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  • Bishop Finn investigation is another sign that accountability is on Pope Francis' agenda

    The news that the Vatican is investigating the pastoral leadership of Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is another sign that Pope Francis is willing to tackle the problem of bishops’ accountability in a new way.

    The National Catholic Reporter reported that, at the Vatican’s request, Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast visited the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese for several days last week, asking more than a dozen interview subjects questions about Finn’s leadership abilities. A spokesperson for the diocese later confirmed the investigation and said Finn was “cooperating with the process.”

    Two years ago, a civil court convicted Finn on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse, in connection with the child pornography conviction of a local priest. The bishop was sentenced to two years’ probation.

    News of the Vatican investigation comes on the heels of the pope’s removal of a Paraguayan bishop who had been criticized, among other things, for his promotion of a priest accused of child abuse.

    Catholics in Missouri have called for Finn’s resignation, but until now there was no sign that the Vatican was paying any attention. For many Catholics, in fact, Bishop Finn has come to represent a bishop’s protected status and the Vatican’s unwillingness to take action on mishandling of sex abuse cases.

    Earlier this year, Catholics in Finn’s diocese wrote to the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s representative in the United States, asking for a canonical review of Finn. It appears the nuncio and the pope were listening.

    There have been several recent signs that the Vatican is taking a new look at holding bishops to account for mistakes, particularly in handling of sex abuse allegations. Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former key official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, pointed out in a speech last year that under church law bishops can lose their office for abuse or negligence in ministry.

    His point was echoed more recently by U.S. Father Robert W. Oliver, Scicluna's successor at the doctrinal congregation, who said it was a “crime” under church law for a bishop to be negligent in supervision.

    Pope Francis, when he met with sex abuse victims last summer at the Vatican, apologized for “sins of omission” by church leaders and said bishops “will be held accountable.”

  • War of words heats up as Vatican counts down to synod

            Cardinal Walter Kasper

    Journalists often exaggerate conflict at the Vatican. But it’s no exaggeration to say that sharp battle lines are being drawn for the October Synod of Bishops, in particular on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    This week saw several leading cardinals and Vatican officials weigh in on the “No” side, with the imminent publication of two new books on the topic. Among them were two leading Roman Curia officials – German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s new Secretariat for the Economy.

    Specifically, they took issue with Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was selected by Pope Francis to address the world’s cardinals last February. Kasper proposed that the church find ways to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, arguing that the Eucharist should be a spiritual “life raft” for those who need it most.

    There are two ways of looking at these developments. For some, it’s part of the open and lively debate that Pope Francis desired when he chose the synod’s theme (the family) and called for a more merciful and pastoral approach on the issue of divorced Catholics.

    Others see it as pre-emptive strike by doctrinal hardliners, an attempt to mark certain options as off-limits even before the bishops arrive in Rome to begin deliberations. Their argument is not that the church shouldn’t admit divorced and remarried to Communion, but that it cannot do so without breaking with the teachings of Christ and the church.

    As Cardinal Müller put it, a sacramental marriage is indissoluble, and Catholics whose “state of life contradicts the indissolubility of sacramental marriage” cannot be admitted to the Eucharist.

    Pre-emptive strikes are not new for the Synod of Bishops. In 1985, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came out with a book-length interview on the state of the church that framed much of the discussion for that year’s extraordinary on the aftermath of Vatican II.

    But by Vatican standards, this kind of open verbal warfare is unprecedented. Two comments by Cardinal Kasper, reported today in the Italian press, take it to a whole new level.

    In an interview with the newspaper La Stampa, Kasper said he was blindsided by publication of the new books. “I was surprised. I learned about it only today from journalists – they were sent the text, not me. In all my academic life I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

    And in an interview with another newspaper, Il Mattino, Kasper went farther, saying his critics appeared to want a “doctrinal war” at the synod, and that the target was not himself but “probably” Pope Francis.

    “They claim to know on their own what the truth is. But Catholic doctrine is not a closed system, it is a living system that develops, as Vatican II taught us. They want to crystalize the truth in certain formulas,” Kasper was quoted as saying.

    He added: “None of my cardinal brothers have spoken with me. I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What else can a cardinal do, other than stand with the pope? I am not the target, the target is someone else.”

    Asked if the target was Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper replied: "Probably yes."

  • Theologians warn of spiritual crisis, 'pastoral breakdown' over sex abuse cases in St. Paul-Minneapolis

     Archbishop John Nienstedt

    Theology professors at the University of St. Thomas have warned of a “pastoral breakdown” following sex abuse revelations in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. They said Archbishop John Nienstedt needs to take a series of bold new public steps to heal the wounds and salvage his own leadership role.

