Decoding the Vatican

  • Report on U.S. nuns emphasizes 'gratitude,' reflects changes at Vatican

    Today's Vatican report on the investigation of U.S. women's religious orders was largely positive in tone, in contrast to statements issued when the investigation began in 2009.

    At that time, Cardinal Franc Rodé, who headed the Vatican congregation for religious orders, said the study was aimed at identifying "secular" and "feminist" attitudes that had infiltrated the nuns' orders and helped cause a drastic decline in membership.

    Today's report didn't go there. Instead, it delineated real challenges facing religious orders while thanking the sisters repeatedly for their service to the Gospel.

    This balanced approach reflects a changing of the guard at the Vatican -- but it's a change that began under Pope Benedict. In 2011, Benedict named Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz to replace Cardinal Rodé. The Brazilian cardinal took over the investigation of women religious, but adopted a much more conciliatory approach.

    I think today's balanced report was pretty much a foregone conclusion, given Cardinal Braz de Aviz's continued leadership at the Vatican's congregation for religious orders, and given that Pope Francis clearly wants peace with U.S. sisters.

    Yet there seems to be a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic that still lingers on at the Vatican. A separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of U.S. sisters, was carried out by the doctrinal congregation, and it has been far more critical. In 2012, the doctrinal congregation issued a "doctrinal assessment" and insisted on major changes in the LCWR to ensure that the organization aligns with Catholic teaching in areas like women's ordination, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.

    The tug of war over implementing those changes continues. Last year, in a rare display of divergent views at the Vatican's highest levels, Cardinal Braz de Aviz criticized the way the LCWR review was conducted. That prompted a quick statement from the Vatican that tried to downplay any disagreement between Braz de Aviz and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation.

    Cardinal Muller has not let up, however. Several months ago, he rebuked the LCWR for adopting ideas that he said lead to "fundamental errors" about "the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ."

    The LCWR is working with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was appointed in 2012 to implement the doctrinal assessment. After meeting with the archbishop last August, the LCWR issued a statement that said in part: "We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences."

    At America magazine, Sister Mary Ann Walsh has a good take on today's report.

     

  • Vatican asks for pre-synod consultations that avoid strictly 'doctrinal' approach

    It looks like Synod 2015 may be as interesting as Synod 2014.

    A Vatican preparatory document for next year’s second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family is seeking wide input from the faithful, posing 46 questions and asking that bishops conferences do not answer them with strictly “doctrinal” formulations.

    The document, released Dec. 9 at the Vatican, said the pre-synod consultation should involve every level of the church, including academic institutions, lay movements and other associations.

    UPDATE: English version now available here.

    It said that in preparing for the second synodal session, bishops should remember that Pope Francis has called for a pastoral approach that reflects the “culture of encounter” and goes outside the church’s usual environment, in order to act as a “field hospital” of mercy.

    The questions touch on a number of controversial issues discussed during the synod’s first meeting last October, including sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, church teaching on homosexuality and birth control.

    The document explicitly asked bishops to show “proper realism” in seeking answers to the questions, avoiding an approach that “is merely one of applying doctrine, and that does not respect the conclusions of the extraordinary synodal assembly, and would lead their reflection away from the path that has already been traced.”

     

  • Pope Francis on Cardinal Burke, the synod, Curia reform and more

    Pope Francis has a new interview out, addressing controversies over the recent Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke and plans to reform the Roman Curia.

    On Cardinal Burke, the pope said his recent departure from a Vatican tribunal should not be seen as punishment for the cardinal’s outspoken remarks during the October synod. The pope said he needed a “smart American” to serve as patron of the Knights of Malta, and that Burke thanked him for the reassignment.

    One of the most interesting passages in the interview came when the pope defended efforts to relax restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics – a contested issue at the recent synod. The pope said the question goes beyond reception of Communion; it also touches on their other potential roles in the church, including that of godparents. Right now, these people seem to be de facto excommunicated, he said.

    Pope Francis was interviewed by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué, whose book Francis: Life and Revolution is one of the best biographies of the pontiff. The full texts can be read at the site of the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in four parts focusing on key topics: the Roman Curia and Cardinal Burke, the synod on the family, the church and politics in Argentina and the recent decision to change the commander of the Swiss Guards. (The first two parts are available in English and Spanish.)

    Here are some highlights.

    On resistance to his ideas surfacing among other church leaders:

    Resistance is now evident. And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It´s healthy to get things out into the open, it's very healthy. … It all seems normal to me, if there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn't be normal.

    On Cardinal Burke:

    One day Cardinal Burke asked me what he would be doing as he had still not been confirmed in his position, in the legal sector, but rather had been confirmed "donec alitur provideatur." And I answered, "Give me some time because we are thinking of a legal restructuring of the G9." I told him nothing had been done about it yet and that it was being considered. After that the issue of the Order of Malta cropped up and we needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position. I suggested this to him long before the synod. I said to him, "This will take place after the synod because I want you to participate in the synod as dicastery head." As the chaplain of Malta he wouldn't have been able to be present. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it. Because he is a man that gets around a lot, he does a lot of travelling and would surely be busy there. It is therefore not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod.

    On changes in the Roman Curia, the pope said economic reforms were well underway and that the Vatican bank was now “operating beautifully, we did quite a good job there.” But he said the streamlining of other Vatican agencies will probably not be completed in 2015:

    No, it´s a slow process. The other day we got together with the Dicastery heads and submitted the proposal of joining Laypersons, Family, Justice and Peace Dicasteries. We discussed it all, each one of us said what he thought. Now it will be forwarded back to the G9. You know, reforming the Curia will take a long time, this is the most complex part.

    The head of a dicastery such as the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, the liturgical dicastery or the new dicastery encompassing Laymen, Family and Justice and Peace will always be a cardinal. This is best because dicasteries are very close to the Pope. But dicastery secretaries do not necessarily have to be bishops because a problem we have is when we have to change a bishop-secretary, where do we send him? We need to find a dioceses, but sometimes they are not fit for one, they´re good at the other job.

    The pope warned against misinterpreting what the recent Synod of Bishops said on homosexuals:

    Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod, it did not cross our minds. What we did talk about was of how a family with a homosexual child, whether a son or a daughter, goes about educating that child, how the family bears up, how to help that family to deal with that somewhat unusual situation. That is to say, the synod addressed the family and the homosexual persons in relation to their families, because we come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.

    On divorced and remarried Catholics:

    In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godfathers to any child being baptized, mass readings are not for divorcees, they cannot give communion, they cannot teach Sunday school, there are about seven things that they cannot do, I have the list over there. Come on! If I disclose any of this it will seem that they have been excommunicated in fact! Thus, let us open the doors a bit more. Why cant they be godfathers and godmothers? "No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godson?" The testimony of a man and a woman saying "my dear, I made a mistake, I was wrong here, but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on." Anything more Christian than that? And what if one of the political crooks among us, corrupt people, are chosen to be somebody's godfather. If they are properly wedded by the Church, would we accept them? What kind of testimony will they give to their godson? A testimony of corruption? Things need to change, our standards need to change.


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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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