Synod: The Tectonic Altar Plates are shifting…slowly

Synod: The Tectonic Altar Plates are shifting…slowly


The centerpiece of Pope Francis’ reform agenda – Communion for divorced Catholics – squeaked through the Synod plenary by one vote above the two-thirds super majority of 177 (or by two votes, according to some media reports). It will now be up to the diocesan ‘presbyterate’ (priests), acting in accordance with the teaching of the Church and the guidance of the local Bishop, decide the matter.

On the issue of gays, there was strong pushback against a more welcoming Church attitude from bishops in the developing world, particularly Africa. The result is a reiteration of the classical definition of marriage, along with the imperative of respecting each person (however intrinsically disordered the person might be).

What have we learned from the three week “14th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of the Bishops,” a mechanism devised by Pope Paul VI during the mid-1960s in the turbulent aftermath of Vatican II? Here are some impressions.


The geographical center of gravity of the Roman Catholic Church is shifting as Southern Hemisphere continental blocs are bringing forward their distinct viewpoints.

The number of Catholics in sub-Sahara Africa passed the 200 million mark in 2013, and with the help of robust demography, in perhaps one generation Africa’s Catholic flock will probably overtake Europe, which is currently at 290 million faithful; and note that this total makes no allowance for the very elderly demographic profile of practicing Euro-Catholics, as well as growing numbers of lapsed Catholics.

The ever-present fault lines under the Church are multi-layered and run deep in ways not easy to map:

a) On the surface there is the conventional spectrum of progressive/conservative/traditional; but other fissures are visible, namely:

The continental blocs mentioned above v the Northern Hemisphere Church groupings (North America and Europe);

b) The Vatican’s Curial apparatus v the diocesan ‘peripheries’, i.e. the Bishops.

It is remarkable that the resolution of Communion for the divorced was to devolve the solution down to 3,000 dioceses and eparchies.

Presumably this compromise created the paper-thin two thirds majority, since local Bishops and priests will now have considerable latitude.

But this is the opening gambit of much more devolution, which raises the question: what will happen to the Church’s unity?

The next Shoes of the Fisherman to drop will probably be at the spring session of the Council of Nine Cardinals, tasked since April, 2013, with reviewing the structure of the Curia Romana.

Don’t forget how the pope gob-smacked the Curia Romana in his traditional pre-Christmas address in the Sala Regia of the Palazzo, mentioning that it seemed to be afflicted with a kind of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s’.

The traditional alliance in the College of Cardinals between North American and Western European prelates has wielded influence way out of proportion to the numbers of practicing Catholics in their territories. And at the core of this alliance one finds the comfortable condominium of Italian and American Princes of the Church. But this arrangement is now being overtaken by events.

The Electoral College condominium between the Italiani and the Americani has been the bedrock of Vatican governance since the end of World War II. But the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in March, 2013, broke this arrangement.


In a peculiar way the duopoly of Italian and American cardinals mirrors the duopoly of Germany and France as the senior partners running the 28-member European Union (with 24 official languages!).

In the case of the Vatican and the EU, recent events indicate that the dominant entities are losing their grip, as reality intrudes; read on.

The European refugee crisis which spiked over the summer is a game changer, not only for the EU but also for the Church. The EU is on the front-lines, literally, and it is not covering itself in glory. It almost makes one nostalgic for the good old days of periodic Euro currency crises, all resolved within the time limits of the lavish Brussels dinners scheduled for visiting heads of government.

But how does the Church Universal get pulled into this mess, which is beyond the platitudes of declarations and pious platitudes?

The gateway into the EU from the Middle East runs through a belt of EU countries with majority Catholic populations: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia.

And the most sought-after destination for refugees is Germany which has a sizable Catholic population (24 million) concentrated in its prosperous southern Länder.

From an observer’s perspective, the Synod’s energies were mostly consumed in Communion for the divorced and attitudes towards gays. But this focus is very hard to reconcile with the spiraling humanitarian crisis across Europe brought on by millions of displaced people, and – not to forget – the spreading wars (plural) in areas with 20 million Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with Rome.

As a few have reported (cfr. Global Pulse), the voices of the national bishops conferences have been strangely muted, notably in Hungary.

Finally, a discomfiting comment about the Pope’s global rock-star popularity.

In the not-very-distant past there were three charismatic political leaders who captured the attention of the world media, but did not fare very well within their home fields:

Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

They came to power in the1970s to mid-80s period, and were faced with gridlock at home. And they had sharply defined reform agendas that in retrospect proved to be unacceptable in their respective constituencies.

