The New Pope Is Taking On The Vatican’s Traditionalists

...When he's not being crushed by the Church's bureaucracy, that is.
By @FrederickReese |
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    On June 22, a gala classical concert — planned prior to the papal elections — was held at the Vatican for an audience of cardinals and Italian dignitaries. The guest of honor was supposed to be the newly elected bishop of Rome — the austere former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina — who decided to take on the vestige of St. Francis of Assisi in assuming his regal identity.

    The chair sat empty as Pope Francis chose to worry about the affairs of the Curia — the Vatican’s administrative bureaucracy — instead of indulging in the privileges of office. The picture of the empty white armchair surrounded by seated cardinals sent a clear, undeniable message of the tone the new pope seeks to strike. He has rejected the papal apartments and private chapel in the apostolic palace for a small suite in a guest house — the Domus Sanctae Marthae — and use of the house chapel. He prefers public transportation to being chauffeured, and he prefers to walk with the people instead of preaching from a balcony. He even washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday.

    But even in this act of humility, traditionalists criticized the pope — not so much for the fact that the princely head of the Catholic Church lowered himself in a way unfit for the position or that one of the prisoners was Muslim and therefore does not share in the Easter tradition, but rather for washing the feet of two teenage girls. The tradition of Maundy — or the ritual washing of feet on the Thursday prior to Easter — holds that a priest, bishop, cardinal or pope selects 13 men for the ceremony. Women, as with most of the ceremonies involving the Roman Catholic Church, were and are excluded from participating.

    Pope Francis is forcing Catholics to address the manner in which the embattled church has functioned — from questions about corruption in its financial institutions, to its history in suppressing evidence of priestly abuse of parishioners, to the luxuries to which cardinals and bishops are privy, to the church’s abandonment of its mission to aid the poor. Many have perceived the choice of the name Francis as a sign that this pope is committed to changing Vatican culture.


    A crumbling church

    The notion of Francis as a Curia outsider has been tested in recent weeks. First, there is the priest abuse scandal. In documents recently released in light of a bankruptcy settlement with the Milwaukee archdiocese, it was revealed that Cardinal Timothy Dolan — the head of the American Catholic Church and cardinal for New York — warned the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of a brewing scandal that could damage the church. Dolan even went as far as to suggest a $57 million fund that would pay pedophile priests up to $20,000 to voluntarily surrender their ordinations and serve as a hedge against victims’ lawsuits. Dolan has sought to punish priests accused of molesting their parishioners and is not considered to be part of the cover-up.

    Since 2010, the Vatican has done nothing to address the situation. In 2010, Benedict ordered the doubling of the church court’s statute of limitations on clergymen and that the process to remove “pedophile priests” be streamlined. However, the sense of secrecy and the call to deal with these issues outside of the public eye through payoffs and private deals proliferate, particularly in light of the Vatican’s refusal to address the issue.

    Another example came last week when Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant for the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See — the part of the Vatican that works alongside the Institute for Works of Religion as the Vatican’s central bank — was arrested for attempting to smuggle nearly $26 million from a Swiss bank account to Italy by private jet without reporting it to customs officials. Scarano has stated that he was just helping his friends in the d’Amico shipping family, who allegedly were hiding their money in Switzerland to avoid Italian taxes. Paolo Cipriani, the Institute’s president, and his deputy, Massimo Tulli, both resigned over this situation, although evidence suggests they may have been forced out.

    “While we are grateful for what has been achieved, it is clear today that we need new leadership to increase the pace of this transformation process,” said Ernst von Freyberg, the new president of the Institute for Works of Religion, in a statement. The removal of Cipriani and Tulli is seen as the clearing of the last obstacle needed to bring transparency to the bank.

    Finally, the Institute for Works of Religion — also known as the Vatican Bank — has been singled out for its corruption. Designed to offer financial support for Catholic activities across the world, as of last year alone, the Vatican detected six possible attempts to launder money through the Vatican, with seven attempts detected so far this year. With assets of $7.1 billion and a per annum profit margin of $114.3 million, the bank has no external customers and does not lend money.

    In light of this, the pope established a commission of four prelates and one layperson to investigate the actions and accounts of the bank. The bank, which does not operate in accordance with international banking transparency standards, has for decades embarrassed the church, but it was seen as a mechanism of the Curia. The commission, which reports only to the pope, is designed to introduce a part of the bureaucracy to the pope for the first time, “to know better the juridical position and the activities of the Institute to allow an improved harmonization with the mission of the universal Church.”


    The last monarch

    The pope is held as the world’s last absolute monarch, in which the word of the pope is meant to determine the actions of the church and lead the world’s Catholics. But in reality, he is but the head of a large and convoluted bureaucracy. There are parts of the church that function without the pope’s input, and there are parts of the church that are resentful of his intervention and resistant to change.

    In leaked remarks from a June 6 private meeting with representatives of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious, the pope acknowledged the existence of a “gay lobby” and a “stream of corruption” in the Vatican. “In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true… The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there… We need to see what we can do,” said the published summary of the pope’s comments.

    Following Pope Benedict’s resignation, unsubstantiated reports published by the Italian media alleged the existence of a powerful “gay lobby” in the Vatican that could expose the See to blackmail. For years, it was thought that the Curia was being run by rival factions, leading to an atmosphere of competition and in-fighting. The “Vatileaks” scandal — in which Paolo Gabriele, Benedict’s butler, leaked classified internal documents to the Italian media — helped to substantiate the rivalry allegations and may have been the deciding reason a non-European pope was picked.

