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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

Church governance in limbo


Ironically, while the outside world fears that John Paul II’s days may be numbered, for senior church officials the concern is almost exactly the opposite: that the pope could go on for months, even years, in this vastly weakened state, leaving church governance in limbo.

Observers say that in the coming months various short-term solutions (other than papal resignation, which is viewed as out of the question) may be floated. The question is whether a pope long accustomed to operating from faith rather than realpolitik will be open to any of them.

Examples of incoherence abound, from Cardinal Renato Martino’s criticism of the handling of Saddam Hussein (saying he was treated “like a cow”), to Cardinal Francis Arinze’s endorsement of denying Communion to pro-choice politicians, to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s recent opposition to Turkey joining the European Union. In every case, puzzled diplomats and bishops have been informed that the cardinal was expressing merely a “personal view.” But in the absence of any authoritative statement to the contrary, observers have a hard time distinguishing “personal views” from Vatican policy.

On the Communion issue, for example, Ratzinger issued two letters seemingly at odds with each other, the first appearing to support bishops threatening to deny Communion, another applauding the U.S. bishops who did not endorse that stance. On Turkey, diplomats and journalists who talk to senior officials in the Secretariat of State are being told that the Vatican is “cautiously supportive,” despite comments to the contrary by Ratzinger and, one year ago, by the then-foreign minister of the Holy See, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

In the same way, some bishops complain that in the absence of strong coordination either from the Apostolic Palace or the Secretariat of State, midlevel officials in some departments of the Roman curia are increasingly making decisions on their own. Some bishops, and even cardinals, say that the tone of correspondence from some of these officials is often imperial and condescending, suggesting a lack of effective oversight.

Privately, cardinals have floated variants of three different scenarios to address the problem:

  • Creating an ad-hoc commission of cardinals, mostly heads of archdioceses as opposed to curial officials, who could coordinate big-picture policy questions that face the Vatican, always submitting their decisions to the pope. The disadvantages are that such a structure is not anticipated in canon law, and that convening such a group on a regular basis would take these men away from their dioceses.
  • Reconvening the old inter-dicasterial meetings, which bring together the heads of all the Vatican departments on a regular basis. These meetings were instituted by Pope Paul VI precisely to lend greater overall coordination to the Vatican, but were discontinued as John Paul’s stamina began to wane. Some participants also found the meetings unproductive because there was a puzzling mix of big-picture questions and mundane details (at the last such meeting, both the question of an Eastern rite patriarchate in Ukraine and the problem of Vatican employees clocking in late were on the agenda). One proposal would be to hold these meetings under the chairmanship of someone other than the pope (perhaps Ratzinger as dean of the College of Cardinals), and to focus on major policy questions only.
  • Pushing the pope to appoint a new secretary of state, given that Cardinal Angelo Sodano will be 77 in November and is seen as being focused on Italian politics and international diplomacy, rather than having a global vision for the church that might lend greater consistency across departmental lines. One scenario is that a group of cardinals, representing different experiences and points of view, might request an audience with the pope to propose that a new secretary of state is needed. He would function almost as a vice-pope, taking a stronger hand in reviewing and coordinating the work of the various Vatican agencies.

At one level, the problem is theological and juridical. Canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law states that the pope enjoys “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church.” How much of this power he can delegate, and to whom, creates ecclesiological riddles.

At another level, however, the problem is psychological. John Paul is not a man to be told that he can’t have his cake and eat it too. His life experience tells him that miracles happen, that God’s designs were often greater than what his Nazi factory supervisors or his Polish Communist overlords insisted was inevitable. Hence the question is, how will he now respond to the argument that in order to play his new symbolic/iconic role, something has to give?

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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