The Pope Versus the Vatican

GEORGE WEIGEL

As the events of recent months have made painfully clear, Curial incapacity can impede and even damage the evangelical mission of the most intelligent pope.

Pope John Paul II was buried on 8 April 2005. In the nine days between his funeral and the sealing of the conclave to elect his successor, the critics and enemies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked feverishly to prevent his being chosen pope. The Sunday Times went trolling for stories contrasting Ratzinger-the-Hitler-Youth with heroic Karol Wojtyla, Polish resistance fighter against Nazism and communism. La Repubblica, the flagship daily of the Italian Left, spun fanciful tales about a "German-American coalition" capable of blocking Ratzinger's election, not least by appealing to Third World cardinals whose dioceses depended on German financial support. These at times risible media efforts at electoral preemption had at least the tacit support, and in some cases the encouragement, of progressive Catholic activists, intellectuals and prelates for whom the idea of "God's Rottweiler" as pope was the nightmare that dared not speak its name.

Ironically, Joseph Ratzinger spent part of those same nine days in a parallel effort to forestall his own election. A modest man, he nonetheless knew that his brilliant performance as Dean of the College of Cardinals -- leading the cardinals in their deliberations after John Paul's death and leading the world in prayer at his funeral -- had made him the odds-on favourite to be the 264th successor to St Peter. And he wanted none of it. He had planned to submit his resignation to the new pope and to demand its acceptance. Thrice before he had retreated when he had tried to resign and John Paul had asked him to stay. Now he was determined to return to his native Bavaria to take up housekeeping with his older brother, a priest and distinguished choirmaster. He would turn 78 two days before the conclave was immured. It was time to go home and pick up the threads of the scholarly life he had sacrificed on becoming archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. 

How does a papal frontrunner work against his own election, particularly if he actually means it and is not simply making an outward show of humility or diffidence? Ratzinger's case against Ratzinger was simply put: "I am not a man of governo, of governance," he said, in each of the half-dozen languages he speaks fluently. Don't do this to me; don't do this to yourselves. Those who were forwarding his candidacy -- men like George Pell of Sydney, Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and Angelo Scola of Venice, three of the Catholic Church's most impressive younger leaders -- replied, in so many words, "Why don't you let God have his say? Don't prejudge the work of the Holy Spirit." As things turned out, the actual voting was close to a formality, as Ratzinger was elected on the fourth ballot in one of the shortest conclaves in history. Yet there were, evidently, lingering questions among both his supporters and opponents as to whether he would accept the burden he had tried to avoid: in their post-conclave press conference, the German cardinals (who included both supporters and opponents) told reporters that there was a "great collective sigh of relief" when Cardinal Ratzinger accepted his election. That the newly-chosen Benedict XVI remained acutely aware of his own limitations, however, was made unmistakably clear on the morning after the election. Celebrating Mass with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict asked, in his homily, "Do not deny me your counsel." 

In the four years since the 265th Bishop of Rome stepped out on to the loggia of St Peter's to be presented urbi et orbi, "to the city and the world", Pope Benedict XVI has systematically dismantled the media cartoon of "God's Rottweiler" that had dogged him for decades. A few months after his election, while vacationing at the papal summer villa, Castel Gandolfo, he invited his old theological adversary, the Swiss dissident Hans Küng, to stop by for a conversation and a beer or two. Confounding the critics who claimed he could never compete with "John Paul Superstar" for the affections of the young, he has presided over two successful World Youth Days, in Cologne and Sydney. He displayed a well-honed pastoral sensibility in his May 2008 Washington meeting with the victims of clerical sexual abuse, as he did in reaching out to the relatives of those who had died on 9/11 after his silent prayer over the ruins of the Twin Towers in New York. 

