Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The following is an excerpt from an interview John Allen did with Italian journalist Massimo Franco. Franco just released a book analyzing the papacy of Benedict XVI, a papacy which Franco finds quite lacking in a number of practical areas.

Your book seems stronger on diagnosis than cure. You make a convincing case that the Vatican hasn’t responded adequately to this transition from Catholicism as a majority to a minority, but you don’t really explain what a Vatican able to respond to this new cultural situation would look like.
I’m not surprised by what you say, because I’m a journalist. I’m not a pope, I’m not a cardinal, I’m not an intellectual. I have to analyze the origins of this crisis, but it’s not up to me to dictate the solutions.

You must have some thoughts.
I think the problem is one of intellectual categories. It’s a problem of language, of being in tune with the Western world. That’s not the case at the moment. The Vatican, of course, boasts of being counter-cultural, but I think sometimes that’s a form of self-consolation.

Actually, I think the Vatican is right when it says that in the future, the West will have to come back to religion. The question is, which religion? Will the Vatican be there at the right moment, to respond to the questions people will be asking? (It's entirely possible the West will not return to any current religion, at least not in their current incarnations.)

I don’t have the answer, but I can say that there’s a disconnection between the West and the Vatican from the point of view of language. It’s not the fact that Catholics are a minority, but they are a self-referential one, not a creative one, with no capacity of expansion. That’s what I fear. The risk is to circle in on yourself more and more, divorced from the external world. (Circling in on yourself opens very very few doors, and taken too far, is not prophetic or counter cultural, it's more akin to pathological self absorbtion.)

How much of the church’s capacity to communicate with the external world actually depends on the Vatican?
Quite a lot, I think. But it’s important to say that the Vatican doesn’t just have a problem with external communication – the problem is internal as well. All the gaffes, the misunderstandings, the mistakes in recent years were not really provoked by a lack of communications skills with the outside world. That’s one dimension of it, but the real problem is that inside the Vatican, the discussion is not free and wide enough. (There's also the problem that the Vatican is insisting on controlling all Catholic voices.  The most current example of this is Caritas International which will undoubtedly find itself with more direct Vatican control under the guise of the Vatican's sudden need to emphasize Caritas's 'Catholic identity'.)

You think it’s not as simple as reforming the communications structures.
No, it’s reforming the machine inside the Vatican. I think the decisions are not considered carefully enough, or shared widely enough among the top people. The Holocaust-denying bishop case is a classic example, because it was not fundamentally a problem of external communication. It was not studied enough, not discussed enough, so the result was not just an external disaster, but also the demonstration that there isn’t a real professionalism in the Vatican. (The issue is not professionalism in any meaningful sense, it's mostly about professional obedience.)

Take another example: You just can’t say, as some Vatican personnel have, that pedophilia is associated with homosexuality. It’s scientifically incorrect. What it shows is that there’s a deep cultural confusion [in the Vatican], and they’re too often backwards. You have to know a subject well before you presume to talk about it – you can’t just make it up. There’s a true underestimation of what was at stake, as people were speaking out without any real preparation. It was astonishing how amateurish the reactions were, especially in the beginning.

It seems that what you’re saying is that the real challenge is to have people with cultural depth in key positions, before we talk about changing structures or systems.
That’s it. It’s a problem of culture and of language, because language reflects culture. The problem isn’t merely that you have a clear message and you can’t communicate it properly. The problem is that too often, the message itself is confusing and confused.

You say that fixing all this will probably have to await another pontificate. Why?
This pontificate has been a very difficult one, because you had to reconcile the heritage of John Paul II and the end of the Cold War with the need for change. That’s very difficult. Benedict XVI inherited not just the glory, but also the burden, of John Paul’s pontificate. For instance, he had to take a different approach to the sexual abuse crisis. This pope has been forced to look forward and backward at the same time.

In a way, Benedict is the scapegoat of a different historical situation. John Paul II was the last pope of the Cold War, and he was profoundly a man of the Cold War. This pope was the intellectual architect of John Paul’s papacy, but he’s forced to act in a post-Cold War world. It’s a time of transition, and I think he’s paying for something for which he was not responsible. He’s been overwhelmed by unresolved problems of the past. (I fail to see how Benedict can be both the intellectual architect of JPII's papacy and then not responsible for it's consequences. He very much helped create the problems which he now seems unable to resolve.)