Sadat paid for his trip to Jerusalem with his life. And the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be a menacing presence.

Thatcher had a damn close call with the Brighton bombing of October, 1984, which resulted in five deaths.

And although Thatcher bragged that she never lost an election, she was ousted by a coup organized within her own party.

Gorbachev was neutralized by drunken comic-opera plotters; in the hands of more determined (and sober) conspirators, the putsch might have succeeded. Now after the intermittently sober Yeltsin interlude, we are back to the USSR.

When the crunch came, the world-wide popularity of these reform leaders didn’t do much for their political (or biological) survival. Which brings us to Pope Francis.

Francis’ predecessor was driven to resignation by the Vatileaks scandal with an Agatha Christie twist, the butler as the culprit. How the butler operated an industrial-sized theft of 200+ sensitive documents from the Pope’s private study, and managed the copying and distribution, seems to be beyond the abilities of one guy. Who knows.

However, with the butler caught, sentenced and paroled, what do we have today? Son of Vatileaks.  Consider the strange stuff, overlapping the story line of the Synod:

Monsignor Krzystof Charasma who outs himself before the Synod opening, complete with press conference and a book-signing coming soon to a Barnes & Noble in your neighborhood;

A ‘private’ letter from 13 prominent cardinals complaining about a rigged Synod and now acknowledged; with one American signer, NY’s Timothy Dolan;

The very recent benign brain tumor story about the Pope, attributed to a Japanese doctor, and officially denied by the Vatican three times in one news cycle. Given the limited attention-span of many media outlets, it has escaped notice in the U.S. – mostly – that the Japanese doctor who allegedly made the diagnosis has some peculiarities:

He is under investigation by prosecutors in Salerno for alleged kickbacks; and it took him three days to issue a denial.

The internal resistance to Francis is out in the open. It comes from many sources and special interests, but it is there. Beyond the usual Roman maneuvers, which are a centuries-old tradition, it is clear that this is a serious turn of events.

Two end comments:

The Church’s hierarchy is dominated by cardinals and bishops installed over 35 years by Francis’ two predecessors. That is the theater of operations where this process is unfolding; and,

The multiple crises now besetting Europe – economic stagnation, tidal waves of refugees, a menacing neighbor to the East, and multiple wars – are as serious as anything that has confronted the Old Continent since the 1930s.

In many European countries on the front lines, the Church has deep roots. Yet the Church by-and-large is consumed by internal issues.

Legend has it that as the Ottomans were at the gates of Constantinople in 1453, the city’s assembled best and brightest were debating the sex of angels. Probably false. But at its core there lurks an inconvenient lesson:

There is a leadership vacuum across Europe, and the Church’s voice should be louder and clearer…  







German Bishops and German Taxes

         The Synod: German Bishops and German Taxes!


Several Synod watchers are suggesting that consensus may not be attainable for two of the Pope’s reform initiatives: Communion for divorced Catholics and a more welcoming attitude towards gays.

The Communion proposal seems to have generated more than its fair share of criticism from the floor.

Yet it has the backing of its leading proponent, Germany’s Cardinal Walter Kasper; and the German Conference of Bishops. But no other conference seems to have weighed in.

Why this focused German concern at such high levels?

Could there be profane and perhaps sordid considerations?

Read on.


As the end of the Synod (“The 14th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops”) approaches with a closing Mass in San Pietro next Sunday, October 25, astute media observers are suggesting an impasse due to the unwillingness of the Synod fathers to come up with two-thirds voting approval of the Pope’s two signature ‘reforms’ presented at the beginning:

The Sacrament of Communion for divorced Catholics; and a more welcoming attitude towards gays.

The face-saver at Synod’s end could be a study group ‘for deeper discernment’. In other words, kicking the proverbial can down the road.

Most of the negotiating energy during this Synod has been consumed on the issue of Communion for the divorced.

In the U.S. some 40% of Catholic marriages hit the rocks, below the national average of 50% for all marriages. But this Synod initiative has its strongest sponsorship from the German episcopate, in particular from Cardinal Walter Kasper, with active and vocal support from a clear majority of the German Bishops’ Conference:

“…the majority of German bishops favor […] Kasper’s proposal to allow some divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion” (National Catholic Register, February 2015);

“…we are not just a subsidiary of Rome” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx (ibid.).”

No other national bishops’ conference has been this outspoken on the most contentious issue in the Synod.

Warum? Perché? Why?

Well, ‘follow the money’.