His September 2006 Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason is still deplored by uncomprehending reporters and soi-disant Vatican insiders as a major diplomatic "gaffe". The truth of the matter is that Benedict sent such salutary shock waves throughout the worlds-within-world of Islam that more robust patterns of interreligious dialogue are slowly emerging. Issues once considered untouchable -- religious freedom as a fundamental human right that can be known by reason, and the necessary separation of religious and political authority in a just state -- are now, at Benedict's insistence, at the forefront of the dialogue between Catholicism and Islam. His address to the United Nations General Assembly in April 2008 was a powerful and compelling argument that the exercise of freedom must be guided by moral truths, and that those moral truths are accessible to men and women of good will who take the risk of thinking seriously. Regularly defying the nay-sayers who argued that Ratzinger would be simply unpresentable in public, Benedict's weekly audiences in Rome continue to draw large crowds, many of them larger than those drawn by John Paul II. 

 

In his first two encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est [God Is Love] and Spe Salvi [Saved in Hope], he has displayed a striking ability to elucidate the basics of Christian faith in a way that takes full account of postmodern scepticism. In these letters, the once-dreaded "enforcer of orthodoxy" responds to unbelief or weak belief in a spirit of conversation, not condemnation. His international bestseller, Jesus of Nazareth, sympathetically explored an American rabbi's imaginary conversation with Jesus, even as Benedict reminded all Christians of the debt that Christianity owes to its parent, Judaism.

And the thumbscrews and rack have remained locked in the basement of the office Ratzinger once headed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which (as the world media never cease to remind us) "was once known as the Inquisition".

In his first two encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est [God Is Love] and Spe Salvi [Saved in Hope], he has displayed a striking ability to elucidate the basics of Christian faith in a way that takes full account of postmodern scepticism. In these letters, the once-dreaded "enforcer of orthodoxy" responds to unbelief or weak belief in a spirit of conversation, not condemnation.

Yet for all these impressive accomplishments, the fifth year of his pontificate is opening under storm clouds of crisis. The Pope's January effort to extend a hand of reconciliation to the ultra-traditionalist followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ignited a worldwide uproar. One of the four Lefebvrist bishops whose excommunications were lifted, an ex-Anglican named Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust denier -- a point of which the Pope and his senior advisers were evidently unaware, although bloggers and other internet literates from the Antipodes to Zimbabwe had the full, nasty story. The Lefebvrist fiasco and the chaos it caused in Catholic-Jewish relations were just settling down when Austria erupted. The issue in this case was the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop of Linz, who turned out to have interesting ideas about the relationship between divine providence and meteorology: Hurricane Katrina's ravaging of New Orleans, the nominee once claimed, was God's punishment for decades of debauchery in the Big Easy. The bishop-elect eventually asked the Pope to withdraw his nomination, and Benedict agreed. Some wondered whether a new round of Josephinism -- the Enlightenment-era Austrian resistance to papal authority in the nomination of bishops -- was at hand. As this Alpine ecclesiastical earthquake rumbled across Europe, the Roman Curia proved itself incapable of frankly and expeditiously handling another disaster -- the revelations that Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the priestly order of the Legion of Christ and the lay movement Regnum Christi, had led a life of sexual dissolution and financial irregularity, even as the order and the lay movement provided some of the most vibrant young priests and lay activists in the Church. While that slow-motion train-wreck headed towards the abyss, the best of the Vaticanisti, Sandro Magister of the weekly L'espresso, reported that the Vatican Secretariat of State may have badly misread the character and qualifications of Joseph Li Shan, the new bishop of Beijing, who has, Magister argued, been far too cosy with the Chinese communist regime and the regime-supported Patriotic Catholic Association.

Benedict XVI did take advantage of a February meeting demanded by the pro-abortion Catholic Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to deliver a firm reminder of one of those moral truths that can be known by reason -- that innocent human life deserves the protection of the laws in any just society. Speaker Pelosi was also denied the photo-op she obviously craved, a sign that the Vatican had not completely lost its capacity to control its own agenda and the Pope's role in advancing that agenda. Yet, for Benedict's supporters, the Pelosi reprimand was a brief moment of sun through the darkening clouds. Had Ratzinger been right in April 2005? Was he really not a man of governo? And what did that portend for the future of his papacy which, despite his age, could stretch well into the next decade?

The Lefebvrist fiasco was a microcosm of the complex set of administrative and managerial problems that Benedict must confront and resolve, if his intellectual lucidity and pastoral good sense are not to be obscured by the incapacities and incompetence of the Curia, the reform of which he was expected to undertake by those who elected him in 2005. 

