Decoding the Vatican

  • Curia rumblings about a pope who won't be filtered

    There’s been a lot of media attention to Pope Francis’ now-famous phone call to an Argentine woman who is civilly married to a divorced man, reportedly telling her she could receive Communion.

    While in Rome this week, I’ve made some soundings inside the Roman Curia, and found concern among Vatican officials in two areas. First, they’re worried about the doctrinal and pastoral implications of the pope’s supposed remarks, and the risk of raising expectations for a change in church policy that may never occur.

    Second, and more broadly, they’re concerned that the Vatican is losing control over papal communication. In that sense, the phone call was a tipping point: an institution that has spoken for centuries in a formal, calibrated hierarchy of expression is now headed by a man who chats on the phone, delivers soundbites to reporters and improvises daily sermons.

    That explains the unusual statement from Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, who announced to journalists a few days ago that the pope’s phone call – indeed, any papal phone call – did not form part of the Magisterium, the official teaching of the church. “Consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred from these occurrences,” was the way he put it.

    Father Lombardi’s statement was probably drafted by the Secretary of State’s office, which used to be the communications gatekeeper at the Vatican, but which today finds itself increasingly on the sidelines. Quite often, Pope Francis does not go through the usual filters anymore.

    The Old Guard at the Vatican tends to view many of the pope’s interviews, Tweets and off-the-cuff remarks as expressions of lesser consequence. His morning Mass homilies make headlines almost every day, but – reportedly at the pope’s request – are not being collected for publication in the permanent Vatican record, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (they are extemporaneous talks, so there’s no complete text.)

    None of this less formal output is considered part of the “capital M” Magisterium. But for most Catholics, that’s a distinction without a difference. They don’t care whether comments like “Who am I to judge?” find their way into the Vatican’s official archives. All they care is that the pope said it.

    In the case of the Argentine woman, the fact that Pope Francis would even make such a call bothers some officials at the Vatican. On one level, they say, it creates confusion, because no one is sure exactly what the pope said. The pope should know by now that any private conversation like this will eventually come out in some unsanctioned manner (in this instance, on the Facebook page of the woman’s husband.)

    And as one Vatican monsignor put it, why should the pope be talking to her at all? Shouldn’t he be referring her to her spiritual advisor, or asking the local bishop to follow up?

    If the gist of the pope’s call was accurately relayed – that the woman could receive Communion – that’s seen by some Vatican conservatives as crossing the Rubicon.

    In this case, the woman had been told by her pastor that she could not receive Communion unless her husband received an annulment and the two were married in the church. Didn’t the pope undercut the authority of priests everywhere with his phone call? How are priests to respond when divorced Catholics come to them and declare: “But Father, the pope said it’s OK?”

    It’s clear that Pope Francis wants the church to find a better pastoral solution to the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, and all indications are that this fall’s Synod of Bishops will propose some changes – perhaps, as outlined by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a penitential practice that would allow divorced Catholics to receive Communion, with the understanding the church could tolerate, though not accept, second unions.

    That idea has generated much debate among bishops and cardinals, and enthusiasm among many Catholics. But it is not playing so well inside the Vatican. “If that happens, we’ve crossed the line into heresy,” one official told me.

    I think Francis has some prep work to do in his own backyard.

  • Love and mercy: the unity theme of the two-pope canonization


        Pilgrims approaching St. Peter's Square for the canonization

    Today’s canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II drew 800,000 people to Rome. I spoke with a small fraction of the massive crowd that filled the streets near the Vatican, but every one of them agreed: Two popes, two saints, two more reasons to be happy.

    Much of the commentariat – and I include myself in that class -- has found issues to explore in this double canonization: the fast-tracking of John Paul II, the waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII, the politics of saintmaking and the ongoing tensions over the Second Vatican Council.

    I’ve maintained that the double canonization is a unifying move by Pope Francis, an attempt to build a bridge between constituencies in the church who identify with the “liberal” John XXIII or the more “conservative” John Paul II.

    I still believe that’s true. But among those in today’s crowd, and probably throughout the global Catholic population, that kind of analysis was not all that relevant.

    “The were both good people, holy men. John XXIII was a man of vision. John Paul II was a man of action. But they had the same intention – to bring the church closer to the people,” said Rosemary Fabregas, a Catholic from San Francisco who sat in front of a Jumbrotron screen outside St. Peter’s Square.

    An Italian pilgrim, asked about the saints’ differences, put it this way: “Differences? I don't know. The important thing is that they were both very spiritual and they both loved the poor.”

    Pope Francis’ homily echoed their words. Francis did not delve into the politics of Vatican II, or the yin/yang factor some have found in this dual canonization. Instead, he said John XXIII and John Paul II demonstrated a common witness to Christian hope and joy.

    Both of the new saints, Francis said, “saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles.” Both were men of courage, and “bore witness before the church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”

    “They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful … the mercy of God was more powerful,” Pope Francis said.

    Pope Francis said Vatican II tied the two men together, too. Through the council, he said, both popes helped renew and update the church so that it corresponded more closely with its “pristine features,” as a “community which lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.”

    Francis said John XXIII showed an exquisite “openness to the Holy Spirit” when he convened the council. In his own day, John Paul II became “the pope of the family,” a theme that is still at the center of church discussions ahead of the 2014/2015 Synod of Bishops, the pope said.

