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?

99. The Fifteen Sicknesses of the Roman Curia Except One

January 14th, 2015

During the peak of the crisis that preceded the resignation of Benedict XVI in 2013 the Roman Curia was depicted as a “nest of crows”. This central governing body of the Catholic Church, made up of several departments and lead by high ranking officials (the majority being cardinals), had become a place of fierce personal conflicts and internal struggles. Benedict XVI gave up his pontificate also because he felt unable to find a solution to the chaos that was shedding a sinister light on the Vatican. Pope Francis was chosen “from the end of the world” in the hope that he would deal with the crisis of the Roman Curia as an outsider. Since being elected he has been sending clear signals about his uneasiness towards the Vatican establishment. The latest example of his criticism was his message to the Roman Curia just before Christmas (December 22, 2014) where he diagnosed a spiritually gangrenous reality.

An Impressive List of Plagues

The papal analysis of the spiritual condition of the Roman Curia is breathtaking in its denunciation. Here is the devastating list of sicknesses that he identified as he examined its members[1]:

1. The sickness of feeling oneself “immortal,” “immune” or in fact “indispensable”.

2. The sickness of “Martha-ism” (which stems from Martha), of excessive busyness.

3. The sickness of mental and spiritual “petrification”: namely a heart of stone and a “stiff-neck”.

4. The sickness of excessive planning and functionalism.

5. The sickness of bad coordination.

6. The sickness of spiritual Alzheimer’s disease.

7. The sickness of rivalry and vainglory.

8. The sickness of existential schizophrenia.

9. The sickness of gossip, of grumbling and of tittle-tattle.

10. The sickness of divinizing directors.

11. The sickness of indifference to others.

12. The sickness of the mournful face.

13. The sickness of accumulating.

14. The sickness of closed circles.

15. And the last one: the sickness of worldly profit, of exhibitionism.

What else can be added to this list? Whoever has ears, let them hear. More than a nest of crows the picture is more like a bunch of highly dysfunctional and egocentric clerics. This is the spiritual condition of the Roman Curia not according to a staunch anti-clerical observer but according to the head himself: the Pope!

The Missing Sickness

The honesty and courage of Pope Francis in this case is to be commended. The bitter irony of delivering the message on the occasion of the presentation of Christmas greetings when most would only say “nice” things is also noteworthy. One of the immediate follow-ups of the speech was that among the list of the fifteen new cardinals chosen by Francis only one of them belongs to the Curia whereas most of the others come “from the end of the world” like himself. Another interesting feature of these new cardinals is that some of them are outspokenly in favor of a more “pastoral” and open approach towards admitting to the Eucharist those in “irregular” relationships, as the Pope seems to be. This is another hot topic that the Pope is handling with increasing difficulty and that will be a test-case of the stability of his pontificate this year.

Back to the list of sicknesses. One consideration is worth mentioning. Historically the Roman Curia is a child of the Renaissance courts that surrounded the princes in their various tasks as absolute monarchs. The Pope as a Renaissance prince also had his dignitaries assigned to him and Popes even today continue to have them in the Vatican state. Throughout the centuries the Curia was given a theological status as if it were a small model of the Church itself; indeed the Church at its best on a small scale. The Curia is a product of a monarchial vision of the church and the role of the Pope as absolute monarch of a state is also part of the same breed. Pope Francis criticized the awful spirituality of the Curia, but did not go so far as to question its political and monarchial nature. While denouncing its wrong behaviors, he did not tackle the wrong theology behind it. One reason of his reticence is that the Roman Curia as a form of government goes hand in hand with the Papacy as a form of leadership. The two are inseparable. Questioning one means questioning the other and Francis is not prepared to do either.

This means that reforming the Curia entails much more than denouncing the poor spiritual conditions of its members or changing personnel in key positions. It involves a radical re-envisioning of the structures of the church according to the supreme apostolic teaching, i.e. the Bible, where the church has no court of dignitaries nor prince at its head, but Jesus Christ alone, who was crucified, rose again and is now exalted. At the beginning of his speech to the Curia, Francis quoted 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks of the Church as one body with many members. This is the biblical blueprint of the Church whereby its most serious plagues can be healed and the dignity of the people of God can be restored.

