Pope are the functional equivalent of F-bombs in Vatican-speak.
As a guess, Francis will have to move more rapidly on the senior personnel front if he wishes to safeguard the reform process he has initiated. At age 78, he has been dropping hints about his eventual departure.
But for disheartened Catholics, including the 40% (!) of Americans who have distanced themselves from the Church (cfr. Georgetown’s CARA), there is some comfort to be drawn from a famous exchange between one of Napoleon’s generals, who led the French troops that occupied Rome in 1809, and the Vatican’s secretary of state:

The general, frustrated at the resistance he was getting from the cardinal, burst out:
Your Eminence, are you not aware that the Emperor has the power to destroy the Catholic Church?
To which Cardinal Ercole Consalvi replied slyly:
Mon général, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.
God willing.