The old wineskins keep bursting, as the curia continues resisting Vatican II

By Robert Mickens –

Scattered thoughts on the pope’s “attitude adjustment program”, clericalism and the refusal to make necessary changes to Church structures.

Pope Francis recently ordained nine new presbyters for the Diocese of Rome.

And he told them not to think they’re embarking on “an ecclesiastical career”, as it was once said in the old days.

“This is not a ‘career’,” the pope warned them in Italian.

“It’s a service… that has a style you must follow. The style of closeness, the style of compassion and the style of tenderness. This is the style of God — closeness, compassion, tenderness,” Francis repeated on this fine morning before the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on the day that the Church marked “Good Shepherd Sunday”.

He then repeated the advice he’s given out so many times before — that priests and bishops must be like shepherds that walk “at times ahead of the flock, at times in the middle or behind… but, always there, with the people of God”.

The 84-year-old pope did not fail to caution these young men against the allure of money or the temptation to treat the people in their care as if they were employees.

He also told them not to be afraid of the challenges ahead, promising that all would be well if they remained close to God in prayer, to their bishop in humility, their fellow priests in unity and the “holy faithful people of God” from whom they “were elected”.

The pope’s fine words and the Church’s brutal reality

These are lovely words. Unfortunately, they don’t match the reality of how the ordained presbyterate is envisioned or actually exercised in many parts of the Church.

And there is a simple reason for that.

The pope’s language is contradicted (or, at least, attenuated) by the language used in the official Catholic teaching and legislation regarding the ordained priesthood — and in the Church’s very structures.

The Code of Canon Law speaks about commissioning men to the “sacred ministries”, preferring the term “priest” (sacerdos) to that of presbyter.

The difference in terminology is not unimportant. The connotations surrounding the word sacerdos have cultic overtones more connected to the Hebrew notion of one who offers sacrifices, whereas presbyter is the word the early Christian community used to describe those whom we today call ordained priests. Only later, when it deals with parishes, does the code refer to the “sacred order of the presbyterate”. But it still describes presbyteral ministry in the classic language “of teaching, sanctifying and ruling (docendi, sanctificandi et regendi) the people of God”.

The language of power

The code points out that one becomes a “cleric” after ordination to the diaconate. And at that point he receives the “power of orders” (potestas ordinis) and “power of ecclesiastical governance” (potestas regiminis ecclesiastici).

The operative word here is potestas — power.

This is emphasized once more in the section on removing men from the clerical state. The code states clearly that they are “prohibited from exercising the power of orders”.

The Code of Canon Law also underlines that only ordained presbyters have the “power” to absolve sins.

“For the valid absolution of sins it is required that, besides the power received through sacred ordination, the minister possesses the faculty to exercise that power over the faithful to whom he imparts absolution” (Can. 966).

Exercising power over the faithful!

Good Lord! But this is exactly what the priest does in the confessional. And this is so commonly understood as such, that Francis has to keep reminding priests that they must be merciful to penitents above all else.

That’s because the code puts the emphasis in the wrong place, saying the confessor “acts as judge as well as healer” and is “the minister of divine justice as well as of mercy” (Can. 978).Judge first, healer second. The pope keeps insisting that it’s the other way around. Or it should be. But that is not the official language or ethos of the Church.

Need for extensive change in language and structures

It is true that in 2009 Benedict XVI officially changed the wording in Canons 1008 and 1009 that deal with the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Instead of emphasizing that bishops and presbyters “shepherd” the People of God, Can. 1008 now says they “serve” them.Eliminated is the reference to “teaching, sanctifying and ruling”. But only in this specific canon. These words, and this concept, remain elsewhere.

A new clause in Can. 1009 (but mainly for other political/ecclesiological reasons linked to the debate over the status of deacons) that states:

“Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”.

Nonetheless, the connotations of having power, being specially “elected”, being administrators of the sacred… all remain.

This is all part of a bigger ethos that permeates the entire Church. It is called clericalism. And it is something all Catholics are infected with to some degree or another. All of us. Whether we are conscious of it or not.

