158. The Annus Horribilis (Terrible Year) of the Roman Catholic Church

February 1st, 2019

Stable. Traditional. Consistent. For many this has been the image of the Roman Catholic Church. But that was ages ago. The present-day situation appears to be quite different: uncertain, scrutinized, wavering. The public image of the Roman Catholic Church now is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Here are few signs of the current crisis.

Annus Horribilis
In September 2016, four cardinals sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts). These questions gave voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community concerning the interpretation of key parts of Amoris Laetitia, the papal document that relaxes access to the sacraments by the divorced.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope, thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denunciation of doctrinal deviations.

At the end of July 2017, Father Thomas Weinandy, a former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last ten years, horrible things have come out: first in Ireland, then Australia, then Chile, and more recently in the USA (where a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report exposed systemic abuses committed by priests) and Germany (with a recent report saying that 3,677 children have been abused by Catholic priests since the 1940s). These are just five regions where exposure of the traumatic evidence meant that the scandals could no longer be covered up. The impression is that we have not yet reached the peak. The vast echo of these scandals reached the Vatican headquarters when former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò accused vast sectors of the Roman Curia of covering them up and called for Francis’ resignation due to his inability to properly deal with the abuses. Cases of abuse are also emerging from Argentina and involve people very close to the Pope.

What is the Problem?
What is happening in this Annus Horribilis undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome. Even though Pope Francis continues to cling to the idea that, while her children make mistakes, the church is indefectible (i.e. it does not err), the reality is that it is a failure of the whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on.

The abuse scandal is not the case of few isolated “black sheep”, nor can the internal turmoil be interpreted as a physiological discussion in a large community. There is something wrong within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August 2018) called for repentance and envisaged stricter procedures for the recruitment of the clergy, the prevention of abuse, and the prosecution of abusers, which will be discussed at a meeting scheduled for 21-24 February 2019. More than 100 churchmen will represent every bishops’ conference. But is this enough?

The Pope is also suggesting that the main problem lies in “clericalism”, i.e. an attitude marked by self-referentiality and detachment from the people. In a clericalist culture, the clergy often stand above and aloof from their flocks, thus creating the conditions for unchecked power to become abusive. In Francis’ words, it is “a perversion of the church”. As true as this might be, is only clericalism to blame?

Is the Protection of Mary the Solution?
In the midst of this Annus Horribilis, Pope Francis has called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary and to Saint Michael Archangel to ask for their protection. He invited “all the faithful, of all the world, to pray the Holy Rosary every day, during the entire Marian month of October, and thus to join in communion and in penitence, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to separate us from God and from each other.” The Pope asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”) and with prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

The full invocation “Sub tuum praesidium” is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and, in so doing, deviates the focus from the Triune God to Mary.

With this request for intercession, the Pope asked the faithful of all the world to pray that the Holy Mother of God place the church beneath her protective mantle, preserving her from the attacks by the devil. He also asked that the recitation of the Holy Rosary during the month of October conclude with the prayer written by Pope Leo XIII:

Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

In the Pope’s view, Mary and  Saint Michael Archangel are the two defenders of the church in this Annus Horribilis. But are they really the ones to be invoked to receive help? Is this a biblically viable way forward?

Where is Rome going?
There is no doubt that Rome is going through difficult times. The institution that appeared strong and stable is now showing signs of serious weakness at various levels. The suggested diagnosis of the current crisis, i.e. the “black sheep” explanation and the evil of clericalism, seems to be self-protective and unwilling to engage the real issues at stake. The proposed cure to the problem, i.e. the invocation of Mary and the saints, is even more problematic. Both the diagnosis and the cure do not show any indication that radical biblical renewal is taking place in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The gospel is still obscured by centuries of unwillingness to expose the church to a time of doctrinal reformation and by scores of devotional practices that lead the faithful astray.

There might be movements and individuals here and there who are exploring what biblical faith really means. However, as far as the institution at its highest level is concerned, the current Annus Horribilis is a lost opportunity to rediscover the truth, the purity, and the healing power of the biblical gospel.

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157. What is at Stake with Roman Catholic Mariology?

January 1st, 2019

This is going to be a more personal Vatican File, based on some observations gathered in the last twelve months. After writing a book on Mary, I knew that I was going to present it on several occasions before different audiences and discuss its contents with numerous Roman Catholic theologians around Italy. Books are important tools for dialogue, and so I was prepared to engage in serious conversations in a variety of public settings. So did it happen. Over the last year I have had the privilege of talking about Mariology many times and in many places, meeting hundreds of people eager to listen, to ask questions, and to challenge my book.

The last public presentation for this year took place in the city of Imola (not far from Bologna, in the north of Italy) only a few weeks ago. This experience gives me the opportunity to reflect on some unique opportunities that I have had and on some common threads that I have encountered so far.

