Vatican Time Warp

Published June 4, 2010

National Review Online

It's not easy to understand the decision of Time's editors to run the magazine's current (June 7) cover story, with its cheesy title, “Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry.” The lengthy essay inside breaks no news; it recycles several lame charges against Benedict XVI that have been flatly denied or effectively rebutted; and it indulges an adolescent literary style (e.g., “mealymouthed declarations buttressed by arcane religious philosophy”) that makes one yearn and pine for the days of Henry Luce.

The lengthy story is also poorly sourced, relying (as many such exercises do) on alleged “Vatican insiders” and giving analytic pride of place to the Italian Church historian Alberto Melloni.

As real Vatican insiders know, real Vatican insiders don't give back-stabbing and score-settling sound bites to the American media. That practice is more typically indulged in by clerics far down the Vatican food chain, monsignori who have no real idea of what's happening within the small circle where real decisions get made inside the Leonine Wall, but who are happy to chat up journalists over a cappuccino or a Campari and soda while pretending to a knowledge they don't possess. Such sources can be occasionally amusing; they are almost never authoritative.

Professor Melloni, for his part, is the leader of the “Bologna School” of Vatican II interpretation, which has long argued that the Council marked a dramatic rupture with the Catholic past. That interpretation was authoritatively rejected by the 1985 Synod of Bishops (in which Joseph Ratzinger played a decisive role) and more recently by Benedict XVI in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. So Professor Melloni is hardly the man to provide dispassionate commentary on the life and times of Joseph Ratzinger, or to make a plausible case that the Catholic crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance was caused by the Catholic Church's failure to follow the Bologna School's counsel and becoming another variant of liberal Protestantism. Melloni on Ratzinger is like Paul Krugman on Reaganomics: Caveat lector.

The Time story may serve a useful purpose, however, in that it encapsulates, within ten pages, many of the things the world media continue to get wrong about the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Here are a few of the more significant misunderstandings within Time's cover story, although Time is hardly alone in circulating these fictions:

The Pope is an absolute monarch. During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proposed that the Council's central document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include the affirmation that the Pope is “accountable to the Lord alone.” This suggestion was rejected by the Council's Theological Commission, which wrote that “the Roman Pontiff is also bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention.” Pope Paul quietly dropped his proposal.

Thus the papal magisterium – or what Time calls, in a rather overwrought tone of voice, “the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God” – is not something that each pope invents out of his own intellectual resources. Popes are the servants of an authoritative tradition; they are not the masters of that tradition. For Pope Benedict to speak of sexual abuse in the language of evil, sin, repentance, penance, and forgiveness is for him to speak the Church's proper language, which is not the language of the politically correct “apology” to victims of wickedness, either alleged or (in the case of sexual abuse) real.

As for what Time dubs “ecclesiastical autocracy,” while it is true that the Pope enjoys the fullness of executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the Church, his exercise of that authority is not only bound by the truths of Catholic faith; it is also circumscribed by the authority and prerogatives of local bishops. For, according to the teaching of Vatican II, bishops are not simply branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc. Rather, they are the heads of local churches with both the authority and the responsibility to govern them. Far more damage has been done to the Catholic Church in recent decades by irresponsible local bishops than by allegedly autocratic popes.

The Pope's capacity for governance is also shaped by the quality of his closest associates, and by the accuracy and timeliness of the information he receives from the Roman Curia via the nuncios and apostolic delegates who represent the Holy See around the world. An example of how this fact of ecclesiastical life can impede a pope's ability to respond to situations promptly comes from the American Long Lent of 2002. Because of grossly inadequate reporting from the apostolic nunciature in Washington between January and April 2002 – when the abuse firestorm was at its hottest – John Paul II was about three months behind the news curve in mid-April 2002; what appeared then (and is still often presented, as in the Time cover story) as papal uninterest in the U.S. crisis was in fact a significant time lag in the information flow.

The Holy See's claims to sovereignty make the Church the equivalent of a nation-state. If he is to conduct his global mission freely, the Pope cannot be the subject of any other political sovereignty; that fact has been recognized in customary and statutory international law for centuries. But to suggest, with Time, that the Catholic Church is “hard-wired” with the conviction that “the Church must be a state” that wields “the clout of secular government” is, frankly, nonsense. The moral authority of the papacy in world affairs – think of John Paul II changing the course of 20th-century history in Poland in June 1979 – hardly derives from the Pope's position as sovereign of the 108 acres of Vatican City State. Rather, that moral authority is a function of the truths popes articulate, truths that are based on the natural moral law that everyone can know by reason.