    (UPDATE: See below Archbishop Nienstedt’s response to the letter, in which he said he has already taken many of the steps proposed by the theologians. He also asked those who signed the letter for a meeting and discussion.)

    A sharply worded letter signed by 12 tenured members of the university’s theology department and delivered to Nienstedt on Saturday called on the archbishop to “leave the legal talk to the lawyers” and become more personally involved in rebuilding trust with the faithful of his archdiocese.

    The letter suggested that Nienstedt begin the process of spiritual healing by leading a penitential liturgy, modeled on the late Pope St. John Paul II’s millennial apology for the past failings of the church.

    At the same time, it said, the archbishop needs to communicate more directly about the scandal with the people and parishes under his care, and “make a fresh effort to listen to them.” Naming another committee or supervisory body to investigate the situation is not enough, it said.

    “Trust within the Church and between the Church and the local community has been badly broken. Indeed, the office of Archbishop itself has been gravely damaged by the facts exposed in the lawsuits,” it said.

    As part of the response, the theologians said, lay Catholics should be given more positions of responsibility in priestly formation, governance of the archdiocese and management of the scandal. They said the sex abuse revelations have shown that problems in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese are “systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry.”

    The letter stopped short of calling for Nienstedt’s resignation, but said the archbishop could not recover trust without changing his approach. “We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable,” it said.

    The theology professors cited Pope Francis’ recent statement that a bishop is “not isolated, but with the church” and at the service of his flock.

    “Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations,” the letter said. It said the failures were not only in sexual abuse by priests, but also in how those scandals have been handled.

    The letter noted the distinguished history of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, and stated: “The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it.”

    Archbishop Nienstedt has faced calls for resignation from some local priests, Catholic donors and news outlets following a series of accusations that he and his aides concealed sex abuse allegations about priests serving in the archdiocese.

    Nienstedt has acknowledged making mistakes, and has accepted the recommendations of a task force that called for closer review and monitoring of clerical abuse. He said in July that the archdiocese is better able to deal with such cases today, and that he had no intention of resigning.

    Archbishop Nienstedt has also been the subject of an internal church investigation regarding allegations that he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with adult seminarians. Nienstedt has called the allegations “absolutely and entirely false.”

    Those signing the letter represent most of the tenured St. Thomas theology faculty, and include department chair Bernard Brady; Massimo Faggioli, who has written extensively on the Second Vatican Council; Gerald Schlabach, a teacher of Christian ethics; and Michael J. Hollerich, an expert in early church history.

    In a response released by the archdiocese Monday, Archbishop Nienstedt thanked the theologians but said he had already taken initiatives in the same direction as their suggestions.

    Nienstedt said he recently announced a series of “healing Masses designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the church.” In addition, he said, he has met with abuse victims and their families, has reached out to community and parish leaders to talk, and often spends weekends participating in unpublicized parish events.

    As for an increased lay role, Nienstedt noted that the archdiocese recently hired Judge Timothy O’Malley as director of the newly created Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. The archbishop said the majority of his leadership team are lay people, and his primary advisors are all laity.

    “I am very sorry for anything I or my predecessors have done to cause Catholics to doubt their faith or the sacred trust that is placed in Church leadership,” Nienstedt said. He added that he was “grateful” for the theologians’ advice.

    “I’m thankful we share the same desire to help the Church and would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to help bring the Word of God to His people,” he said.

    Here is the text of the theologians’ letter:

    Letter to the Archbishop of St. Paul – Minneapolis, the Most Reverend John Nienstedt and to the local Church

    “To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority, the laity are entitled and sometimes duty-bound to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the Church” (Vatican Council II, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, Lumen Gentium, par. 37).

    The people of God rightly expect bishops to be good stewards of the Lord’s household. As Pope Francis has said, “The bishop, as a witness of Christ, is not isolated, but with the Church . . . The episcopate is not for the bishop himself, but for the Church, for the flock, and for others” (Address to the Congregation for the Bishops, February 27, 2014). Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations. We refer not only to the multi-faceted sexual abuse scandal itself but also to the manner in which these scandals have been handled.