The Curia exists for one reason: to give effect to the will of the Bishop of Rome, who is the source of both legislative authority and policy initiative in the universal Church. As Canon 360 of the Code of Canon Law puts it, "The Supreme Pontiff usually conducts the business of the universal Church through the Roman Curia, which acts in his name and with his authority for the good and for the service of the [local] Churches." As in all governmental bureaucracies, of course, stated rationale and actual performance are not always aligned. For the Curia not infrequently mimics the behaviour of every other bureaucratised power structure on the planet. It staples a salute to the leader to its collective forehead even as it pursues its own interests and intrigues, all the while attempting to bring the leader around to "the way we do things here". It is often thought that popes have a unique freedom of action. The fact is that the exercise of papal governance is deeply affected, for good or ill, by the competence of the Curia  and its senior officials. Contemporary popes can and do go over or around the Curia  to shape the international debate, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shown. Yet there is no governing the Catholic Church over or around the Curia. So a great deal depends on how successful a given pope is in selecting the Curia's leaders and guiding their work. 

It was often said that Dr Navarro-Valls (who liked to joke that his early professional experience as a psychiatrist had prepared him well for dealing with the Vatican press corps) brought the Holy See's press operation "into the 20th century". To which the proper response was, "Yes, the first half of the 20th century." That was no mean accomplishment, given Curial resentments over a layman who was spokesman, confidant and private diplomatic agent of the pope.

Most of what the world thinks it knows about the Curia is, in fact, mistaken. It is, for example, a remarkably small operation, given that it is the administrative centre of a human community with 1.2 billion members living in every corner of the globe. Among its 3,000 or so employees, perhaps 40 at the most have real operational or decision-making roles. The rest are worker-bees -- often very able, polyglot worker-bees with advanced degrees -- whose task is to serve what are known in Curia-speak as "the superiors": the two or three heads of each of the curial "dicasteries", which are the rough equivalents of cabinet departments.

Despite its international character, Italian remains the Curia's lingua franca, and an inability to speak the language well is usually an insuperable impediment to serious influence -- unlike the inability to speak English, the now-universal language of commerce, science and diplomacy. The Curia also remains Italianate, which is to say laid-back, in its work culture: while the Curia does not acknowledge that staple of modern temporality known as the "weekend" and its offices are open for business on Saturday mornings, those same offices are only open in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays (the days, Curial wags note, that Catholic piety traditionally assigns to the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary). An Italianate approach to crisis management -- or, better, crisis non-management -- is also pervasive, rooted in the sense that "we've seen it all before, so there's no reason to get into a flap". That "thinking in centuries" approach has its undeniable advantages in a world in which everyone is supposed to have an opinion on, or answer to, everything, 24/7: it allows for situations to mature, for calm to be restored and for rational decision-making to take place. It can also result in a pope getting blindsided by events to the detriment of his authority, as Benedict XVI has learned to his regret and John Paul II learned before him. In April 2002, for example, John Paul was learning things about the American crisis of clerical sexual abuse that he should have known four months earlier. Once he knew he acted, and acted decisively. But he should have known earlier, and the Curia's entrenched scepticism about media-driven crises was one reason he didn't.