Pope John Paul II was an inept, even culpably inept, administrator. This charge, from one of Time's “Vatican insiders,” has the feel of payback from those quarters in which there is still weeping and gnashing of teeth over the loss of the Italian papacy. To be sure, John Paul II was not a papal micromanager like Pope Paul VI. But is any serious commentator or scholar prepared to make the argument that the pontificate of Paul VI witnessed greater accomplishments, for the Church or the world, than the pontificate of John Paul II?

John Paul II knew that his strengths lay in the papal roles of teacher and sanctifier; and, as he had done while archbishop of Cracow, he found men in whom he reposed trust to handle the quotidian details of ecclesiastical governance. Some of those men were less than competent; and, contrary to Time's “Vatican insiders” and their complaints about Roman centralization, John Paul II arguably had too much confidence in the capacity of national conferences of bishops to solve problems within their own countries. In the main, however, John Paul II ought to be judged a successful administrator, if by successful administrator one means a man who sets large goals and achieves them. The drift and malaise in which the Catholic Church found itself in the latter years of Paul VI were not replicated in the 26 years of John Paul II. That strongly suggests that the late pope did not leave behind, as Time put it, an “abysmal record as administrator
of the Church,” and was in fact a far more effective leader than some “Vatican insiders” are prepared to concede.

The sexual-abuse crisis has emptied Catholic churches in the United States and Western Europe. “The scandals in deeply Catholic Ireland have led to a massive emptying of churches,” according to Time, and “controversies in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe have had a similar effect.” Nonsense on stilts. Those Irish, German, and Austrian churches were empty long before Scandal Time II exploded several months ago; indeed, those churches had been emptying for decades. Recent revelations of the complicity of Irish bishops in cover-ups of sexual abuse have undoubtedly damaged efforts to get Ireland out of its current secularist slough of despond, just as scandals in Germany and Austria have had negative effects in those countries. But to blame the dramatic decline of Catholic practice in Ireland and the German-speaking parts of Europe on clerical sexual abuse is to confess that one simply hasn't been paying attention for the past 40 years.

Joseph Ratzinger was part of a curial culture of secrecy and denial that placed greater value on the protection of the Church's reputation than on the protection of the young.There is no question that the institutional culture of the Roman Curia was once an obstacle to the Church's coming to grips with the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. But the man who did more than anyone to reset the default positions in the Curia was Joseph Ratzinger, once the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with Ratzinger in the lead, wrested competence in handling these crimes away from the Congregation for the Clergy. That reconfiguration of responsibility took place between 1999 and 2001, when it was approved by John Paul II. Thus to suggest, with Time and the New York Times, that Ratzinger is to be faulted for the failures of other curial offices prior to CDF's assumption of the brief on abuse cases is like blaming the State Department for not dealing adequately with Hurricane Katrina. By every available piece of evidence, Ratzinger, in his last half-decade as prefect of CDF and as Pope, has been determined to root out corruption within the priesthood (whether that involves the rare cases of genuine pedophilia, the far-more-common homosexual predation on adolescents and young men, or clerical concubinage in Africa and Latin America), while at the same time acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are not sexual predators – a point it would be refreshing to see recognized, in print, by Time and others.

The Catholic Church's wrestling with the scandals of clerical sexual abuse and misgovernance by bishops is by no means over. Throughout the world Church, the primary complaint one hears from well-intended and well-informed laity has to do with Catholicism's seeming inability to remove incompetent bishops from office, a problem that is made far worse when the incompetence in question involves malfeasance in responding to the scandal of abuse. The wheels of the Vatican still grind too slowly: Five apostolic visitators were recently appointed for Ireland, but their work is not to start until September, and a papal delegate has yet to be appointed to govern the Legionaries of Christ, more than a month after such an appointment was promised.

Yet the Time indictment – that the Catholic Church is institutionally incapable of acknowledging its errors and the sins and crimes of its sons and daughters – is absurd. No, the Pope has not followed the established media narrative and groveled before the cameras like a congressman caught in deviltry with a staffer. Benedict XVI's response has been far more serious. He has met, prayed, and wept with abuse victims in the United States, Australia, and Malta. He has called the Irish bishops to task in the sharpest terms, while acknowledging that those bishops' failures have broken some victims' capacity to find anything good in the Church. He has frankly acknowledged that the real threat to the Church comes “from sin within the Church,” without absolving the media of their failures of reporting and analysis in recent months. And he has insisted that “the Church has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice.”

That kind of leadership, rooted in that kind of theological and spiritual depth, deserves something more than a snarky cover headline adapted from one of the worst novels ever written.

George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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