Rome Diary: 23 December 2002

I have been cranky the last couple of weeks since I read [reporter] Frank Bruni's story in The New York Times about Cardinal Law's resignation. I do not blame Bruni, but praise him for capturing the Vatican party line. Here was Bruni quoting George Weigel, the pope's almost-official biographer, who is not on the Vatican payroll but ought to be: "I don't think this was done in response to agitations of various sorts," said Weigel. "Authority in the Catholic church is conferred by ordination. It's not given by the people." He was trying to say public opinion had nothing to do with it. Sure.

I don't fault Weigel. He is only passing on the accepted opinion among the church's most clerical minds: "We're only accountable to the pope, and the pope is only accountable to God." I am not making this up. This is a quote from one of the pope's loyalists, Cardinal Jan Schotte. Though few others inside the Vatican would speak so arrogantly, many act as if those words were the Gospel truth.

The Gospel truth is that all authority, ecclesiastical and civil, is for service, not domination. Service to the people. Authority in the Catholic church belongs to those who serve, whether they are ordained or not. I say this in the spirit of Matthew 25, wherein Jesus told his disciples that they'd be judged before the throne of glory on the basis of their service to the marginalized of the world, to those who are hungry and thirsty, or naked or sick or in prison. "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me," says Jesus in the King James version.

King James ruled by "divine right." But kings haven't done this for a long time. In a current best-selling biography on the second president of the United States, John Adams, David McCullough quotes Abigail Adams writing in the early 1800s: "A people may let a king fall and yet still remain a people; but if a king lets his people slip from him, he is no longer a king."

Neither should bishops think they rule by "divine right." The bishop of Rome would be a better bishop if he did not act as if he did. If bishops fail to serve the people, the people will slip from them, and they will become bishops who are looked upon by no one. At this point, we might well ask whether the magical words or magical oils that have been pronounced and poured over them have any practical effect. I wonder whether the words and the oils are only symbols that help teach us that the one newly covered with these words and oils have a special duty to serve, not a right.

Accept this view and you must object when Weigel tells Bruni "The Catholic church does not operate by opinion polls," as if it was somehow shameful for the pope to read the thick Xeroxed file of press clipping he gets every morning from around the world and somehow theologically incorrect for him to act on what he reads. For who is more qualified to judge whether the people are being served than the people themselves?

Whatever the asserted theory, the fact is that Law resigned last Spring because he knew the people of Boston had already slipped from him. Cardinal Gianbattista Re knew that when he accepted Law's resignation in March. L'osservatore Romano even had the news set in type; but the story was killed last minute by the publisher himself (the pope!) because he couldn't admit that maybe God was making his will known through the people of Boston (and perhaps the Boston Globe as well).

What on earth, to anyone who believes in Providence, is not God-given? Popes used to be elected, often by acclamation, by the people of Rome. Now they are elected by an exclusive clerical club called the College of Cardinals. I wonder whether one mode is more God-given than the other. Like most of us, the pope has to admit that truth is where you find it. I suspect that the pope finally tumbled to the practical truth that Law must go when he was made privy to an opinion poll taken in the first week of December among the priests of Boston. 58 of them signed a petition calling for Law to step down. Bruni's sources (and mine) said this was the one factor that made the pope change his mind: the opinion of the priests, not of the people.

There was no talk by any of Bruni's Vatican sources about the pattern of cover up that Law and his minions provided over the years for Boston's clerical scoundrels, no mention of Law's warm letters to these priests who he knew had violated little boys, no mention of Law's praise for a priest who had been diddling young postulants in a Boston nunnery, or that Law had written that same priest an admiring letter aboutr the depth of that priest's faith and courage.

If the Vatican had its druthers, we wouldn't know anything about these events, under the [prevailing] principle that such reporting "creates scandal." Translation: It makes people begin to have their doubts about the institution, specifically the institution of the priesthood. Much of the information has come to us from the plaintiffs' lawyers in Boston who are making Law accountable in ways he never imagined, seeking and getting and passing on documentation that had been sitting in Law's secret files for decades.

When they were secret no longer, and their essence trumpeted in the headlines, we understood in a new way the Church's pattern: the institution comes first, the people's needs second, if at all!

Commentary

Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

For an outsider, Bob Kaiser has a keen insight into the workings of the clerical mind. There is no doubt that for the ecclesial bureaucracies, the "institution" holds more importance than the people within that institution, even when the people are innocent children.

That the Roman church has long ago deserted the Gospel definitions and descriptions of authority as defined and lived in the person of Jesus Christ is a fact that is beyond dispute by rational minds and genuinely Spirited hearts. It is interesting to note that the very distinction Jesus so carefully made about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's has been blurred by church authorities over the centuries; but what is much worse is that the church has adopted the Roman Imperial style of governance by domination, force and control rather than service to the people, and then run with it as if it were a divine mandate from heaven itself! That is a true and disastrous scandal that ultimately must be corrected if the Catholic church is ever again to be perceived as a sign of grace in the world.

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