John Paul II was acutely aware that the election of the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, as well as his own free-wheeling personal style, unsettled the traditional managers of popes. Moreover, he was not a man who took much satisfaction from shuffling and reshuffling the boxes on an organisational chart. So rather than undertaking a wholesale re-examination of how the Curia ought to function in the 21st century, he left the basic Curial structure created by Pope Paul VI in 1967 intact, while running his own foreign policy out of the papal apartment -- much to the chagrin of the papal Secretariat of State, some of whose senior members imagined that they knew more about, say, Poland, than the Polish pope. John Paul's most important Curial innovation was to jettison the tradition of the pope's spokesman being a Curial priest by installing the Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, an accomplished journalist, as head of the Holy See Press Office. It was often said that Dr Navarro-Valls (who liked to joke that his early professional experience as a psychiatrist had prepared him well for dealing with the Vatican press corps) brought the Holy See's press operation "into the 20th century". To which the proper response was, "Yes, the first half of the 20th century." That was no mean accomplishment, given Curial resentments over a layman who was spokesman, confidant and private diplomatic agent of the pope. But Navarro-Valls's personal accomplishments were mistaken by many as a sign that the Curia had entered the world of 21st-century communications. It hasn't, as the first day of the Lefebvrist crisis made painfully clear: Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Navarro-Valls's successor, was sadly unprepared for the informal press briefing he gave the day the story broke, because he hadn't been brought into whatever deliberations there had been about lifting the Lefebvrist excommunications. Thus the false impression was immediately created, and just as immediately hardened into "fact", that the Lefebvrist bishops had been restored to the full communion of the Church, which hadn't happened. That misimpression, the result of inept communications and bureaucratic blundering, intensified the outrage over Bishop Williamson's Holocaust denial. American Catholic black humour at this incompetence turned to memories of the legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel, who once asked of his woefully inept 1962 New York Mets, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Every ecumenical council in the history of the Church was prompted by turmoil, conducted in turmoil or resulted in turmoil. The Second Vatican Council, which brought two young central Europeans named Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger to prominence on the world Catholic stage, was no exception. The post-conciliar turmoil following Vatican II is generally thought to have taken place on the port side of Catholic life, with liberal and progressive theologians publicly dissenting from authoritative Catholic teaching while attempting to stretch the boundaries of acceptable Catholic thought and practice with the aid of acquiescent bishops and religious superiors. Yet the only schism following Vatican II -- the only formal, legal break in the unity of the Church -- did not come on the Catholic Left (which knew that its magnetic attraction for the world media required staying formally inside the tent). It came on the far reaches of the Catholic Right. Its protagonist was a French archbishop with extensive missionary experience in Africa, Marcel Lefebvre. 

Throughout the world, Lefebvrists and other traditionalist Catholics are known for their preference for the older forms of Catholic worship, particularly the Mass celebrated in Latin according to the missal established by the Council of Trent and revised by Pope John XXIII in 1962. Yet the gravamen of the hardcore Lefebvrists' rejection of Vatican II involved, not liturgy, but politics, and specifically Catholic church-state theory. Vatican II's definition of religious freedom as an inalienable human right -- carrying the implication that religious establishments of the ancien régime type were no longer the preferred arrangement -- was, in fact, a development of Catholic social doctrine. To the Lefebvrists, however, it was heresy, and the opening wedge to a fatal Catholic accommodation with modernity. Archbishop Lefebvre's war, in other words, was not simply against modern liturgy -- it was against modernity. To those who took the trouble to look, there was no surprise here, for the ideological sensibilities of the Lefebvrist movement sprang from the same French political-cultural sources that gave rise to the anti-Dreyfusards of the late 19th century and the Petainists of the mid-20th century. Paul VI, a Francophile who knew Lefebvre's politics and detested them, was nonetheless patient with the French intransigent, fearing a formal schism like that of the Old Catholics after the First Vatican Council. Yet the often indecisive Paul finally suspended Lefebvre from the public exercise of his priestly and episcopal functions in 1976, although he and his followers remained in tenuous communion with the Church.

Popes are duty-bound to try to prevent schisms and to repair breaches in the unity of the Church. Thus John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made every effort, over a long decade, to reconcile Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers -- which would have meant allowing them the use of the pre-conciliar liturgy while securing their agreement that Vatican II had been an authentic expression of Catholic faith. But Lefebvre, as Ratzinger once said, was a "very difficult man", and he eventually reneged on a deal he had struck with Ratzinger, who was acting as John Paul II's agent. Moreover, having reneged, he proceeded to commit what is perhaps the ultimate offence for a Catholic bishop -- in 1988, he ordained other bishops without the mandate of the pope. Those bishops (including Richard Williamson) and Lefebvre himself were immediately excommunicated. The Lefebvrist movement, the Society of St Pius X (named after the pope who instigated the "anti-Modernist oath" as a precondition to priestly ordination), went into formal schism. From Rome's point of view, Lefebvre's ordinations triggered the worst of worst-case scenarios -- for the Church considered the episcopal orders of the men Lefebvre had ordained to be sacramentally valid (although illicit), which meant that the Society of St Pius X now had the capacity to perpetuate its schism indefinitely, through further illicit but valid ordinations of bishops. In secular terms, this was treason, sedition and rebellion in one lethal package.