    The harm done affects first of all the victims themselves. But it touches the lives of all of us as members of the Church, including our efforts as professional theologians to represent the Catholic faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition in an honest and credible way to our students, their parents, our alumni, and our colleagues and friends. As theologians and educators, we offer proposals that may open a path toward recovery from the pastoral breakdown we are witnessing. We do so reluctantly and wish to emphasize that we remain committed to working and praying for the good of the whole archdiocese, including its pastoral leadership. We also want to recognize the criticisms and insights already offered by several of our women colleagues in their letter published on July 25, 2014.

         Leave the legal talk to the lawyers; bring pastoral talk to the people. The Archdiocese is in a spiritual crisis as well as a legal crisis. The resolution of the legal actions now underway will not undo the spiritual damage. While we support the rights of the victims of sexual crimes to justice and hope that resolutions of the lawsuits will offer appropriate restitution that leads to their healing, we know that no legal decision will heal the damage done to the Body of Christ. A process of spiritual healing could begin within an appropriate liturgical setting and with you taking the initiative. Consider using the Rite of Reconciliation as a model for how this might be done in various places around the Archdiocese. Think about the example set by Pope St. John Paul II’s millennial apology for the failings of the Church. We believe that the people of the Archdiocese would welcome such gestures towards reconciliation.

         Re-introduce yourself to the people and parishes that are our Archdiocese. Trust within the Church and between the Church and the local community has been badly broken. Indeed, the office of Archbishop itself has been gravely damaged by the facts exposed in the lawsuits. Announcing the creation of another committee or supervisory body can only go partway towards restoring that trust. We believe that restoring a trust worthy of your office will only come fully through your personal commitment to developing a more open and immediate relationship with people around the Archdiocese. You need to make a fresh effort to listen to them and to get to know them better – people from all walks of life, those who are already receptive to you and those who may not be.

         Engage lay people in the important work of the Archdiocese. The current situation will not be improved without greater lay involvement in the Archdiocese. Lay people must be placed in positions of responsibility in priestly formation, in the governance of the Archdiocese, and especially in the management of the scandal. The harsh light now being shone on the inner governance of the Archdiocese makes clear that the problems are not merely personal. They are systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry.

    We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable. The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has had a distinguished place in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it.

    St. Paul, MN September 12, 2014

    Signed by the following tenured members of the Theology Department of the University of St. Thomas:

    Cara Anthony
    Bernard Brady
    Massimo Faggioli
    Paul Gavrilyuk
    Michael Hollerich
    John Martens
    Stephen McMichael
    Paul Niskanen
    David Penchansky
    Gerald Schlabach
    Ted Ulrich
    Paul Wojda


    Here is the text of Archbishop Nienstedt’s response:

    September 15, 2014

    Dear Dr. Anthony, Dr. Brady, Dr. Faggioli, Dr. Gavrilyuk, Dr. Hollerich, Dr. Martens, Dr. McMichael, Dr. Niskanen, Dr. Penchansky, Dr. Schlabach, Dr. Ulrich, and Dr. Wojda,

    Thank you for your recent letter with your proposals and suggestions. I appreciate your interest in helping people draw closer to Jesus Christ and I am grateful for your service to the students of the University of St. Thomas. I know that many have recently had difficult conversations with friends and family about why they still continue to profess their faith. I am very sorry for anything I or my predecessors have done to cause Catholics to doubt their faith or the sacred trust that is placed in Church leadership.

    I am grateful, too, for your thoughtful advice and your willingness to share it. Please allow me to address the suggestions you listed:

    • Leave the legal talk to the lawyers; bring pastoral talk to the people.

    Many Catholics have shared with me the same pain you are describing, and I have taken the initiative to move in the direction you are suggesting. In last week’s issue of The Catholic Spirit is an article on the first of a series of healing Masses designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the Church. We are working with local pastors to communicate the information about these Masses to the faithful. Here’s a link:

    The theme of healing and reconciliation is at the heart of these liturgies, which can provide powerful prayer experiences for those who have been wounded or those who know others who are suffering.

    • Re-introduce yourself to the people and parishes that are our Archdiocese.

    The reason I became a priest was to become involved in the lives of people, and I appreciate every opportunity I have to do so. I have met and continue to meet with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their families and their friends. I am also reaching out to community leaders, ecumenical leaders and parish leaders to talk and learn about how we can be a part of the healing process. I often spend my weekends celebrating Mass at local parishes or going to community events. I have not publicized these events, but they are happening on a regular basis.

    • Engage lay people in the important work of the Archdiocese.

