Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine May-June 2006
Who's Watching the Watchers?
Pope Benedict XVI has been in office for less than a year, and already there are rumblings of dissatisfaction (in some quarters of disquiet, in others of impatience), aroused by the — so far — slow progress of what everyone seems from the beginning to have assumed will be one of the new pope’s priorities: the reform of the Roman Curia.
Even among the most fervent admirers of John Paul II, it seems to be common ground that he was never quite in control of his bureaucracy (and consequently of his lines of communication with the world-wide Church), so that his intentions for the Church could never be wholly implemented. I remember, years ago, a very senior Jesuit (one who has consistently and vainly fought, within his own disintegrating order, for obedience to the Magisterium of the Church) saying to me that ‘this pope, without doubt, is Joannes Paulus Magnus, John Paul the Great. But he has one major weakness: he is magnificently both Prophet and Priest; but as King he has never quite come up to scratch’. Now that the last Pope’s great project, to re-establish the objectivity and integrity of Catholic doctrine, has beenaccomplished — with the notable support of the then Cardinal Ratzinger — will Pope Benedict effectively purge his own administrative machine of all those ‘road-blocks to reform’ (to borrow a phrase from current British politics) which still stand in the way of the fulfilment of the great counter-revolutionary movement that his predecessor initiated?
This, in effect, is the question already being asked by the last Pope’s biographer, George Weigel. In an article which appeared as early as December in The Los Angeles Times, he began by complaining — a little prematurely, it might be thought — that ‘for some who were most enthusiastic eight months ago about the choice of Joseph Ratzinger as pope, this Christmas season has continued a period of waiting — some becoming a bit impatient — for Benedict XVI to fulfil more of the promise of his election.’ Naturally, he had to give the Pope a favourable review for much that he had done: ‘It's not’ he conceded, ‘that the pope has been inactive since April. He has been a luminously clear teacher, the kind who gently compels others to think, even to reconsider.
His sermons are miniature masterpieces of Christian doctrine, the refined reflections of a man who has thoroughly mastered the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian tradition…. In his distinctive way, Benedict XVI is … a leader who commands attention.’
‘But’, he continues, ‘something more was anticipated — that the new pope would take in hand, and soon, a reform of the personnel and practice of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church's central bureaucracy. More than a few of the cardinals who rallied to support him in one of the shortest conclaves in modern history did so because they believed Ratzinger, having spent more than two decades in the Curia, would know what was broken and would fix it.’
From a very different perspective, The Tablet has also been flagging up the impending reforms. Here, however, there is a distinct tone of foreboding. Among the first signs of a ‘shake-up’ (The Tablet’s word, not mine) was the appointment, in February, of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as apostolic nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League. The question was why? Was this a demotion or a promotion? And what, in either case, might it portend? One obvious answer was that Archbishop Fitzgerald (once thought to be certain of a red hat, having succeeded Cardinal Arinze at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID)), was being eased out of the centre of power because of his excessively emollient attitude towards Islam — in short, because he is too liberal (the‘L’ word, it may be noted, is currently being assiduously avoided by commentators of all ecclesiastical colours). Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, it is said, is one of those who hold this view: what is needed, he is thought to believe, is (in the words of John Allen Jr of the American National Catholic Reporter) ‘good relations with Islam, but also a more robust capacity to challenge and critique Islamic leaders, especially on issues of “reciprocity” -- the idea that if Muslim immigrants benefit from religious freedom in the West, Christians should get the same treatment in Islamic states.’ The present pope, it is said, to some extent shared this view while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it is even whispered that he was opposed to the lastPope’s great inter-faith event at Assisi.
Archbishop Fitzgerald’s move to Cairo, however, is in itself of small importance compared with what it really portends: the effective demotion, not of Archbishop Ftizgerald but of the PCID itself. As The Tablet reported in February ‘The statement gave no details as to who would succeed him at the PCID. Vatican analysts have suggested that this may be because the PCID is due to be combined with another dicastery. There are suspicions it could be integrated into the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity as part of an ecumenical and interreligious affairs office.’ That word ‘suspicions’ says it all: it is becoming clear that the Pope wants radically to cut back the superabundance of new bureaucracies which burgeoned in the fertile soil of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’. For thePCID, indeed, it turned out to be even worse than The Tablet had suspected: it was, it transpired in March to be merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture. We may confidently expect a major carnage of meaningless bureaucracies; and all that will surely be to the good.
There is, however, no sign as yet of the reform that many in this country (and elsewhere) are hoping for: as George Weigel puts it in his Los Angeles Times article, it is ‘the question of the appointment of bishops — and the volatile but unavoidable question of whether the church ought not devise criteria and processes for removing bishops who are manifestly incapable of leadership. Whether Benedict XVI undertakes a far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church's Roman bureaucracy or not … his papacy will be judged in no small part on his shrewdness in choosing bishops and his courage in facing questions of episcopal failure’.
But even this does not, surely, address the real question. That word ‘failure’ does not really reach the heart of the problem, which is not so much that many of our bishops are incapable as that they regard Rome, not as the centre of unity, or as the source and guarantor of Catholic teaching, but as a wretched nuisance, constantly getting in the way of the free exercise of their own little enthusiasms, whether for indiscriminately administering Holy Communion to non-Catholics, or for General Absolution, or for the encouragement of dissident movements like those for the ordination of women and married priests, or for the active discouragement of the new movements on which the late pope placed so much faith. The real problem with our bishops is not so much that they are ‘manifestlyincapable of leadership’, though many of them are; it is that so many of them have adopted a persistently (and in some cases openly) insubordinate attitude towards the Holy See.
But how can this be? Were not they all, to a man, appointed by the late Holy Father? Did they all pretend to be faithful and orthodox priests in order to gain preferment, and then, having achieved Episcopal ordination, did they show themselves in their true colours? Not at all. In most cases, everyone here knew exactly what they were getting when the latest groan-inducing Episcopal appointment was announced in Rome. They were appointed because a series of Papal nuncios, lonely for the warm South, relied on what they were told by the English bishops (and particularly by the late Cardinal Hume) about the English Church, and drew up their ternas accordingly. Archbishop Puente, the former Nuncio had a particularly bad record. It is said that when he was asked how he gained hisknowledge of the English Church he replied ‘when I receive a letter from a bishop, I read it carefully. When I receive a letter from a priest I file it. When I receive a letter from a lay person, I throw it in the bin.’ Archbishop Puente had an uncertain command of the English language; but he had — or so, at times it almost seemed — an unerring instinct for disloyalty to Rome, and rewarded it where he could, so blatantly, indeed, that in the end Rome cottoned on to what was happening: the last straw, it seems, was when he placed Bishop Crispian Hollis at the head of the terna for Southwark. According to my sources, Rome is now keeping a more wary eye on the English Church. But can we rely on the continuing attention of the Congregation for Bishops? The congregation isunderstaffed and has the whole world to cope with; and what happens if at some time the wrong person is appointed to the English desk? The appointment of bishops is an area to which the new Pope’s reforming eye will surely turn: so, at any rate, we must hope and pray; for if it does not, the secularisation of the Church in Europe will continue apace.