On the same day that Lefebvre and his four co-conspirators were excommunicated, John Paul II established a new Curial office, the Ecclesia Dei Commission, to bring back into the full communion of the Church those Lefebvrist priests and lay people who could not stomach a formal break with Rome. Over time, Ecclesia Dei became the Curial interlocutor, not only with Lefebvrists who wanted to return to Rome, but with the Lefebvrist movement (typically known as the SSPX) itself. The problem, which became glaringly apparent in January, was that the Ecclesia Dei Commission was a Curial free agent -- a loose cannon, rolling around the deck of the Barque of Peter, accountable to no other Curial office.

The current head of the commission is a Colombian, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, a brave man who once confronted the cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, by posing as a milkman. On gaining entry to Escobar's home, the doughty Castrillón demanded that the notorious drug lord confess his sins. Cardinal Castillón is also, alas, remembered for having given the worst Curia press conference in living memory.

The current head of the commission is a Colombian, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, a brave man who once confronted the cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, by posing as a milkman. On gaining entry to Escobar's home, the doughty Castrillón demanded that the notorious drug lord confess his sins. Cardinal Castillón is also, alas, remembered for having given the worst Curia press conference in living memory. It was 2002, and his task was to present John Paul II's annual Holy Thursday letter to the world's priests. When reporters raised the inevitable questions about the clerical sexual abuse scandal in the US, Castrillón brushed them aside and said that the pope had far more important things to worry about, like peace in the Middle East. It was not a persuasive argument, and it ill-served the pope. Castrillón will turn 80 in July, and it seems that he had become determined to pull off a career-capping spectacular: the reconciliation of the Lefebvrist schism. That cause was also close to the pastoral heart of Benedict XVI, who knew that the majority of Lefebvrist faithful cared little for church-state theory but simply wanted to worship according to the old Latin rite. Thus Benedict, again defying media stereotypes of the papal rottweiler, was prepared to make the opening, public gesture by lifting the excommunications of the four bishops whom Lefebvre (who died in 1991) had illicitly ordained, the assumption presumably being that a similar graceful gesture would come from the Lefebvrist leadership. 

It did not. On the contrary, Bishop Bernard Fellay, Lefebvre's successor as head of the SSPX, issued a letter to the faithful, in which he crowed that "the Tradition is no longer excommunicate" -- an astonishingly arrogant formulation that seemed to imply that it was the rest of the Catholic Church, not the minuscule sect of Lefebvrists, that was in schism. Moreover, Fellay indicated that the SSPX still had grave difficulties reconciling the teaching of Vatican II with "the Tradition" (always capitalised), as the SSPX understood it. Whatever negotiations Cardinal Castrillón had conducted had not, evidently, received agreement on that crucial point. And that, rather than the media circus over the Holocaust denial of an internationally-known crank like Richard Williamson, cut to the heart of the matter. For it opened up the possibility that, just as the "cafeteria Catholicism" of the progressives was dying of its own intellectual and pastoral sterility, a new cafeteria was being opened in the fever swamps of the Catholic Right. As the media uproar faded, Jewish groups outraged over Williamson's antics were reassured of what they already knew: Benedict XVI was a philo-Semite who would defend living Judaism with his life, and would do so for the strongest of reasons -- because he believes, as Vatican II affirmed, that God does not break his covenantal promises. That understanding, and the Church's commitment to religious freedom, was what was being put in jeopardy by a dangerously ill-prepared and likely premature reconciliation with the SSPX.

