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.

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.

156. She is My Mamá – Pope Francis and Mary

December 1st, 2018

“Ella Es Mi Mamá” (She Is My Mum) is the title of a 2014 book written in Spanish that contains a long interview with Pope Francis by the Brazilian priest Alexander Awi Mello. During the interview, Francis highlights the filial affection and devotion that he has for Mary. Readers of the Vatican Files know that the Marianism of the Pope has often been covered and assessed on this blog. Here are some examples:

This book, which was recently translated into Italian and includes a new preface, does not break any new ground in terms of the pervasive presence of the cult of Mary in Francis’ spirituality. What is interesting, though, are the biographical details that help to explain the personal context of his “applied” Marianism.

First Personal Encounters
Born into a devout Roman Catholic family, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio was exposed to the Marian dimension of the faith from his earliest days. He began praying using Marian prayers, and the first image he possessed was a little medal of Mary of Mercy. Marianism reached him intuitively as part of family life and was conveyed with deep affections and tender gestures. As Clodovis Boff argues, “the incubator of Mariology is the heart, not the mind” (p. 126). In the cult of Mary, experiences and feelings precede and dominate everything else.

Bergoglio’s first experiences of the Catholic Church were in a parish run by the Salesian order and dedicated to Mary the Auxiliatrix, so his first impressions of what “church” meant were thoroughly Marian. The most influential priest in his childhood was one who would impart Marian blessings and recite Marian prayers when visiting the Bergoglio family. As a child, Jorge Mario would regularly bring flowers to the statue of Mary. At 19 years of age he decided to become a priest while praying in the Marian chapel of his parish church. His sweetest memories and most decisive moments were punctuated by the “presence” of Mary surrounding him. In a telling passage of the book, we are told that “Mary entered progressively and profoundly in his life, never to leave it again” (p. 49).

The Importance of Marian Sanctuaries
After becoming a priest, Bergoglio marked his pastoral activities around Marian devotions. The most popular ones were the diocesan pilgrimages to the Marian sanctuary of Our Lady of Luján (whose image oversees the room where he meets with Catholic bishops from around the world at the Vatican). It is here that he leads thousands of people to the sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei. He has become so close to Our Lady of Luján that he carries close to his heart a little piece of cloth that was used to polish her statue back in Argentina. He wants a physical, on-going touch with something Marian.

Apart from the influence of the Mexican cult Mary of Guadalupe, and the devotions related to Mary Undoer of Knots, whose veneration he has introduced in Argentina, Bergoglio’s life has also been shaped by the cult associated with Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. In visiting Aparecida for World Youth Day in 2013, the Pope said in his speech there:

“What joy I feel as I come to the house of the Mother of every Brazilian, the Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida! The day after my election as Bishop of Rome, I visited the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, in order to entrust my ministry as the Successor of Peter to Our Lady. Today I have come here to ask Mary our Mother for the success of World Youth Day and to place at her feet the life of the people of Latin America”.

Yet another link to a centrally important Marian sanctuary in the life of the Pope is Saint Mary Major in Rome. He pays a visit there before and after his journeys around the world in order to commit them to Mary and ask for her protection.

Blurred Theology
From childood to adulthood, from Argentina to the Vatican, from piety to theology, in his daily spiritual practices and devotions, Marianism is perhaps the most significant factor shaping the Pope’s life. The apartment he lives in is replete with Marian images. The rooms where he officially meets with people are furnished with portraits of Mary. His own daily clothes carry objects associated with Mary. His prayers are directed to her. His affections and tender thoughts are oriented to Mary. The interview is a wide-open window into Francis’ Mariological vision. All aspects of his life, thought, and ministry – none excluded – are strongly impacted by his Mariology.

Of course, the pervasiveness of Mary is argued for in theological terms as well. For instance, Jesus is presented as someone who does not want to do all on his own but instead wants Mary to collaborate in the work of salvation (p. 45). According to the Pope, Jesus always acts according to “the logic of inclusion,” and Mary’s mediation is therefore an example of such necessary mediation. Since there are “organic links” between the Son and the Mother, she is always involved in what the Son does. It is the “principle of incarnation” that sustains and supports Marian devotions and veneration (p. 86).

While Marianism has a primarily intuitive force and sentimental power, Mariology tries to connect it to Christology and therefore to Trinitarian theology, as Vatican II tries to do (Lumen Gentium 52-69). Quoting the 1979 Puebla document, the Pope goes on to say that “she is the point of contact between heaven and earth. Without Mary, the gospel becomes disembodied, defaced and transforms itself in ideology, in spiritualistic rationalism” (n. 301). So in this high Mariology, Christology is also at stake. If Mary is the point of contact between heaven and earth, isn’t Jesus Christ’s uniqueness as the God-man imperiled? If the gospel becomes disembodied without Mary, isn’t the incarnation of the Son blurred?