The limits of Pope Francis’ “attitude adjustment program”A big part of the problem rests with our seminaries, most of which set our future presbyters apart from the rest of the people of God from the outset, to prepare them for their so-called “service”.Many places enforce a clerical dress code or allow these men who are not even clerics yet to begin dressing like clerics. Seminarians in dog collars and cassocks masquerading as “clerics” — and not just through the streets of Rome.Most lay people probably think there is nothing wrong with, so much has the clericalist mentality permeated all levels of the Church these past centuries.There is nothing that feeds clericalism in a more subtle, yet incisive way than the use of the titles. And it begins when a newly ordained 25-year-old priest is called “Father” by someone who is old enough to be his grandmother or great-grandfather.It’s like the Mormons calling their teenage missionaries “elders”.Words matter and have a significance. And an apt word to describe both of the cases above is “weird”.Until the structures and laws are changed, the use of terms like “service” and “servant-leadership” will remain mere slogans from an ecumenical council that has not yet been implemented.The current pope has employed Vatican II language in a marvelous way in his “attitude adjustment program” aimed at changing the mentality or ethos of the Church.But changing the mentality is not enough. Right thinking alone cannot correct a bad system.Or put another way, you can’t put new wine in old wineskins. This is exactly what well-intentioned Catholics — including many good men who have been “commissioned to the sacred ministries” — have been trying in these past five decades or more.It should be clear to all that the wineskins keep bursting. And we have one hell of a mess on our hands.It’s well past the time for new wineskins — new and reformed structures. Not just regarding ministry, but in many other areas of the Church, as well.But it’s still not clear whether Pope Francis has the courage to provide them. Or whether he still has time.

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Pope Francis made it clear recently that unless one accepts the magisterial authority of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), one is not “with the Church”. He was speaking to the catechists of Italy, but that part of his message was clearly addressed to a wider audience. The media understood this and gave it widespread coverage. The pope said there could be “no concessions” or “selectivity” and that “we must be demanding and strict on this point”.

His uncharacteristically stern call for acceptance prompts speculation as to where he has encountered resistance to the Council. It is not among the laity.

The many organizations calling for reform that have sprung up around the Catholic world are characterized by a demand for the full and honest implementation of the Council. The outstanding need for Francis’ exhortation is located much closer to home: in the Roman bureaucracy. Nowhere have the deliberations of Vatican II encountered more resistance and prejudicial reinterpretation than in the papacy itself. Nowhere has the lack of respect for the authority of the Council been more apparent than in the actions and inactions of the Roman Curia. Every bureaucracy prioritizes its own power and authority and tries to control or suppress competing power centers. The curia is no exception. While the infallibility conferred on the pope in 1870 had conditions attached which have limited its use to one occasion since then; the “infallible” title itself has allowed the papacy to present many fallible teachings as if they were infallible.

“You are mistaken, the curia is the pope”

While nobody claims that papal encyclicals and apostolic letters are infallible, key elements extracted from them are routinely treated as infallible. The growth of this practice over the years is known among the clergy as “creeping infallibility”. It is, in fact, pseudo-infallibility and there is now so much of it that its defense is taking top priority, lest confidence in the papacy be imperilled. Defending the indefensible leads to faulty reasoning, deception and even to lies.

The Roman Curia normally manages and controls access to the popes, who tend to be elderly and hopelessly overworked. It outlasts them. It selects the bishops, rules them, and controls their promotion. It controls episcopal conferences through imposed statutes. The curia is thus the effective government of the Church.

Pope John Paul II confirmed this after 17 years’ experience in the office when he told Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of Brazil, “You are mistaken, the curia is the pope.”

The resistance of the curial bureaucracy to the Second Vatican Council was evident from the day Pope John XXIII announced his intention of calling it. They issued a press release which misreported what he had said.

His warm and welcoming invitation to the other Christian Churches was watered down and deliberately chilled. His reference to them as “Christian Churches” was edited to read “separated communities” and his invitation to “a banquet of grace and brotherhood” became a call to “follow Us … in this search for unity and grace”.

Thus, John’s deliberate openness to ecumenical possibilities between the Churches was replaced with an invitation to reunion —an invitation which had been rejected consistently by Protestants everywhere since the Reformation.

The Roman Curia, which can boast no theological or scriptural grounding beyond being a helper to the Bishop of Rome, was aware that ecumenism would pose a threat to its dominance and power. It could not openly challenge Pope John, of course, but as managers of the meetings and of official communications it continued its resistance piecemeal throughout the entire Council.