Cardinal Castrillón was not, of course, the only senior Curia official who did not Google "Richard Williamson" and who did not check the fine print of the negotiations with the SSPX -- who did not protect the pope he lived to serve. It is no secret in Roman clerical, diplomatic and media circles that Benedict XVI's choice as Cardinal Secretary of State, the Salesian Tarcisio Bertone (who had been Ratzinger's deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), has not developed a firm grip on the machinery of Curia governance. Bertone, whose personal loyalty to Benedict XVI is unquestioned, is much given to travelling. Some of his travels have become embarrassments, as in his fulsome embrace of Cuba's Raúl Castro as a reformer, or his glowing description of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko as a possible bridge between East and West. Happily for Cardinal Bertone, those gaffes (far worse than anything Benedict XVI was alleged to have done at Regensburg) drew little press attention outside the Italian hothouse. Yet to Vatican veterans, they reflected the mistakes of a man who does not do sufficient homework, who does not know how to use the Curial bureaucracy and who has not bent the Curia to the pope's will, but in fact has allowed it to reset its institutional default positions to those in place at the time of John Paul II's election. In the Curial system devised by Paul VI, the Cardinal Secretary of State functions like a prime minister in political life. If he is not firmly in charge, and known to be in charge, the system will relapse into forms of stasis that ill-serve the pope and his purposes. Thus senior American churchmen complain, privately, that much of today's Curia is dysfunctional, including such key dicasteries as the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life.

The administrative challenges of this pontificate do not stop with the Curia. Benedict XVI has also been poorly served by some of his nuncios, those ambassadors who represent the Holy See to national governments and local churches. Where the Church's legal position is insecure, or there is covert or open persecution, the nuncio can be an invaluable lifeline for hard-pressed Catholics, connecting them to the papal megaphone in Rome and its capacity to focus world attention on the depredations of tyrants. Where the Church's legal position is stable (which is, happily, more often the case), the nuncio's principal task is to recommend the appointment of new bishops to Rome. There, the decision on a nomination is ultimately the pope's. Making such calls is one of the gravest responsibilities of the modern papacy. 

Yet in December 2006, despite warnings from Poles and others that potential Polish episcopal appointments ought to be quietly vetted with Poland's Institute of National Memory in order to avoid the nomination of men who had collaborated in egregious ways with the secret police during the communist period, the nuncio in Poland pushed through the nomination as archbishop of Warsaw of an otherwise impressive candidate, Stanislaw Wielgus, who turned out to have had an unfortunate record of collaboration with the secret police at one point in his career. The ensuing firestorm of criticism, which led to Wielgus's withdrawal from the Warsaw appointment, was a deep embarrassment to Benedict XVI, who had already made a successful pilgrimage to Poland and whose stock there was very high. Notwithstanding that fiasco, the nuncio who ought to have known and to have protected the pope but didn't remains in place. In the US, episcopal sees have remained vacant for as long as two years, thanks to inferior work at the nunciature in Washington. The relevant "superiors" in Rome know this, yet the situation remains unaddressed, because of a combination of Curial politics and the regnant Curial inability to rectify mistakes quickly. 

What could turn out to be a botched appointment in Beijing has already been mentioned -- it, too, was probably the result of Curial foolishness, in this case the willingness of the Curial China Lobby to bend over backwards in order to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Chinese communist regime. Benedict XVI has been generally supportive of the tougher line taken by the feisty cardinal of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen. But it seems likely that the pope was not sufficiently briefed before he made the Beijing episcopal appointment because the Curia hadn't done its homework adequately. 

By contrast, when a nuncio knows his job, speaks the local language, consults intelligently and has a strategic vision, Benedict has shown a willingness to initiate bold and effective change. The Anglophone hierarchy of Canada, for example, has been remade according to the John Paul II/Benedict XVI model of dynamic orthodoxy in a relatively brief period of time. 

It is unlikely that Joseph Ratzinger accepted his election thinking of himself as another Leo XIII, who created the modern papacy and died in 1903, after a 25-year reign, at the ripe old age of 93. Always conscious of his health, Benedict XVI in all likelihood imagined his as a short pontificate. Thus the question of Curial reform could be deferred until he was gone, for several reasons. He knew that bold administrative restructuring was not his forte. And given the assumption of a short papacy, he probably thought it papal bad manners to saddle his successor with a long bench of youngish, senior Curial officials just getting adjusted to a new system. So he would find someone he had worked with comfortably in the past -- Cardinal Bertone -- to keep the machinery running, while he would concentrate on the work he knew he did well -- the compelling proclamation of Christian truth to both the Church and the world. 