A Marian Gospel
A major assumption in most present-day ecumenical dialogues is that there is a solid agreement among all Christian traditions on basic orthodox Christology, and thus that Protestants and Roman Catholics share the same Christology. However, a reading of this book challenges this poor argument, which is nurtured by theological myopia, and invites us to take Roman Catholic Mariology seriously in all of its implications for Christology, salvation, grace, and prayer – in other words, the whole of theology and practice. If the Pope sees Mary everywhere, even when he thinks of Christ and the Trinity, salvation, and the Christian life; if Francis continually prays to Mary; if he strongly feels and seeks the maternal presence of Mary all the time; is his gospel a Bible-based, Christ-centered, and God-honoring gospel at all?

Soon after Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, one of the Argentinian theologians who had influenced him the most, Juan Carlos Scannone, said about him: “He will emphasize popular piety and spirituality, especially the Marian devotion which is so typical of Latin America” (p. 138). These words have proven true. Francis is promoting a “Marian” gospel that contradicts at fundamental points the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ.

155. Roman but Not Catholic: A Book Review

November 1st, 2018

What remains at stake with the Roman Catholic Church 500 years after the Protestant Reformation? This question is of capital importance given the general ecumenical climate, which blurs differences and even finds them disturbing to talk about. The book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation provides timely food for thought in assessing the historical and theological implausibility of Rome being “catholic” and “Roman” at the same time. Written by two evangelical scholars (Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University), this work is an engaging exercise in historical theology that helpfully grapples with the defining claims of the Roman Catholic Church: on the one hand, its claim of  “catholicity” (universality), and on the other, its “Roman” structure. This combination is essential to the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is highly questionable on various grounds. The book is a well-argued critique of the very fabric of Roman Catholicism.

Roman and Catholic?
First, let’s have a look at the main claim that shapes Roman Catholicism. Its catholicity has a Roman element so intertwined that it is an inextricable part of the whole. “Roman” is not just a geographical reference, but an essential and constitutive part of a system that is both Roman and catholic, or better still, “Roman Catholic” in a single breath. The romanitas of the system is co-essential with its catholicity. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”[1], that of Rome.

Within the Western tradition, then, Roman catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure. Roman Catholicism wants to affirm both. But is it a warranted claim biblically or even historically?

Pointed Critique
Having briefly described the nature of the combination of Roman and Catholic elements in the Roman Catholic Church, the main critique of the authors is intelligently summarized at a number of points in the book. For example, the authors state, “Roman Catholicism represents not the universal church, as is so often claimed, but instead a distinct theological tradition, one among others” (p. 30, emphasis in the text). If Roman Catholicism is Roman, it cannot be truly catholic, and since Roman Catholicism wants to be Roman, it is not truly catholic.

The book surveys the development of Roman traditions that departed from the catholic (read: biblical) stream of the ancient church. Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority (ch. 2-4). The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims (ch. 6-7). The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism (ch. 8 and 11-12). The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians (ch. 9). Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis (chps. 15-16).

“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceases to be catholic. Hence the brilliant title: Roman but not Catholic!

This critique is always gently and respectfully put, but it has devastating effects on the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church if it is taken seriously. Among other things, it means that the Roman aspect of the church takes precedence over the biblical outlook and leads it away from clear biblical teaching in core areas like tradition, authority, Mariology, salvation, etc. It means that its Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus altering the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church.

One Standing Issue
The book is outstanding in its impressive scholarship and careful argumentation. I have many words of commendation with only one remaining criticism. The authors, though masterly at presenting a convincing case, don’t go far enough in coming to terms with its consequences. They still operate with the mindset that what divides Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church is less than what unites them. Here is the way they put it: “Deep Disagreement despite Deeper Agreement” (p. 78). According to them, the deeper agreement is the Trinitarian and Christological foundation of the “catholic” tradition (as it is enshrined in the early creeds of the ancient church), whereas the deep disagreement refers to the later Roman accretions (as they are, for example, reflected in the papacy).

This way of understanding the dividing line between Evangelicals and Catholics is popular in ecumenical circles, but it is not fully consistent with the thesis endorsed by the authors. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to its Roman identity and to its catholic heritage means that even the catholic (i.e. Trinitarian and Christological) core is affected by its Roman commitment. According to the Catholic Church, the Roman and non-biblical elements (i.e. the Roman pontiff, the Roman imperial institutions, the Roman hierarchical ecclesiology) are not accidents of history; they are considered to be de iure divino (i.e. stemming from divine law, being rooted in God’s will) constitutive components of the church. For Rome, its catholic and Roman dual identity is grounded in the divine will. So these foundational Roman commitments do impact the way  in which the “catholic” ones are understood and articulated in doctrine and practice. The “catholic” heritage of Rome has been shaped, curved, and bent by its Roman additions to the point that it is no longer the way it was in the ancient church. It is a different catholicity. It is Roman Catholicism.

Moreover, all of the spurious Roman elements are argued for in Trinitarian and Christological ways by Roman Catholic theology. For example, the Pope is believed to be the “vicar” of Christ and chosen by the Holy Spirit. This is a Trinitarian argument, but a kind of Trinitarianism that is significantly different from the biblical one to the point of allowing and demanding the wrong Roman developments.