One of the most respected of the participating theologians, Fr Yves Congar, decried “the people of the curia, who are felt to be trying to sabotage the Council“.

Proposal for collegial governance outmaneuvered

The Council was about reform, but the need to defend exaggerated infallibility demanded that no teaching should change, although some did change. Moreover, the self-perpetuating bureaucracy that runs the church feared the loss of power that would accompany ecumenism or any change in governance.

The idea that the College of Bishops could provide better long-term governance had emerged organically from the Council discussions. It gained a momentum during the third session(1964) that could not be halted.

Instead, in was forestalled.

When the bishops reassembled for the fourth session (1965) expecting to discuss how collegial governance would be implemented they were faced with a fait accompli.

In the opening address and in an apostolic letter promulgated one day later, they learned that in place of the proposed governing body of bishops, Pope Paul VI was establishing an advisory Synod of Bishops. Its structure and statutes had been decided in detail. It would be under the control of the curia.

A new permanent Church institution was being set up. Incredibly, the bishops of the world, already assembled in Ecumenical Council, were not given an opportunity to decide, or debate the matter. Their opinions at that stage could only have been an embarrassment.

The proposal for collegial governance of a more ecumenical church had been outmaneuvered and the hegemony of the curia, safeguarded.

Eighteen years later, the new Code of Canon Law, was prepared by the curial experts. They dutifully recognized the concept of collegiality, only to consign it legally to oblivion. The code legislated that the College of Bishops could only meet to discuss a controlled agenda when summoned by the pope. This put it also under the control of the curia.

Eleven areas where Vatican Council II has not been followed.

Since the Council, the papacy has consistently professed acceptance of its spirit and letter. Many actions, however, belie the protestations.

Eleven of these are touched on briefly here. A more reasoned and nuanced treatment can be found in my recent book, The Curia is the Pope.

The Council had reversed Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of ecumenism, declaring instead that it was a “movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit”. After Pope Paul VI died, the papacy put the brakes on ecumenical progress, and it has even defined new obstacles. The “ecumenism spring” that followed the Council suddenly became an Ecumenical Winter that has lasted forty years.

The implementing revisions of canon law were stalled until after the death of Pope Paul VI who was deeply committed to implementing the Council.

Freedom of religion and the primacy of conscience were major decisions of the Council. They have not yet been applied within the Church.

The Council expressed dissatisfaction with Catholic moral theology. Its call for a renewal “more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching” has been ignored by the curia, except for persecuting theologians and pastors who dared to make a start on it.

The Council turned away from defining infallibilities, even inadvertently. Yet the curia continues to burden the faithful with pseudo-infallible teachings.

The Council decreed that “a fitting revision of diocesan boundaries be undertaken prudently and as soon as possible”. This has not been done.

The Council specifically gave the responsibility for vernacular translations of the liturgy to the bishops in their relevant language groups. The curia reversed this Council decision and took back this work. For the English-speaking world, this has resulted in a liturgy in a Latinized English that certainly is not the vernacular, that nobody wanted and that is very alienating for most people. Moreover, the curia banned the sharing of common texts with other Christian churches and recently opted for an English translation of the Bible that is less scholarly and uses sexist language to create more alienation.

The Council confirmed that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our spiritual life. The papacy has consistently prioritized traditional practices, regulations, prejudices and the prerogatives of the professional priesthood ahead of Christ’s Eucharistic mandate, “do this”, and his instruction to “make disciples of all the nations”.

The Council stressed that “in Catholic teaching there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relationship with the foundation of the Christian faith”. This has been played down by the curia. If taken seriously, it would lead to a seismic reordering of priorities.

In drafting Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council very deliberately prioritized its chapter on the People of God ahead of that on the hierarchical structure. This was not what the curia had intended. Wherever possible since then, the curia has avoided using the phrase “People of God” with its inference that Christ’s promise to be with us to the end of the age was addressed to his entire Church.

