Decoding the Vatican

  • Archbishop Kurtz hits the right notes in opening talk to U.S. bishops


                 Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB president

    The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, gave an important talk on the first day of the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore today. I was impressed by the tone and points of emphasis, especially when he spoke about how the church evangelizes:

    “We all strive to be faithful pastors, so we know what this looks like. Think of the home visits we've all done in parishes. When I'd come to someone's home, I wouldn't start by telling them how I'd rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn't begin by giving them a list of rules to follow.

    Instead I'd first spend time with them, trying to appreciate the good that I saw in their hearts. I'd acknowledge that, like them, I was in the process of conversion toward greater holiness. I would then invite them to follow Christ and I'd offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way. Such an approach isn't in opposition to Church teachings; it's an affirmation of them. Our call as bishops is to bring the Good News to others as true missionary disciples, inspiring them to go forth and do the same.”

    It seems to me that Archbishop Kurtz was deliberately tuning in here to the approach of Pope Francis, who has said that in spreading the Gospel, the church needs to emphasize patience, dialogue and accompaniment, and not focus on doctrinal rules. As Kurtz put it, quoting the pope, the church today should be “a place of mercy freely given.”

    Just before Archbishop Kurtz took the floor, the bishops heard from the Vatican’s representative in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who among other things told the bishops: “We must not be afraid to walk with our Holy Father.”

    Kurtz himself cited the pope’s call for church leaders to be “joyful messengers” of the Gospel and its challenging proposals, to serve the voiceless and the vulnerable, and to “go out into the streets and manifest God’s love.” (That last phrase, by the way, was identified in a footnote as a quotation from the pope’s Twitter feed – a first in my experience.)

    So much of what the bishops discuss at these annual meetings is preordained by prior agendas. I’m hoping those agendas going forward will reflect what Archbishop Kurtz enunciated in his first such address as president of the conference. In delivering a separate report, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain said his committee was discussing specifically how to take Pope Francis’ ideas and “work them into our strategic planning.”

    The Francis effect is clearly on the bishops’ minds. The question is how deeply it will affect their priorities in the months and years ahead.


  • A signal on removal of bishops?

    A single sentence in a papal document issued today may signal that Pope Francis is willing take a stronger hand in removing some bishops from office.

    The one-page document deals primarily with the age of a bishop’s retirement. But it also states: “In some particular circumstances, the competent Authority (the pope) may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.”

    The power of a pope to sack a bishop has always been presumed, but here it is spelled out. It comes after Pope Francis has already removed a Paraguayan bishop from office over pastoral controversies, and accepted the resignation of a German bishop in the wake of a spending scandal. The Vatican is actively investigating the pastoral leadership of at least two other prelates, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted two years ago by a civil court on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse by a diocesan priest.

    A Vatican spokesman quickly underlined that today’s document contained “nothing truly new,” but was a forceful restatement of existing norms. But surely there was a reason it was issued.

    In recent months, several Vatican officials have emphasized that church law envisions the possibility of a bishop losing his office for abuse or negligence in ministry. Specifically, some officials have said bishops need to be held accountable for their mistakes in the handling of sex abuse cases.

    A note: Over at his canon law blog, Dr. Edward Peters says that “Roman requests (demands?) for episcopal resignations are occurring much more often these days,” although they did not begin with Pope Francis. Peters said the fact that this is occurring without any recognizable canonical process raises serious questions.


  • Popes, evolution and the Big Bang

    Pope Francis recently said evolution and the Big Bang theory can be compatible with faith in God – a statement that was hardly new, but predictably made news.

    The idea that evolution and a divine creator are not mutually exclusive has long been found in the teachings of popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII and his 1950 encyclical, “Humani Generis.” Even so, the mere mention of the word “evolution” by a pope can set off alarm bells. I remember that when Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that evolution was “more than a hypothesis” and had been widely accepted by scientists, some Catholics simply couldn't believe it.

    Perhaps the most complete treatment of evolution came in a 2004 document published by the International Theological Commission, which said evolution makes sense – but only because “God made it so.” That document accepted the basic science behind evolution: that the universe was born 15 billion years ago in a “big bang,” that the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, that all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism and that man emerged about 40,000 years ago with the development of a larger brain.

    A historical footnote is that the man usually credited as the “father” of the Big Bang theory was a Belgian Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, who was also an astronomer and physics professor. Lemaitre’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by Pope Pius XII, who had a keen interest in cosmology and who knew Lemaitre through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In speeches to the academy, in fact, Pius XII seemed to endorse the Big Bang precisely because he thought it offered scientific evidence of the divine creation of the universe – a “Let there be light” moment. According to contemporaries, after a papal speech along those lines in 1951, Lemaitre spoke with the pope and asked him to stay away from theological endorsements of scientific theories – and Pius took his advice to heart.

     

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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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