Decoding the Vatican

  • An evening with a 'Pope Francis cardinal'

    Cardinal-designate Joseph W. TobinMinnesotans got a glimpse this week of what a “Pope Francis cardinal” looks and sounds like, and it was a refreshing change from the “princes of the church” figure of the past.

    Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis delivered a talk on immigration at the University of St. Thomas Oct. 24. Titled “Welcoming the Stranger While Challenging the Fear,” it pulled no punches when it came to the demands of the Gospel on an issue that has become a political football.

    Archbishop Tobin cited comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has denounced refugee resettlement programs, including those sponsored by the Catholic Church, and claimed they raise the threat of terrorism in the United States. Trump recently called efforts to resettle refugees from Syria “the great Trojan horse of all time.”

    Tobin pointed out that three days after Trump’s comments, made Oct. 9, Pope Francis issued a clear call for greater global efforts to welcome refugees and immigrants on the part of states, institutions and church agencies. The same week, the pope said Christians who close their doors to refugees are “hypocrites.”

    “The positions of Mr. Trump and Pope Francis regarding the resettlement of refugees, particularly those fleeing the carnage in Syria, are well-known and diametrically opposed,” Tobin said.

    Two weeks ago, Archbishop Tobin was a surprise choice when Pope Francis announced his list of 17 new cardinals, to be created next month in Rome. This pope has broken the mold when handing out the cardinal’s red hat, skipping over more prominent churchmen and often choosing those who share his pastoral outlook.

    Tobin, like many of Francis’ choices, also shares the pope’s willingness to push social and political policies – even when it might lead to the age-old accusation of the church “meddling in politics.”

    Tobin made headlines late last year when he denied Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s request to put a halt to Catholic Charities’ resettlement of a Syrian refugee family. The family is now living in Indianapolis and Pence, of course, is Trump’s running mate. Just three weeks ago, a federal court blocked Pence’s attempt to block Syrian refugees, saying it was discriminatory.

    In his presentation, Archbishop Tobin reviewed the history of immigration in the United States, which is essentially the history of the country. He noted that Catholic Charities last year resettled about one-third of the 70,000 refugees who came to the United States. That is consistent with a faith that professes to see Jesus in the stranger, he said.

    “This welcome is an essential part of our Catholic identity,” he said.

    At the same time, Tobin examined some of the causes of anti-immigrant sentiment. The actual threats made by terror groups are one factor, he said, even though many refugees are themselves victims of terrorism. He also cited the tendency by for-profit major media to run fear-based stories about refugees, with scrolling headlines like, “Taking refugees could open the door to jihadists.”

    Another cause, Tobin said, was a backlash to globalization among people who fear that the country or their culture is losing its identity. He noted, however, that immigration is the most embodied form of globalization and the most regulated, while financial dealings, the most unembodied aspect, are the least regulated.

    Tobin told a couple of amusing stories about Pope Francis.

    During a meeting of church leaders in Rome, Francis listened as one bishop “got in his face” over the pope’s inclination to ignore security concerns. For example, during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, a group of Latin American pilgrims handed the pope a gourd full of mate, a traditional tea, and he took a sip – to the alarm of the Vatican gendarmes. (The pope was said to have told his security people, presumably in jest, “But they were Argentinians, they weren’t cardinals.”) When the bishop kept pressing the security issue at the Rome meeting, the pope finally replied: “Giving my life for Jesus and his kingdom wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen to me – or to you.” At that, the bishop let the matter drop.

    On another topic, Archbishop Tobin said that several months after his visit to the United States last fall, Pope Francis told him he had been “amazed” by the country.

    What impressed him?

    “He told me, ‘I never realized how affectionate Americans are. The second thing was, I didn't know they took their faith so seriously.’ So even the Holy Father needs an encounter to do away with stereotypes. Maybe he saw a lot of Rambo movies when he was a kid.”

  • Pope Francis issues norms for removal of bishops for negligence in sex abuse cases

    In a landmark move toward accountability, Pope Francis has established new norms that provide for the dismissal of bishops when they demonstrate "lack of diligence" in protecting minors or vulnerable adults from the sexual abuse of priests.

    The norms say a bishop does not need to have "grave moral culpability" in order to be removed; serious negligence by the bishop is enough.

    Current church law provides for removal of bishops for "very grave cause." The new norms state that in the cases of sexual abuse, removal can be for "grave cause." This slight wording change is considered significant. According to Vatican Radio, it effectively lowers the standard needed for a bishop to be removed from office in such cases. It certainly puts bishops on notice that their actions or lack of them will receive greater scrutiny in Rome.

    The pope can decide to remove bishops on his own. But the new norms provide for a college of jurists to assist him in these cases. It will be made up of bishops and cardinals, presumably appointed by the pope.

    Vatican Radio said that according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, the question of retroactivity "does not apply" because the pope's apostolic letter concerns new procedural norms. It will be interesting to see if that holds true. There have been many accusations of negligence against bishops who allegedly failed to protect children and who continue to hold office.

    The pope's apostolic letter in Italian is here. The English-language Vatican Radio report on the new norms is here.

  • Pope's document opens door to pastoral flexibility on family issues

    Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship between the human conscience, sin and the state of grace.

    That alone makes this text remarkable. Rather than announcing new practices or decisions from Rome, the pope is opening a discussion that involves bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics.

    Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015.

    I won’t attempt to summarize its contents here. In large part, it expands on points that were made in the synod’s final relatio last fall.

    The synod saw unusually sharp debate on a number of issues, including the thorny question of how the church treats people in “irregular” unions. Whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion was a particularly divisive matter.

    Pope Francis opened his post-synodal document by stating clearly that he was not going to pronounce a verdict on all these issues. In fact, he added, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” He suggested that different ways of interpreting church teaching can co-exist in the church, with allowances for local needs and traditions in various countries or regions.

    That appears to reverse an approach that’s dominated at the Vatican for the past forty years or so: that any pastoral innovation needs to be run through Rome.

    When addressing the various problems faced by modern families, the pope pretty much adopted the synod’s laundry list of challenges, from excessive individualism to economic burdens on young couples.

    But in a typical “Francis touch,” he added strong words of self-criticism, saying that the church has “helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.” Church leaders, he said, have “often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”

    We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.

    The pope added:

    We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

    The pope expanded on that last point in a chapter intriguingly titled: “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”

    He argued that when dealing with people in “irregular” unions, pastors need to show careful discernment, and not simply impose a set of rules, recognizing that the degree of individual responsibility varies with circumstances and that “no easy recipes exist.”

    “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications,” he said:

    One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”

    The pope made it clear that he did not intend to lay down new general rules that would allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. But he appeared to open the door to such a possibility when he said that pastoral accompaniment should include an “examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance,” recognizing that “since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

    Significantly, he footnoted that passage and added: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”

    The pope’s framework for all this, of course, is mercy.

    “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves,” he said.

    There is much, much more in this document, including praise for the women's movement and feminism, a call to include women and families in the seminary experience, and a long and fascinating chapter on love in marriage.

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John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

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John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

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