Your book also seems to suggest that he’s surrounded by a regime that’s sometimes dysfunctional.
That’s a result of the fact that this is a time of transition. You must not forget that this pope was already old when he was elected, and he’s surrounded himself with people he trusts, but without a clear strategy for governance. The result is that some choices were not happy ones.

Here’s the big picture: The problem is that the Vatican is still dominated by a culture shaped by the Cold War, but the world has changed. What the Twin Towers attacks were for the United States, the sex abuse scandals are for the church. The Twin Towers meant that American unilateralism and military hegemony were over, and the sex abuse scandals meant that the ethical uni-polarism of the Catholic church was over. The West is in crisis, from a military, technological, economic and moral point of view. Both of the two parallel empires today are learning more inward, they’re weaker, and they don’t collaborate with each other. (There may be little collaboration on some levels, but it sure does seem moneyed interests still find some collaboration with certain mind sets in both the US and the Vatican.)


Franco makes some astute observations about the workings of the Vatican, and that may have been the sole area in which he concentrated, but I don't think Vatican problems are only in governance, structure, professionalism, and communication.  I think those are symptomatic of an out of touch world view which includes clinging to some core definitions of reality which no longer exist - if they ever did.  I think that's the fundamental problem the Vatican can't resolve and that's why there seem to be so many problems which never do get resolved.  It is impossible to speak the language of a given culture if one does not share at least some similar understandings of how reality works.  Understandings like democracy and transparency.

It seems to me this Vatican has made a very conscious decision to ignore most of how the West understands reality in favor of the understandings of the less developed parts of the globe.  This can only be an effective strategy for at most another generation or two.  At that point official Catholicism will have to change, or it will truly become a cultic cultural minority. There is no place in the world which is not being profoundly changed by the current communications revolution and the connections and intellectual revolution those connections imply.  

There are now 4.6 billion cell phones in operation across the globe and all of them are more or less capable of calling any of the others and a high percentage of them Internet capable.  Highly centralized authority structures which have maintained their governing power on the basis of controlling information and information flow are now toppling precisely because they can no longer either control information or react to the speed at which information now moves with in society.  A new kind of collective consciousness is being created in which people no longer accept being overtly controlled from above by a special class of insiders with access to information.  Transparency rules the day if only because it's really difficult to actually keep secrets in the the world of Wikileaks and social networking.  

The Vatican may not be a powerful government structure in the sense of military or economic might, but it still considers itself a major player in the world of cultural morality and cultural formation.  It is precisely in these two areas it has lost it's influence in the West because the Vatican is still insisting on a divine right to secrecy and self accountability.  It won't take a massive uprising like in Egypt to render the Vatican powerless, it will just take millions more completely ignoring it and finding spiritual meaning elsewhere.  After all, crossing religious borders is much easier than crossing national borders.  Catholicism can not sustain itself, even in the South, for many more generations on a governing policy which pastes theatrical piety on top of all the corruption.  "Do as Father says, and ignore what Father does" has pretty much wore out it's welcome as a strategy for keeping some obvious fictions, like celibacy, acceptable and believable.  

The first casualty transparency exposes is almost always institutionalized hypocrisy.  No single institution should have had that lesson driven home more powerfully than the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, and yet, there is still such defiant opposition that abusing priests are still being hidden, still being allowed to invent their own history, still being advertised as authentic spiritual christs, and in some cases still acting like little clerical gods.  It's all getting quite sad to watch.

I think the biggest difference in the two papacies of JPII and B16 is that JPII was able to rule more or less unimpeded by this information revolution.  He could get away with ignoring the Maciel's of the Church because the system of secrecy was still more or less in tact, the corruption and hypocrisy was still hidden behind his enormous stage presence, the Vatican bank could still launder money with impunity.  Not so for poor Benedict.  The landscape has radically shifted.  He needs to start listening to the voices out in Catholicism who will tell him the truth, like Archbishop Martin of Dublin and retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia, and find the courage to face their truths.  It's always possible that he was elected Pope precisely for this moment and this decision.  He really could save the Church by giving up his monarchical authority and returning to the theological concepts of his youth when he saw the vision in Vatican II.  He still has the time.



  1. Oops this interview seems to have ended in mid sentence !

  2. Oh wow, it did kind of get cut right off in mid sentence.

    I switched to using Mozilla Firefox for my browser and for some reason Blogger doesn't play real nice with the Fox. I'm not quite sure what that's about, but if I don't pay real close attention to the automatic save function I lose lots of what I've written. I must have been too tired this morning to catch the fact it didn't save that last half of the post.