Debating Mariology Under the Marble Bust of Pius IX
At Imola, the presentation took place in the impressive hall of the historic Episcopal Palace in the presence of the Roman Catholic bishop and more than seventy people, most of whom were committed Catholics of that city. Imola is the town where Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti (1792-1878) had been bishop since 1828 before becoming Pope Pius IX in 1846. Pius IX was the pope who promulgated the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary (1854), the binding belief for Catholics according to which Mary was preserved from original sin, thus making her person unique beyond the service that God chose to give her in giving birth to Jesus. Pius IX was also the pope who convened the First Vatican Council (1870), which promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. This same pope issued the harsh encyclical “Nostis et Nobiscum” (1849), against the spread of Protestantism in Italy, and the “Syllabus of Errors” (1864), with which he condemned Protestantism an illegitimate form of Christianity (Error N. 18).  So, talking about Mary on December 5 (three days before the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary) in the hall that the then-bishop Mastai Ferretti had decorated and embellished, with a marble bust of an austere and inquisitive Pius IX staring down at me, in the presence of the current Roman Catholic bishop of Imola, was a spiritually strong experience. Under Pius IX the evangelization of Italy by the evangelical Protestants began; these believers were opposed, harassed, and persecuted in many ways. There I was, able to give reasons for the evangelical faith in a place from which its elimination had been desired.

Between Theology and Affections
My dialogue partner was a learned and respected Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at various universities in Italy and across Europe. He had written twelve pages of notes on my book, showing that he had certainly read it very carefully. After my talk presenting Mary’s biblical portrait and the reasons for the evangelical criticism of Roman Catholic Mariology, ending with an invitation to go back to Scripture to have the Bible define our Mariology, the Catholic theologian explained with great wit the Catholic logic of Marianism: apparently motivated by the exaltation of the concreteness of the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, but really developed by incorporating affective and emotional codes linked to motherhood, the need for human proximity, the search for eminent life models, the idealization of female spirituality, etc.  It became even more evident to me that Roman Catholic Mariology has its main raison d’être not in seeking a biblical foundation (even though the Bible is rhetorically evoked). Rather, its foundation is affective, emotional, and maternal. At the conclusion of the evening, a nun, visibly shaken and displeased, publicly asked me: “In short, how can you not pray to Mary? She is our mother after all!” Here, again, in this question and in this statement lies the whole of Roman Catholic Mariology. Mariology is not so much interested in biblical teaching but is enveloped in deep aspirations of the heart that are apparently not met by the living person of Christ, who has restored fellowship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.

The Pre-Theoretical Ground of Mariology
Here is another lesson that I learned at the end of this tour of presentations on the book on Mary. While it is vitally important for us evangelical theologians to work on biblical exegesis and theology to develop a biblical Mariology and to correct deviations and false teachings about her, we have to be aware of the fact that, historically and theologically speaking, Roman Catholic Mariology did not primarily originate from a reading of Scripture. Rather, it grew out of deep symbolic and “maternal” concerns. Exegetical arguments came after to retroactively support the Mariological devotions and the affection for her. This is to say that for Roman Catholic Mariology to be challenged and eventually undermined, we have to grapple with deeper issues than exegesis. In Mariology there are pre-theoretical commitments that exegesis does not intersect or intersects in a secondary way. It could even be argued that even if we win the exegetical argument, Catholic Mariology will still stand because its foundation lies elsewhere.

As I came back from this presentation, another clear example of the pre-theoretical, deep, and emotional grounding of Mariology was evident in the official liturgy of the Act of Veneration that Pope Francis paid to Mary on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th in Rome.

This is the prayer that he and the crowd gave:

Holy Mother of God, pray for us
Holy Virgin of the virgins, pray for us
Mother of Christ, pray for us
Mother of the Church, pray for us
Mother of divine grace, pray for us
Most Pure Mother, pray for us
Most Chaste Mother, pray for us
Always virgin mother, pray for us
Immaculate Mother, pray for us
Mother worthy of love, pray for us
Admirable mother, pray for us
Mother of good counsel, pray for us
Mother of the Creator, pray for us
Mother of the Savior, pray for us

Virgin most prudent, pray for us
Virgin worthy of honor, pray for us
Virgin worthy of praise, pray for us
Virgin most powerful, pray for us
Virgin most merciful, pray for us
Virgin most faithful, pray for us
Mirror of perfection, pray for us
Seat of Wisdom, pray for us
Cause of our joy, pray for us
Temple of the Holy Spirit, pray for us
Tabernacle of eternal glory, pray for us
Consecrated residence of God, pray for us
Mystical rose, pray for us

Tower of the holy city of David, pray for us
Impregnable fortress, pray for us
Sanctuary of the divine presence, pray for us
Ark of the Covenant, pray for us
Gate of heaven, pray for us
Morning Star, pray for us
Health of the sick, pray for us
Refuge of sinners, pray for us
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us
Help of Christians, pray for us
Queen of angels, pray for us
Queen of the patriarchs, pray for us
Queen of the Prophets, pray for us
Queen of the Apostles, pray for us
Queen of martyrs, pray for us
Queen of confessors, pray for us
Queen of virgins, pray for us
Queen of all the saints, pray for us
Queen conceived without sin, pray for us
Queen assumed into heaven, pray for us
Queen of the Rosary, pray for us
Queen of the family, pray for us
Queen of Peace, pray for us.

There is much pre-theoretical commitment in this prayer that locates Mariology at the deepest level of psychological affections, far beyond exegetical and theological arguments. The latter are secondary at best.

Thankfully, we no longer live in the time of Pius IX, and we are grateful for it. While all opportunities for respectful dialogue and friendly interaction with Roman Catholic friends need to be sought, it should be clear nonetheless that present-day Roman Catholic Mariology is still very much framed and encapsulated in an emotional setting that makes it hardly reformable according to the Word of God.

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