Germany suffered from the Berlin Wall for almost thirty years, but in some matters there is no wall of separation between church and state. As is widely known, there is a national Church Tax levied upon the taxpayers, between 8 and 9% of income; almost a tithe. When a Catholic child is baptized the civil authorities are informed, and this follows the baby to adulthood and the joys of paying income taxes.

If, for whatever reason, the individual wishes to avoid the tax, he/she must go to the authorities and basically ‘renounce’ the faith for which they had been signed up.

A small matter, you say? Not so…for the five-year period running from 2009 through 2013, more than 820,000 adult German Catholics have dis-enrolled as Catholics by filing a formal statement.

To make things worse, the scope of the 8-9% Church Tax bite on income was expanded about a year ago, to include capital gains on asset sales.

For the most recently reported year, 2014, a total of almost 218,000 German Catholics formally renounced their faith, while also walking away from a hefty capital gains tax liability. The 2014 adult Catholic dropouts (technically apostates, I suppose) amounted to a jump of almost 40,000 over the 2013 total of 179,000.

So how is all of this connected with the Synod?

In past years, by anecdotal evidence divorced Catholics in smaller communities were on the receiving end of unfriendly scowls from other worshippers, and sometimes were denied Communion since their illicit status was widely known in the parish.

Keep in mind that the heaviest concentration of Germany’s Catholics is in the Deep South dioceses of Munich, Regensburg, Freiburg, Trier, and Würzburg – all of which are much more rural than most other areas of the Federal Republic.

Now put into the mix the recent extension of the income tax bite to capital assets, which can hit folks close to retirement pretty hard as they downsize but then watch almost 10% of their gain go to a Church that is decidedly unwelcoming. And you don’t need a financial adviser to do the math.

This would seem to explain the vehemence of the German bishops in support of Communion for divorced Catholics. A stretch?

Well, why has no other national episcopal conference weighed in so heavily, to the point of telling Rome to ‘buzz off’, “we are not just a subsidiary of Rome?

Do you hear echoes of Martin Luther, whose 500th comes up in less than two years?

In any event, as Sherlock famously commented, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. “









Power Shift in Rome…

Link below to today’s Boston Herald front page article re ‘power shift in Rome’.
Quotes from two experts at BC and Holy Cross, and your’s truly.

This is a stunning announcement. If implemented:
A devolution of power to the peripheries, but where – exactly?
regional (continental) episcopal conference, national episcopal conferences, or 3,000 diocese and eparchies?

I am betting on the 3,000 ‘subsidiaries, 90% Latin Rite, 10% Eastern.
But raises profound questions:
The bishop of Rome become primus inter pares.
And the heads of 3,000 ‘subsidiaries’?
What is the nucleic binding force among them? No enforcers left in the Curia Romana, just advisers…that seems to be the preferred option based on chatter in Rome.

These wheels are already in motion, with the Pope’s Council of Nine scheduled to take recommendations from consultants (McKinsey!) in the spring on a drastic reshuffle of the Roman Curia: mergers and significant cuts in staffing.
Welcome to my world of suppressed parishes and closed churches, Curiali.

Structural reform or Vatican House of Cards? Stay tuned.
Peter Borre’

Bishops’ Synod in Rome at Halfway Point: Keep Your Friends Close…

Bishops’ Synod in Rome at Halfway Point:   Keep your friends close and your enemies at stiletto-length


As the Synod of the Bishops comes to the mid-point of its three weeks of meetings in Rome focused on pastoral reform, there is growing opposition to the Pope’s agenda, some of it coming from cardinals Francis has relied upon in the running of the Church, and one American cardinal hand-picked by him to get around the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Cardinal George Pell, the tough Aussie who needs all of his rugby-playing skill to bring to account the Vatican’s non-transparent financial institutions;

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of NY, considered to be a strong supporter of Francis; just ask the cardinal if in doubt.

If the Synod fails to implement the Pope’s modest reform proposals (Communion for divorced Catholics, a friendlier face to gays), or waters th proposals down to ridiculousness, the core of the Pope’s legacy will be pastoral style, not doctrinal substance.  On the subject of il ridicolo, Hungary’s Primate Cardinal Peter Erdo [no Hungarian umlaut, sorry] has rejected the suggestion that divorced Catholics living in sin could receive the Sacrament if they remain celibate!  A new canonical category: Friends without benefits.


With Talmudic-like scrutiny by the specialized corps of vaticanisti, extensive coverage in the Italian media and some pick-up in the U.S., the ongoing Bishop’s jamboree in Rome has reached the halfway mark, heading towards its scheduled close of October 25.