    I agree with this suggestion, and to that end we have most recently hired Judge Timothy O’Malley for the newly created position of Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. Here’s a link to the story in The Catholic Spirit:

    The fact of the matter is that the majority of my leadership team are lay people, a few of whom are not Catholic. Aside from our auxiliary bishops, Bishop Piché and Bishop Cozzens, and our vicar general, Fr. Lachowitzer, my primary advisors are all laity. In addition, lay people make up the majority of the boards that provide me with advice and consultation, and I do listen to them.

    I’m thankful we share the same desire to help the Church and would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to help bring the Word of God to His people. Please let me know if that would be of interest to you.

    May God bless you and your ministry,

    The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt

  • Spanish appointment tells Curia heads: You can go home again

    A chapter in Pope Francis’ revolution was written today when the pope named Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera as archbishop of Valencia, Spain.

    The appointment was remarkable mainly because it violated the age-old Roman Curia maxim, “You can’t go home again.” Cardinal Cañizares was being sent back to Valencia, where he was ordained a priest 44 years ago, after a five-year stint as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

    UPDATE: Cardinal Cañizares said in an interview that he was happy to be going back to his home diocese, and that he told the pope he wanted to "smell like the sheep" (using one of Francis' favorite phrases about pastors.)

    Traditionally, Roman Curia department heads, especially if they’re cardinals, stay on the job until retirement. And after they retire, most continue to reside in Rome rather than returning to pastoral work in their home countries.

    I’ve argued that if Pope Francis really wants to emphasize service over prestige in Vatican appointments, he should make it clear that those called to Rome are there temporarily, with no guarantee of career advancement, and can expect to return home after their five-year term is over.

    That’s what’s happening to Cardinal Cañizares. A theologian known in Rome as the “little Ratzinger,” he was archbishop of Toledo when he was picked by Pope Benedict to head the liturgy congregation, where he presided over a series of conservative decisions (his latest instruction was to tone down the exchange of the sign of peace during Mass, to reflect greater “sobriety” in liturgy.)

    The 68-year-old Cañizares was tipped by Spanish sources in recent months as a possible new archbishop of Madrid. Instead, he’s going to Valencia, a smaller and less important archdiocese. Madrid, also announced today, went to Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra, who had headed the Valencia archdiocese.

    No one has yet been appointed as Cañizares’ successor at the Vatican's liturgy congregation.

    It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis is willing to send younger department heads back to pastoral service after a few years at the Vatican, rather than keeping them on forever. The turnover would be good for the church, and would remind the prelates that their time in Rome is a sacrifice, not a career move.

  • 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 arriving in 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.

  • The Vatican commission on sex abuse takes shape

    Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, named to Vatican panel

    Pope Francis today named eight members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, including an Irish victim of clerical sexual abuse.

    This core group of the commission, which includes four women, has been asked to further define the scope of the panel's responsibilities and recommend additional members.

    The Vatican said the commission would promote “a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”

    The commission includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Catholic experts from seven other countries. Most are from Europe, but the Vatican said additional members would be found from other continents. Among the eight are specialists in human rights, church and civil law, moral theology and psychology.

    The Irish commission member, Marie Collins, is a well-known sex abuse survivor who has actively campaigned for investigation of sex abuse by priests. She was recently critical of a statement by the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, which questioned whether some priests who had made “mistakes” early in life should continue to be excluded from ministry.

    Here is the list of the members announced by the Vatican, and a statement by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:

    The Holy Father Francis has instituted the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was announced on Dec. 5, 2013, and called to be a part of it:

    Dr. Catherine Bonnet (France)

    Mrs. Marie Collins (Ireland)

    Prof. the Baroness Sheila Hollins (United Kingdom)

    Card. Sean Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap (U.S.)

    Prof. Claudio Papale (Italy)

    Her Excellency Hanna Suchocka (Poland)

    Rev. Humberto Miguel Yañez, SJ (Argentina)

    Rev. Hans Zollner, SJ (Germany)

    Their principal role will be to prepare the Statutes of the Commission, which will define its tasks and competencies. Other members will be added to the Commission in the future, chosen from various geographical areas of the world.

    Brief biographies of the members can be found here.

    Comment by Father Lombardi:

    As Blessed John Paul II declared, "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young…. So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church" (Address of John Paul II to the Cardinals of the United States, 23 April 2002). 

    In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as we commit ourselves to the safeguarding of minors, we need "to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes" (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Irish Bishops, 28 October 2006).

    Continuing the work undertaken by his predecessors, and having heard the advice of a number of Cardinals, other members of the College of Bishops, and experts in the field, and having duly deliberated, Pope Francis now is forming a Commission for the safeguarding of minors.

