Sunday, April 11, 2010

A multinational (small) business

The mainstream media seems to have a problem with translations. In his ongoing battle with the press over recent allegations against Pope Benedict XVI, the papal spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, stated, “The Catholic Church is not a multinational corporation.”

At least, that’s what he would have said had he been speaking English. Alas, he was speaking Italian. Impresa—“firm, business”—was translated as “entity”. The resulting phrase made it look as if good Fr. Federico was making the Church something local.

Of course, in a way, the Church is a parochial affair (pun only incidental). The tendency among non-Catholics, especially in the media, is to use the corporation as a paradigm to analyze ecclesial behavior. However, the model doesn’t really fit. The local ordinaries of the Church—the bishops and archbishops—aren’t SVPs and EVPs; rather, they are successors to the apostles alongside the Bishop of Rome. While the successor of Peter has some authority and powers not given to his brother bishops, he can be considered successor to Peter only if all bishops are apostolic successors. In this light, the Vatican is more the coordinator of near-identical local businesses than the central office of a far-flung enterprise.

Because of the role of bishops as apostolic successors, and because of the many inherent limitations of communication over once-vast distances in the centuries between the Resurrection and the telegraph, the authority and responsibility of settling local problems has always resided primarily within the diocese. Only in matters which allowed for plenty of time for resolution would the local ordinary ask Rome for guidance; or when a person under sentence from a bishop would appeal the decision to the Pope. The principle of subsidiarity—nothing should be handled at a higher level which can be handled as well or better at a lower level—is the natural philosophical outgrowth of this decentralized power structure.

However, those who advocate the decentralization of power from the federal government should pay close attention, because this can be as much a bad thing as a good thing.

·         First, the sheer size of the Church—around one billion people around the globe, in 2,795 dioceses as of 2008—makes it difficult for the Pope or any cardinal prefect to know what’s going on in any given see.
·         Second, the Vatican has barely 1,500 people in its direct employ to operate the ministries and functions it does have … and it perpetually operates close to or in the red.[*] An executive structure along the lines of the US government would require at least three-fifths of the population of Rome (2.7 million people in 2009) to run it. While John XXIII, when asked how many people worked at the Vatican, supposedly joked, “Oh, about half,” the truth is that they’re horribly understaffed for those operations they do directly oversee, and are in no financial condition to expand their operations.
·         Third, the relative freedom local ordinaries enjoy to act in local matters means that they have no real need to report everything that goes on within their bailiwicks. Indeed, local prelates have resented and occasionally resisted the Vatican’s few attempts to micromanage specific crises, complaining—not without either justice or hypocrisy—that “those guys in Rome don’t really know the situation here”.

This last point—the relative paucity of communication between the Vatican and the local chanceries—contributes significantly to the common perception, even among Catholics, that the Church hierarchy operates in secrecy. Rather, it stumbles along blindly, as a man suffering from neuropathy, whose limbs send mixed and partial messages to his brain, while he strains under an oversized and overstuffed burden.

It’s important to remember these points when we discuss the Vatican’s handling—or fumbling, rather—of the case of Rev. Stephen Kiesle, who had voluntarily applied for dispensation from his priesthood. At any point between 1978, when Kiesle was first convicted of lewd conduct, and 1981, when he wrote his first letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the bishop of Oakland, John S. Cummings, could have applied any number of canonical restrictions on his ministry. Incredibly, he failed to do so, although it was his responsibility as the local ordinary to take action.

At the same time, though, +Cummings probably believed that obtaining a dispensation would lead to a faster resolution than the incredibly slow procedure of a canonical trial, with a better likelihood of obtaining the result desired. This would have been the case had it not occurred around the same time that John Paul II, trying to stop the river of men leaving the priesthood, imposed a cumbersome review process on dispensations.

The intent of the slow process was not any perverse desire to protect child molesters; in fact, the letters +Cummings sent to +Ratzinger say only that Kiesle was convicted of “inappropriate behavior” with six Bay-area youths, not that he’d tied them up and raped them in his church rectory. That might have lit a fire under the CDF; +Cummings’ delicate phrasing makes it sound like Kiesle and the boys were swimming in the nude near the Golden Gate Bridge. Nor did any of the other supporting documents fully illustrate the nature of Kiesle’s crime.

Contrast this with the full disclosure Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee offered the CDF over a decade later. Outside the initial delay in response (eight months versus four years), once the CDF finally responded, they were fully cooperative in the effort to remove Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy from the clerical state. Once the difficulties of trying crimes more than twenty years old, especially one involving the silence of the confessional, became clear, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone suggested other ways of quickly and effectively removing Murphy from the priesthood.

At some point—please God—it will become apparent even to such notoriously sloppy thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who are plotting to have the Pope arrested during his forthcoming visit to England, that none of the charges laid against him to date are backed with the kind of evidence that merits a true bill. In fact, as John L. Allen pointed out in a recent NCR post, once the CDL did take over cases of sexual molestation in 2001 the cardinal pursued justice with vigor and … well, as much dispatch as the Vatican is capable of. He even tried unsuccessfully to get JPII to ditch Fr. Marcial Maciel, the Legion of Christ founder who was accused of financial maladministration, sexual misconduct and drug abuse.

Nevertheless, even when we discount the attempts to portray Pope Benedict’s actions as aiding and abetting predator priests, we’re still left with the frustration of a Church structure that acts with less alacrity than the average government bureau. The fluidity of the structure leaves no clear lines of accountability; and the constant tension between the apostolic authority of the local bishop and the oversight responsibility of the Holy See works against full communication, even in the age of cell phones and e-mail. The Vatican simply can’t exercise that kind of supervision, nor does it have the resources to build the necessary bureaucracy.

Moreover, explaining with tired patience the problems unique to the Church hierarchy will do nothing to stop the concretizing of the meta-narrative now being shaped by the MSM: “Pope protected child molesters”. Indeed, all such attempts to defend B16’s lack of culpability are dismissed as evidence of “Pope worship”, of “whiny groupthink.” It ought to tell us something that, to create this meta-narrative, the MSM has to dig at least twenty years into the past and distort the meaning of the relevant documents beyond recognition. However, the hysteria surrounding the allegations reminds us that the wounds of 2002 aren’t healed, and that there are plenty of anti-Catholics willing to rip the scabs off whenever they get a chance.

Does the Church really need to be structured this way? Granting that we still need apostolic successors to guard, maintain and promote the True Faith, do they have to be the ones to be responsible for day-to-day operations? For I’m afraid that Fr. Lombardi is wrong: the Church is a multinational business, even though its product—salvation—can’t be sold in stores or bought direct from the Manufacturer.

There’s gotta be a better way to run this railroad.


[*] Contrary to the common perception that the Catholic Church is “rich”, many of its physical assets aren’t easily liquidated (what’s the going rate for a second-hand basilica?), and the funds realized would not contribute to its ongoing mission for very long. Once you sell all the priceless artwork and the artifacts made of precious metals, the Church would be much poorer culturally, but not much better able to pay its bills.