    Matthias Riedl is an associate professor in the department of history and director for the Center for Religious Studies for the Central European University. In conversation with Mint Press News, Riedl compared the rise of Francis to that of President Barack Obama. Both entered office on the hype of hope, with raised expectations that they will be able to break the bureaucracy and corruption of the governments they have been chosen to reform. In the case of Obama, open idealism crashed violently with an entrenched bureaucracy, a lack of practical understanding on how to initiate his reforms or how to run a large organization, and the slow realization that compromise is impossible if the opposition’s platform is “one-party rule.”

    Francis is facing his own realization. At age 76, the pope is unable to engage in long-term reforms and is challenged by the realities that the church at this point is self-propelled by its traditions, vested interests and “best practices.” However, without reform, the Roman Catholic Church will implode, and it is in the confluence of what needs to be done, what is willing to be done, and what can be done that will determine the success of the Francis Pontificate.

    “It’s hard to predict,” said Riedl when asked if the pope will be successful in his campaign of reforms. “The opposition against him will be fierce. You can see that already. He have made gestures that abhorred traditionalists — he has washed the feet of women, including a Muslim woman, which is not only unusual, but a breach of canon law — so, that these are things that have outraged the conservatives outside the Vatican. His words that redemption is available outside the Catholic Church and may even be accessible to atheists — while in line with the Second Vatican Council — are a horror to traditionalists.

    “So, there will be huge resistance to this pope. This pope, so far, has been careful. But, he is an outsider to the Vatican networks and is bringing in new people from the outside to help rebuild the Curia. Francis is currently replacing the Vatican’s secretary of state. The old secretary, an old friend of Benedict, is credited for much of the mess the Vatican finds itself in today — not because he was corrupt, but because he was unable to stay on top of things. This is part of Francis’ reform plan: to bring competency to the church by bringing the right people in and to break the church’s introspective worldview, which excluded the poor and minimized outreach.”


    Francis of Assisi

    “The pope will no doubt encounter opposition from Vatican insiders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” said Ian Morgan Cron, an Episcopalian priest and author of “Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale,” to Mint Press News. “Large institutions like the Vatican are more like tankers than speed boats. It takes considerable time and effort to turn them around.”

    “That said, the pope put the church on notice when he chose the name Francis. It’s widely known that St. Francis of Assisi successfully reformed the Catholic Church when scandals, corruption, and poor leadership brought it to the brink of collapse. So far it appears the current pope is determined to follow the example of his namesake. Whether he succeeds or not remains to be seen, but if the Catholic Church hopes to rise from the ashes and restore its credibility in the eyes of the world it would be wise to follow his lead,” Cron continued.

    Although never an ordained priest, Francis of Assisi gave up life as a wealthy merchant’s son and soldier to live among the poor and minister to the downtrodden. Those that adhere to his belief formed the Order of the Friars Minor, or the “Franciscans,” as well as the Order of the Poor Clares and the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. To students of Francis’ legacy, St. Francis has come to represent ultimate sacrifice and ultimate humility to God and to humanity. It is believed by many that Pope Francis will be the force that will evolve the church.

    However, for all of the signs of reform, there are equal signs that progress may be slower in reality. The pope’s decrees that women will not be allowed to enter the priesthood and that priests are to remain celibate and unmarried, the fact that Benedict XVI is still in residency at the Vatican, and the pope’s defense of traditional views on homosexuality, birth control and abortion all suggest that it may be too much to ask the 76-year-old pontiff to completely turn around the 1,800-year-old bureaucracy.

    This is, in part, seen by the quick campaign to make Pope John Paul II a saint. John Paul II did more than any other pope to encourage interfaith dialogue, but he also openly ostracized homosexuality and maintained traditional church views on sexuality — including opposition to birth control — which helped to contribute to the AIDS epidemic in the Third World. Despite the controversial nature of John Paul II’s reign, Benedict XVI fast-tracked the former pope’s sainthood, and Francis moved as quickly to recognize John Paul II’s second miracle — which green-lighted his sainthood. While this, by itself, may suggest nothing sinister, it does suggest that Francis is not as much an outsider as one might be led to believe.

    “I don’t think there will be any fundamental reform of the Catholic Church, but if there was, there are four things that would have to change,” said Joe Wenke, author of “You Got To Be Kidding: The Cultural Arsonist’s Literal Reading of the Bible,” to Mint Press News. He explained:

    “1) The ordination of women as priests. Pope Francis has reinforced his support of the church’s teaching that women cannot be ordained.

    “2) I see no way that the church would change its teaching on homosexuality. They believe that people who are homosexual are disordered and contrary to nature. The pope has come out opposed to marriage equality so the church would leave no alternative for homosexuals to be sexual human beings.

    “3) In relation to that, I find it hypocritical when in light of a large percentage of homosexual priests, the church considers that being homosexual is wrong and the church would need to acknowledge that. Many priests have become joined the priesthood as a way of staying in the closet. Reform would take those priests coming out and advocating that gays are not disordered people.

    “4) I don’t believe that the church has faced up to the issue of sex abuse at all. There are many people in church in positions of authority who covered up the sex abuse scandals by reassigning the sex abusers. There were monsignors, bishops, cardinals and Pope John Paul II himself involved in all of this. John Paul’s behavior was an atrocity on this issue. The new pope would need to discipline these priests and take them out of those positions and I don’t think he would do that. There is still clearly an issue there and I don’t believe they have identified all of the abusers.”

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    • Michael

      Who the heck is “Joe Wenke”, and why is he being interviewed about any of this? Just because his title has the word “Bible” mentioned in it?