The Council recommended the setting up of episcopal conferences. Although these were potentially competing power centers, the bureaucracy could not be seen to oppose them openly. Instead, it later abused holy obedience to foist statutes on the conferences that had the effect of emasculating them. Their decisions can only be made by unanimous vote. If one bishop is found to disagree, the decision must revert to Rome. And Rome can easily bully an individual bishop. The insistence on absolute unanimity for relatively trivial decisions compares oddly with the ruling in 1870, by Pius IX, that allowed papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction to be imposed on the consciences of Catholics “irrevocably” by a simple majority vote!

A lasting reform of the Roman Curia is still possible

This list proves that Pope Francis’ call for loyalty to the Second Vatican Council needs to be heard in the Roman corridors of power. The book referred to above explains the inability of the bureaucracy to listen to the faithful. Will it be able to listen to the pope? Will it be able to hear a warning that applies to itself?

It is now eight years since Francis asked his advisory Council of Cardinals to help him plan the reform of the Roman Curia.

Evidently, this has encountered significant resistance. For as long as the curia is independent of the People of God and controls its own recruitment and internal promotions, its ethos will not change. It can be expected to outmaneuver any gradual program of reform initiated by a pope, if not in his lifetime, then after his death.

However, a lasting reform of the Roman Curia is still possible.

A pope, using his currently unlimited powers could, by edict, decentralize some of the duties of the curia and give them back to the bishops. He could reconstitute the remnant of the curia as an administration serving an enduring governing body of elected bishops headed by the pope, as envisaged by the Council.

This would have to be set up initially with papal appointees to create a counter force that would resist the push-back of the curia and would survive the reforming pope. It would have to develop its own structures, electoral system, statutes and standing orders, schedule its own meetings and set its own agenda in consultation with the episcopal conferences.

Going forward, it would be composed of the pope and elected bishops, a proportion of whom would retire each year to maintain continuity. In this way, the reform of the Roman Curia would be fittingly achieved by implementing the great vision of the Second Vatican Council, collegial governance by the bishops with the pope. It would also give the People of God some input into the way their visible Church is run.

So, while Pope Francis did not identify his target directly, there can be little doubt as to who the cap fits and who should be listening when he stresses that “being ‘with the Church’ demands loyalty to the Council”.

And we can only hope and pray that Francis and his reforming cardinals will offer “no concessions” to a curia “that does not agree with the magisterium of the Church”.

John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and serial social entrepreneur. With his wife, Kay, he founded Concern in Ireland 1968 and guided it for its first ten years. In addition to responding to humanitarian crises, Concern currently employs 3,500 people on agricultural development and educational and medical projects in 24 of the world’s poorest countries. His recent book The Curia is the Pope is published by Mount Salus Press

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…all members of the curia, employees of Vatican City and those of all bodies associated with it will now be prohibited from “accepting or soliciting, for themselves or for persons other than the Institution in which they work, by reason or on the occasion of their office, gifts, presents or other benefits of a value greater than forty euros”.

These rules are similar to those that govern many public administrations around the world.

The maximum value for accepting a gift without declaring it is thus set at €150 for the French National Assembly, €250 for Italian parliamentarians, €50 for European Commission officials and $335 (€276) for the US senior administration officials.

As for the declarations of interests, they are, in many countries, made public.

It is a degree of transparency to which the pope obviously did not wish to go.

“Being honest is hard: the more responsibilities you have, the harder it is”

But in the Vatican, where secrecy taints all exchanges, this is a cultural revolution in many ways.

“We are experiencing the last moments of a world closed in on itself,” said a curia official a few weeks ago.

“Reasonable accommodation is no longer the order of the day,” he continued.”

This is the end of an era, which began a few years ago with the end of the distribution of cash envelopes. More broadly, it asks us about our relationship to money,” the same official added.

“What can I do with the dicastery card? What can I accept as a gift? Being honest is hard: the more responsibilities you have, the harder it is. Including, even especially, here in the Roman Curia,” he said.

The pope’s new decree takes effect immediately.

It was published on the exact day that the general assembly of Moneyval, a Council of Europe body, adopted the report that anti-money laundering experts made after conducting an inspection of the Vatican last October.

The timing is not coincidental, as Pope Francis intends to use this international pressure to push forward internal reforms in the Vatican, especially in the financial area.

This is why he personally received the Moneyval inspectors in the fall, encouraging them in their work. Monyval’s report is expected to be made public in mid-June.

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