What do we know at halftime?

This is harder going for the Pope than anticipated.There are increasing signs of resistance to his reform agenda: Communion for divorced Catholics; and a more welcoming attitude (read less hostile) towards gays, but don’t even dream of seeing the LGBT acronym in the discussion documents.

And there is an increasing likelihood of an inconclusive outcome, something along the lines of a watered-down U.N. Security Council Resolution.

To those who say, what’s the point of following the deliberations of a clerical group of elderly, self-styled celibates, a few geo-religious reminders:

  1. The Roman Church by its own stats counts almost 1.3 billion adherents;
  2. Spectacular growth rates in sub-Sahara Africa, notwithstanding violent Islamist opposition – cfr. northern Nigeria;
  3. Dwindling flocks in Europe, but still a significant presence – almost 290 million faithful, but in demographic decline;
  4.  A Catholic buffer zone between Russia and Europe of about 50 million believers in the resident population of 57 million, running from the Baltic to the Adriatic:  Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia; and
  5. A Church in the U.S. in accelerating decline, but still a substantial presence concentrated in strategic electoral swing states:                                   Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin in the Catholic America’s ‘rust belt’;  Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico in high-growth Hispanic areas.

The resistance to the Pope is epitomized by the curious case of A Letter from Thirteen Cardinals alleged to have been sent to the Pope, and supposedly signed by 13 Princes of the Church, raising in somewhat forthright style (compared to the usual oleaginous formulations) points such as the following:

a number of concerns;”

the Synod discussion document which “would benefit from substantial…reworking;”

“lack of input by the synod fathers;”

procedures…not true to the traditional…purpose of a synod;” and

A Synod that “may become dominated by the…issue of Communion for the divorced.”

 For those of you who have not suffered through Vatican documents and deliberations, these are blunt words when addressed to the Vicar of Christ on Earth, especially since the letter attacks the centerpiece of his pastoral agenda.

What is even more surprising is the identity of the 13 signatories.

While the roster has not been confirmed, and ‘some’ (unnamed) have disavowed their support for, or involvement with, the letter, there are some striking names:

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s economic supremo, and the ‘Oceania’ rep on the Pope’s Council of Nine Cardinals – his most important advisory body;

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, keeper of the faith through his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict’s selection for that key post;

Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of the world’s largest diocese – Milan, and a leading contender for the Throne of St. Peter at the 2013 Conclave, significantly ahead of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio by the handicappers;


Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.

This last name is a surprise. Cardinal Dolan is high profile – punto e basta.  But he was overlooked by his American brother-bishops when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops named its delegation to the Synod.  And to add insult to this injury, the USCCB did include Archbishop Charles Chaput, the decidedly conservative ordinary of Philadelphia. However, the Pope has the prerogative of naming delegates of his own to the Synod; ‘it’s good to be the Pope’ as Mel Brooks might say.

So as the opening date approached, Cardinal Dolan got his admission ticket to the Synod directly from Francis, giving the cardinal a voice and one vote among the 270 that will be cast by the Church fathers when the conclusions of the Synod are presented for endorsement.

It is really not a stretch to believe that Francis named the NY cardinal in the hope of support for the pontiff’s agenda.

Francis convened the Synod in 2014 to move through by consensus some modest pastoral proposals involving divorced couples and gay Catholics.

Keep in mind that the Pope’s global popularity is built upon his personal style, as well as a message of mercy and inclusiveness.


The Synod is his chosen mechanism for doctrinal (oops, make that ‘pastoral’) reform.

However, the law of unintended consequences may be at work as the Synod develops a life of its own.

Thirty years ago a reformist leader took over a global empire that had been stuck in a doctrinal time warp for 70 years, the USSR. In retrospect it is clear that Mikhail Gorbachev was not a revolutionary, not even a CIA plant (as millions of Russians still believe), but a believing Communist (to this day) who launched two reform initiatives:

Transparency (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika), both of these entirely within the four corners of Marxist orthodoxy.

And where is Russia today? Heading back to the USSR in all but name.

It is worth remembering Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observation:

The most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform itself.

To which one might add, regarding faith-based empires:

Schism happens.






The Pope and a KGB alumnus walk into a bazaar…


The glory days of the Reagan-John Paul II alliance are indeed in the past.

Lost in the media noise of the Pope Francis’ recent Acela visit to the East Coast, notwithstanding 8,000 accredited media folks, is his deepening concern about the ISIS slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, including 20 million Catholics; and future risks to 5 million Catholics in western Ukraine, if the Russian-backed separatists move more deeply into that nation.