Yet as the events of recent months have made painfully clear, Curial incapacity can impede and even damage the evangelical mission of the most intelligent pope. It was nothing short of a tragedy that a world-class Catholic theologian like Ratzinger, who had spent 50 years explaining Christianity's debt to Judaism to his Christian co-believers, should find himself saddled with the charge that he had reconciled a Holocaust denier to the Church. Yet that is what happened, because no one in whom Benedict XVI reposed trust had the sense to find out about Richard Williamson, and because the Curial culture of the day did not encourage those who did know the facts to warn the superiors. The entire Lefebvrist mess was preventable: if the pope had insisted throughout his pontificate on competence and had taken forceful measures to rectify incompetence; if those whose sole purpose is to give effect to the pope's will had done their jobs better; or if Benedict had reached outside the apostolic palace to take private soundings as to the likely effects of his gesture of reconciliation. 

Yet he now faces a crisis in his papacy, for the wisdom of his voice is being muted by the decline in his authority attendant on the managerial incompetence of the Curia.

The world, not simply the Church, needs a Benedict XVI working at the top of his form and being enabled to do so by his closest associates. Whether the question is challenging Europe to pull out of the demographic death-spiral caused by its debonair nihilism, or inviting Muslim leaders to seek an Islamically faithful rapprochement with political modernity, or defending the dignity of human life against the dangers of a brave new world of bio-technically manufactured humanity, there is no substitute for the combination of insight and institutional authority that Pope Benedict brings to the world table. Yet he now faces a crisis in his papacy, for the wisdom of his voice is being muted by the decline in his authority attendant on the managerial incompetence of the Curia.

The Rottweiler Brigade has taken advantage of this crisis to rekindle its assault on Ratzinger's character, through stories retailed to credulous journalists about the pope's "distant, regal style". The must ludicrous of these calumnies came from Robert Fisk, who is "beginning to suspect" that Benedict XVI "might be a very nasty piece of work". The seriousness with which Fisk's judgments are to be taken may be measured by one phrase in his screed in the Independent, in which he claims that Benedict had shown his odious colours by his attitude towards "the pro-Palestinian Angelo Cardinal Sidaro [he means Sodano], John XXIII's secretary of state" [he means John Paul II's secretary of state], from whom Benedict has been "distancing himself" [Benedict allowed Sodano to stay in his Curial office until he was long past the normal retirement age, ratified Sodano's election as Dean of the College of Cardinals, and has permitted Sodano to stay in that post beyond age 80, at which point several previous deans have had the courtesy to resign, having lost their votes in any future conclave]. If his article were a paper in Vaticanology 101, Fisk would receive a grade of "F". Such stories are not only ill-informed and cruel; they get the problem backwards. For Benedict XVI has been reluctant to seek help and to enforce discipline, not because of ego or vanity, but because of his shyness, his respect for others and his unwillingness to add to their burdens, and his profound reluctance to cause pain. These are the qualities of the man that account for the administrative and managerial difficulties of his pontificate, not some bizarre notion of himself as a Theologian-Sun King. 

The pope's March 10 letter to the world's bishops -- explaining his motives in the SSPX affair, deploring the temporary rift in Catholic-Jewish relations, and promising a more effective curial use of modern communications -- underscored Benedict XVI's intelligence, decency and humility. But no pope can govern successfully with an ineffectual Curia whose gaffes undercut the papal message and  erode its authority. Both pope and senior churchmen must find new ways to work together if the promise of this papacy is to be fulfilled.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

George Weigel. "The Pope Versus the Vatican." Standpoint (April 2009).

Reprinted with permission of Standpoint.

Standpoint is a monthly cultural and political magazine published by Social Affairs Unit Magazines Ltd, a subsidiary of the Social Affairs Unit in the UK.

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THE AUTHOR

George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored.

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

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