The point is that the “deep disagreements despite deeper agreement” approach adopted in the book should actually be reversed. Between the Evangelical faith and Rome are deep agreements despite deeper disagreements. “Roman but not Catholic” means that the catholic that is in Rome is no longer biblically catholic, but distortedly Roman Catholic, and needs to be reformed according to the gospel.

[1]J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.

154. The Loss of Credibility of the Roman Catholic Church and the Theological Issues at Stake

October 1st, 2018

The public image of the Roman Catholic Church emerging out of the sexual abuse scandals is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Having several top leaders (cardinals, bishops, priests) and institutions (seminaries, schools, the Vatican curia itself) incriminated for either abusing children or covering up abuses undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome.

Over the last ten years, horrible things have come to light: 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.

Systemic Problem
The sexual abuse crisis has been on the table in a dramatically growing way since the years of Benedict XVI. Its increased scope was one of the reasons Pope Ratzinger felt overwhelmed, contributing to his abrupt resignation. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to deal with the issue first by using the analogy of the “black sheep”: these are terrible but isolated events and the church is dealing with them. Then, the magnitude and extent of the scandal revealed that the problem is neither regional nor limited to individual cases but lies within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Hence Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August) calling for repentance and envisaging stricter procedures in the recruitment of the clergy, in the prevention of abuse, and in the prosecution of abusers.

The “black sheep” metaphor is no longer adequate. The problem is systemic and pervasive. The magnitude of the scandals challenges the doctrine of the indefectibility of the (Roman) church, i.e. the view that the church never errs and that only her “sons” make mistakes as individuals. No, the church as a whole is called into question by the abuse of thousands of children by its leaders.

There are several issues at stake here. When nearly half of its priests are sexually active (as evidenced in the book Sex and the Vatican), a structural problem is evident. It is more than the failure of many individuals. It is the failure of a whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on. In the words of the above mentioned Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the USA, “The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated… These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” How will the church deal with the issue of homosexuality among its priests and its members? Will the church’s hierarchical structure be used to defend the victims, or to adopt a self-defending attitude? These continue to be standing and open questions.

More than a Moral Issue
Of course, every institution, every church, every community, every denomination is subject to failures. In this sense, the problem is not exclusively a Roman Catholic one. The Lord Jesus reminds us not to pass hypocritical judgment on others as if we were exempt from failing. If we are tempted to say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, we should be careful not to have “a plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:4).

Having said that, the disgusting scale of the scandal points to something bigger than a failure.

Here is what the above-mentioned report of Pennsylvania Grand Jury says:

There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands. Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

In Persona Christi?
A moral and institutional crisis? Yes, but there is more. One wonders whether a significant factor in determining the present-day moral disaster lies at the very heart of the theology of the Roman Church: not the only reason, but one that is often overlooked. The problem has to do with the Roman theology of priesthood and, in particular, with the organic association of the priest with Christ. The priest, by way of his office, acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as if he were Christ himself. In Roman Catholicism, the priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing the words by which the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ. The priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. The priest and bishop act in the person of Christ as the head through their leadership of the Church. The priest does not merely represent Christ, but acts as if he were Him.

This doctrine is grounded in the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ and the church. According to Rome, the latter continues and prolongs the incarnation of the former. In his masterful assessment of Roman Catholic theology, Gregg Allison speaks of “the Christ-Church interconnection” as being one axis of the whole Catholic doctrine (Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, pp. 56-66). The church acts in persona Christi because she carries on the incarnation after Christ’s ascension as if she were Christ, claiming his authority, demanding the obedience that is due Him, ruling in His name and on His behalf.

When the leader of a church and the faithful who belong to it operate within such a theological framework, to “control” consciences becomes a natural outcome and to create a state of emotional dependency and submission is a consequence. When the priest (and the church that empowers and protects him) acts in persona Christi, he thinks he is beyond accountability from below. His priestly state is somewhat superior to that of the submitted, ordinary people. Moreover, the imperial, top-down hierarchical structures of the Church of Rome provide another theological reason for evil high-ranking priests to take advantage of weaker people belonging to an inferior rank.

Of course, there are other sociological and historical reasons that can explain the present-day abuses, but the theology encapsulated in the understanding of the priest as acting in persona Christi has had a role in creating a spiritual and cultural atmosphere of power in which abuses are tolerated. Will the church ever change its view of the priesthood as a separate, somewhat superior state acting in persona Christi?

As Martin Luther argued in his 1520 Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, the Church of Rome needed a biblical reformation of its theology of the priesthood based on the Christ-Church interconnection. For the Bible and for the Protestant Reformation, Christ alone is the head of the church, and its members are all equally endowed with the priestly role. None of them is “superior” to another. The Holy Spirit, not an institution or a class of people, is the only one who can be said as acting in persona Christi. This is a serious reform that Rome needed then and still needs today. Instead of defending its traditional outlook, which has lost all credibility, will Rome instead be open to change?