    Pope Francis left aside the interpretations of Vatican II, and the debate on its teachings. Instead, he let the lives of these two saints take center stage. In this sense, it was a unifying event.

    The theme of continuity was reinforced by the appearance of Pope Benedict XVI, who was a concelebrant at the Mass, though he did not stand at the altar. His arrival a few minutes before the liturgy drew prolonged applause from a public that has not forgotten the retired pontiff.

    It was Pope Francis who encouraged Benedict not to spend the rest of his days hidden away in his Vatican residence, but to get out more. For this event, in particular, it would have been impossible to conceive of Benedict sitting in his room while two of his predecessors were being proclaimed saints.



  • The debate over canonizing two popes


                   John Paul II and John XXIII

    The double canonization Sunday of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, is a first in church history, and it’s prompted a debate among commentators: Has the church rushed too fast to declare John Paul a saint, especially in view of his record on clerical sex abuse cases? Is the addition of John XXIII to the canonization roster merely a political balancing act by Pope Francis? And should popes be canonized at all – is it really possible for the church to make a dispassionate judgment on the holiness of men who sat on the throne of Peter and were called “Your Holiness” in life?

    The record-setting speed of John Paul II’s canonization does, indeed, raise some questions. The “Santo subito!” (Sainthood now!) banners in St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of the Polish pope reflected the sentiments of many faithful who thought his deep spirituality, evangelizing energy and strong defense of human rights made him a saint for our times.

    Yet what pushed his cause through so quickly was support at the highest levels of the hierarchy. At that same funeral, the man who would be elected as John Paul’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told the faithful: “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” In effect, that’s like declaring someone a saint – all that was left was to make it official. And to speed things up, Pope Benedict waived the normal five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.

    As time has passed, however, and the contours of the sex abuse scandal have become more defined, John Paul’s record has come in for criticism. In particular, critics have focused on the Polish pope’s long support for the late Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was later unmasked as a sexual abuser of his own seminarians, a man who led a double or triple life, kept mistresses and fathered children. For decades, the Vatican turned a blind eye to accusations against Maciel; John Paul’s defenders have always said the pope was not aware of the evidence against Maciel. That was the line taken last week by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the priest who guided John Paul’s sainthood process. Oder told reporters the Vatican saintmakers had investigated the Maciel case and concluded: “There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”

    It should not be forgotten that John Paul II was the pope who established harsh penalties for priests who sexually abused minors, approved changes that made it easier to defrock abusive priests and denounced such abuse as an “appalling sin” and a crime.

    The debate over John Paul’s record on sex abuse revolves on issues of governance and management, and here is where the Vatican and critics seem to be on different pages. Most people view canonization of a pope as a canonization of his pontificate. But in recent years, the Vatican has repeatedly suggested that sainthood for a pope is more about personal holiness than papal job performance. In that sense, declaring Pope John Paul a saint is not the same as endorsing every decision he ever made, or his management style. He is being held up to the faithful as someone who lived the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way, not necessarily as “Pope John Paul the Great.” As Pope Benedict once put it, “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.”

    The decision to canonize John XXIII at the same time reflects several factors. First, Pope Francis is clearly inspired by John XXIII’s pastoral style of governance, his direct style of communication and his emphasis on mercy over doctrine. As Massimo Faggioli points out in his excellent new book, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy, both John and Francis came from poor families and brought with them to the Vatican an emphasis on the church’s attention to the poor and suffering.

    A primary factor in Pope Francis’ decision is the Second Vatican Council, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. By adding John XXIII, who convened the council, Pope Francis moved the focus of this canonization away from John Paul II and toward Vatican II.

    Some have portrayed the move as a political one, aimed at balancing the “liberal” John XXIII, who opened the church to the world, and the “conservative” John Paul II, who pulled the church back to more traditional practices and identity. I think that’s a partial reading. While it’s true that John Paul set some limits to the innovations that followed Vatican II, he also embodied those changes in ways that upset Catholic traditionalists: he celebrated liturgies that often adopted non-Roman elements; he wrote hard-hitting encyclicals on social and economic justice, critiquing capitalism; he built bridges to science, endorsing the theory of evolution and saying the church had erred in condemning Galileo; he was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue and pray in a mosque; he presided over mea culpa ceremonies apologizing for past wrongs, including the excesses of the Inquisition and the crusades, and the moral failings of Christians during the Holocaust. In short, there’s plenty of evidence that, in many ways, John Paul II embraced the spirit of Vatican II.

    In canonizing two diverse protagonists of the Second Vatican Council, I think Francis is trying to move past the interpretive battles over Vatican II, and is saying that sainthood is bigger than differences in papal policies.

    One of the arguments against canonizing popes is that process turns into the hierarchy canonizing itself. Certainly, a papal sainthood cause brings with it a lot of political baggage, and there’s a risk that Vatican factions might use canonization to silence criticism of a previous pope.

    Ironically, it was John Paul II who wanted more “ordinary” saints, and for years he tried to get the Vatican’s saintmakers to find lay people and married couples to canonize. This weekend, however, the sainthood spotlight is shifting back to the top of the hierarchy.

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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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