So in the strategic realignments now in motion, the growing entente between the Holy See and Russia should not be overlooked.


Vatican diplomacy moves in mysterious ways.

In 1981 a quiet alliance materialized between the Reagan administration and (not yet a saint) John Paul II, with the binding force provided by a convergence of views between the Polish Pope and several prominent Catholic Reaganauts, notably:

Secretary of State Al Haig; Haig’s #2, Bill Clark; CIA Director Bill Casey; National Security Adviser Dick Allen; and Ambassador-at-Large Dick Walters – a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A U.S. strategy of differentiation was adopted, namely reinforcing the administration’s across-the-board push against the entire Soviet Bloc by focusing on its weakest link – Catholic Poland.

Money (lots of it) flowed from Langley to the IOR – the Vatican’s fabled bank, and then throughout a grassroots network of parishes and labor activists in Poland. Of course there were frictional losses within this financial logistical system, but overall it worked, and the U.S.S.R. came tumbling down – for a while.

Two generations later, in today’s turbulent world the Vatican has significant stakes in two war zones – Ukraine, and ISIS-controlled areas of North Africa and the Middle East.

In Ukraine, more than 10% of the population (4.9 million out of 45 million total, according to Vatican statistics) consists of Catholics, mostly members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in communion with Rome.

And, by the same stats, there are close to 20 million Catholics across North Africa and the Middle East, almost all of the Eastern Rite, and concentrated in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

From contacts in the Curia Romana, it is clear that Pope Francis is deeply worried.

The situation in NA/ME is much more acute than in Ukraine because Christians – Catholics and other Christian denominations – are being slaughtered for the mere fact of being ‘unbelievers’.

In Ukraine the current situation is short of the crisis point for the Catholic 10% concentrated in three western regions (oblasts), not yet within range of the eastern secessionists.

The Pope has met twice with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, most recently in June. Prior to that meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See pushed hard for a papal condemnation of Russia’s cross-border invasions (Crimea and Ukraine’s East). But the Pope took an above-the-fray stance with Putin, emphasizing the “importance of dialogue and the needs for all concerned parties to implement the [Minsk] agreements.” (USA Today, June 10, 2015).

The clear and present danger for the Vatican is ISIS, which has threatened to come to Rome to deal with the Great Crusader.

In the face of this very real menace, it is not hard to discern that a grand bargain may be emerging, involving Russia and the Vatican.

In Syria the U.S. has remained on the sidelines for the past four years, notwithstanding 200,000 deaths there, and President Bashar al-Assad’s breach of a red-line by resorting to chemical warfare against his own people.

So Russia is now stepping into the geopolitical vacuum.

One of the levers of Putin’s domestic autocratic power is the Russian Orthodox Church. And although that hierarchy’s feelings for the Vatican are decidedly cool, ISIS is creating a broad coalition consisting of Russia, Iran, many EU countries beset by fleeing civilians; and the Holy See as a silent partner.

This is not mere supposition. There are audible Whispers in the Palazzo Apostolico about the activist role of Vatican diplomats now at the pinnacle of the Curia Romana:

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State and de facto prime minister;

Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (replacing the inconvenient Cardinal Raymond Burke); and

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy with direct oversight over 223 thousand Catholic parishes around the globe. Measure yourself against that, Donald Trump…It’s yooooge.

Russia brings to the table its readiness to deploy hard power against ISIS, and an apparent willingness not to push further west into Ukraine where millions of Ukrainian Catholics are concentrated.

The Vatican gets from Russia a more robust effort to protect all Christians as well as its’ own flock 20 million strong, against ISIS.

And – maybe – a standstill for a while in Russia’s aggression aimed at pulling Ukraine back into its buffer zone of vassal states. A deeper move of the local Ukrainian proxies (and sheep-dipped Russian troops) towards Ukraine’s west would expand a brutal civil war, given the vast cultural and religious differences between eastern and western Ukraine.

In return Putin gains from the Vatican increased international respectability, broadens European support for Russia’s return to the Middle East, and probably gets a loosening or outright lifting of EU sanctions.

So the Vatican’s reflexive anti-communism is a thing of the past. But then again, Putin is too smart to be a commie.


As for American policy in the Middle East, the George Washington of Egypt, from 1952 until his sudden death in 1970, was President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is still debated whether he was a CIA asset, or just pocketed the agency’s money and did his own thing. This is what Nasser had to say about U.S. moves in the Middle East:

The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them that we are missing.