79. Pedro no tenía ningún banco, ¿verdad?

14 DE ABRIL DE 2014

“Pedro no tenía ningún banco, ¿verdad?” Poco después de su elección el Papa Francisco hizo esta pregunta retórica. Pedro no tenía ningún banco, por supuesto, pero el Vaticano sí que tiene uno, el llamado Instituto para las Obras de Religión (Istituto di Opere Religiose, IOR). Sus operaciones son bien conocidas por el público debido a su récord de escándalos financieros durante los últimos treinta años, intercambiando con frecuencia las “obras de religión” por obras bancarias temerarias. La cima de la mala gestión y la desconfianza se alcanzó durante el reinado del Papa Benedicto XVI e, indudablemente fue uno de los factores que contribuyó a su dimisión. El Papa Francisco solicitó una investigación y formó una comisión para que le ayudara a tomar las decisiones concernientes al futuro del IOR.

El Vaticano mantiene el Banco
Francisco ha trabajado duro para llevar un soplo de aire fresco tanto dentro como fuera de los muros del Vaticano. En muchos aspectos es un Papa que está intentando renovar el sistema desde dentro hacia fuera dando ejemplo personal de un estilo de vida sobrio lleno de entusiasmo religioso. Su declaración acerca de Pedro y el banco suscitó ciertas expectativas en el sentido de que también haría significativos cambios estructurales en lo que se refiere a las instituciones del Vaticano. Algunos comentaristas llegaron a decir que el Papa estaba dispuesto a cerrar el IOR, empezando así una etapa de derogación de la expansión política en el centro de la Iglesia Católica.

Hace dos semanas se anunció por fin la decisión: el Papa confirma “la importancia de la misión del IOR para el bien de la Iglesia Católica, la Santa Sede y la Ciudad del Vaticano”. En otras palabras, el banco continuará existiendo tal como es, pero con una política más transparente, todo ello mientras el perfil bancario se mantiene intacto. Con todo lo que Francisco está cambiando, el sistema financiero del Vaticano no variará. Pedro no tenía un banco, pero los Papas sí, y pese a todos sus énfasis “misionales” Francisco no es diferente de sus predecesores.

 El espeso “hardware” del Vaticano
Lo que es cada vez más evidente es que Francisco se está centrando en la “actitud” de la Iglesia, pero apenas se interesa en la revisión de la “estructura” fundamental del Vaticano. Sus observaciones sobre la “misión” abierta de la Iglesia giran en torno al “sistema operativo” de la Iglesia pero dejan su “hardware” tal y como está. El banco es únicamente una pieza de un cuadro mucho más grande. El Vaticano es un estado y el Papa es un líder político. El Vaticano tiene un territorio, un ejército, un cuerpo diplomático, tribunales civiles y penales, una cárcel y un banco. Expide pasaportes y participa en la escena política internacional como un estado soberano. La Iglesia Católico Romana es una iglesia que opera con un estado como su centro. Su doble cara es a la vez religiosa y política.

El “hardware” político intercambia la Iglesia con un cuerpo político que confía en la protección del hombre, en lugar de alentar al pueblo de Dios a servir a la misión de Dios en el camino de Dios. Las justificaciones habituales que se dan para razonar el “hardware” del Vaticano son que se trata del resultado de su larga historia y que ayuda a servir a la misión de la Iglesia. Estas son, claro está, defensas más pragmáticas que bíblicas. Además, estas excusas han sido la causa de que la iglesia se convierta en algo que va más allá de la forma que Jesús quería que tuviera la iglesia. “Pedro no tenía ningún banco, ¿verdad?” fue un comienzo prometedor. En realidad, la iglesia no necesita un banco y Jesús nunca dijo, ni tan siquiera sugirió, que la iglesia debería llegar a ser, en el fondo, un estado político. El posterior fortalecimiento del IOR demuestra que en el sistema, en su forma actual, la razón de estado prevalece sobre los principios bíblicos, aun para un Papa “revolucionario”.