    Pope Francis has made clear that the Church must hold the protection of minors amongst Her highest priorities. Today, to carry forward this initiative, the Holy Father announces the names of several highly qualified persons who are committed to this issue.

    This initial group is now called to work expeditiously to assist in several tasks, including: participating in the deliberations concerning the Commission’s final structure; describing the scope of its responsibilities; and developing the names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries, who can offer service to the Commission.

    Certain that the Church has a critical role to play in this field, and looking to the future without forgetting the past, the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.

    In this way, and with the help of God, this Commission will contribute to the Holy Father’s mission of upholding the sacred responsibility of ensuring the safety of young people.

  • A pope who wants to be 'normal'

    Pope Francis’ latest interview, published today by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, featured more of his characteristic pastoral populism and a tolerant tone on several moral issues. His defensive comments on clerical sex abuse will no doubt raise the question: Does the pope think this issue is really behind us?

    Here are some highlights:

    -- The pope said he liked to get out and be among people, but he cautioned against creating “a certain mythology about Pope Francis.” “When for example it’s said that he goes out from the Vatican at night and feeds the homeless on Via Ottaviano. That never even occurred to me…. To paint the pope as some kind of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”

    -- Francis said he had sometimes asked the advice of retired Pope Benedict: “The emeritus pope is not a statue in a museum…. Benedict is the first and perhaps there will be others. We don't know. He is discreet, humble and doesn’t want to be a bother. We talked about this and we decided together that it would be better if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the church…. I thought of grandparents, who with their wisdom and counsel give strength to the family and don’t deserve to end up in a nursing home.”

    -- Pope Francis distanced himself from the church’s past use of the concept of “non-negotiable values” on certain moral and ethical questions related to human life and sexuality: “I never understood the expression 'non-negotiable values.' Values are values, period. I can’t say that among the fingers of a hand, one is less useful than the other. So I don't understand in what sense there can be negotiable values.”

    -- On civil unions, the pope indicated some margin of tolerance: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. The lay states want to justify civil unions in order to regulate diverse situations of cohabitation, motivated by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, for example in assuring medical care…. We need to look at the different cases and evaluate them.”

    -- The pope said the 1968 encyclical against birth control, Humanae Vitae, was “prophetic” in its defense of morality and its opposition to population control programs, but he said this teaching needs to be applied carefully in pastoral situations. “The issue is not changing the doctrine, but going deeper and making sure that pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do. This, too, will be discussed in the Synod.”

    -- Asked about clerical sex abuse, the pope called such cases “terrible” but defended the church’s actions to safeguard children. “The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very deep wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the road. The church has done much along this road. Perhaps more than all the others.” He said statistics show that most violence against children takes place in family or neighborhood environments. “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. And yet the church is the only one to be attacked.”

    -- Concerning his strong critique of modern capitalism, the pope said he was not bothered by those who have accused him of Marxism: “I’ve never shared a Marxist ideology, because it’s not true, but I’ve known many good people who profess Marxism.” He added that the Gospel clearly rejects the “cult of well-being” as a form of idolatry. And while modern globalization has saved some people from poverty, the pope said, it has “condemned many others to die of hunger.” The problem with economic globalization as practiced today is that “the human person is no longer at the center, only money,” he said.

  • Pope says church must accompany those in failed marriages, not condemn them

    Here’s Pope Francis today on what the church should do when a marital relationship falls apart:

    “When this love fails – because many times it does fail – we need to feel the pain of this failure and accompany those who have experienced this failure in their love. Not condemn them! Walk with them! And not treat their situation with casuistry.”

    I think the pope is using the term “casuistry” here to refer to a legalistic, rule-based approach. In any case, his message was clear: the church’s approach should be merciful and understanding.

    The comment is especially interesting as an internal debate heats up among Vatican officials and others in the hierarchy over the correct pastoral response to Catholics who have divorced and remarried civilly without an annulment.

    Earlier this week, German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated his view that pastoral policies must be in line with doctrine, specifically the doctrine on the permanence of marriage.

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family is expected to take up the issue in October.

    The pope made the remarks at his morning Mass. Vatican Radio now has its English version up here.

    Related: In his address to cardinals a week ago, Cardinal Walter Kasper said that while the church cannot change its teaching on the permanence of marriage, it could "tolerate that which is impossible to accept," i.e., a second union. He suggested a penitential path that would accompany divorced Catholics back into full communion with the church -- in effect, he said, "a pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence." The Catholic News Service report on his talk is here.

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