Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Double Header

The phone rang at the Lisbona home in San Lorenzo, Argentina.  Introducing himself as Father Bergoglio, the caller asked to speak with Jaqui regarding the letter she had written him.  As reported in the Washington Post, she took the phone and had a ten-minute conversation with the priest known to most of us as Pope Francis.  The Vatican confirmed the conversation took place.  Communion was being withheld from this devout couple because Mr. Lisbona had previously been married; the Church doesn’t condone divorce. Jaqui had hoped Francis might intervene on their behalf.  As important as this is to them and other Catholics, that’s not what caught my attention.

What struck me was how unimaginable a similar call to some German town by a man introducing himself as Father Ratzinger.  Both men were elevated by their peers to the papacy, but they could not be more stylistically different.  The now retired Benedict approached the throne of St. Peter as a monarch.  He quickly took up residence in the opulent papal palace, donned the royal red shoes and was bedecked in an elaborately embroidered stole and ermine trimmed velvet cape.  Francis opted for a Vatican guesthouse and refused those red slippers.  Ermine trimming just doesn’t work for a man who prefers the ride of a five year old Ford Focus over a posh limo; a man who makes pastoral phone calls to an ordinary parishioner in Argentina.

I use the word “stylistically” purposefully because with just one year in one can’t make definitive judgments about Francis.  His call and shunning of opulence notwithstanding, there is no reason to assume that this pope will part doctrinally from his immediate predecessors.  Nonetheless, it’s clear that he understands the grand gesture and its
Saint Peter, by Rubens (Wikipedia)
newsworthiness.  Francis’ grandest gesture thus far was the unprecedented concurrent canonization of two predecessor popes, John XXIII and John Paul II: a very dramatic double header.  Many early popes, starting with Peter, achieved sainthood.  But only five others have been canonized in the last thousand years.  While the elevation of these two men was certainly not unexpected, doing it in this way has led to wide ranging speculation.  Was it meant to make a statement?  Was it aimed at bridging right and left?

That right/left question is of course what seems to have gotten the most attention.  John XXIII, in many ways an unlikely and surprise pope — he was considered elderly and it took eleven ballots to select him — is seen as the great reformer.  His views, which some characterize as liberal, were codified in Vatican II.  John Paul II, at heart and in action more of a traditionalist, has been seen as having spent much of his papacy pulling back from those reforms.  Regardless, the Church like many other institutions religious and not, seems at times to be internally torn apart by the conflicting “sides”  — reformers vs. traditionalists.  By canonizing both John and John Paul together, Francis is seen as seeking to bridge the gap, the conciliator if you will.  And as to dramatic gestures, being joined by the Pope Emeritus only adds to the symbolism.  Benedict, a pope in the spirit of John Paul; Francis, a reincarnation of the modest “good pope” John.  Interesting, but again not what caught my attention.

As noted in earlier posts, we — Catholics and not — are endlessly fascinated by the goings on in Rome.  The church, with its splendor, pageantry and machinations is the stuff of novels.  Most of all, it is a highly charged political animal.  Perhaps that’s inevitable when an organization is structured with tiers of power all leading to the potential of ascending to a throne of infallibility and absolute power.  For sure, most of its clergy are not ambitious climbers, but there is an implied — and for some real — race for higher ground.  We are fascinated, not because we are attracted to or even interested in the Catholic faith, but because in a profound sense the church as a political phenomenon is so much like us.  It reflects the human drama that commands our daily attention whether in the halls of government or in the corporations that dominate our economy.

There has been relatively little controversy about John XXIII’s sainthood.  The same cannot be said for John Paul II.  In a long reign, which he had, the narrative can change.  In his early years the first Polish pope was seen almost as a rock star with a frenetic road show that attracted huge crowds across the globe.  But in his rule, John Paul was ideologically conservative on issues like contraception, abortion and the role of women.  But these views were not what caused some to question his canonization.  Rather it was the sex abuse scandal — both predator priests and institutional cover-up — that came to light under his watch and his lack of response.

The stunning breadth of abuse cases and worse the Church’s cover-up outraged many of us, but clearly none more than those (including journalists) who had been brought up Catholic.  Maureen Dowd is among them; one who still attends church from time to time.  Dowd’s NY Times columns often strike a seemingly frivolous note, but when addressing this subject she is consistently serious, resolute and, yes, angry.  This was the case on April 23 when she addressed the impending elevation of John Paul.  Here is some of what she wrote:

John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways.  But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint.   One of John Paul’s great shames was giving Vatican sanctuary to Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, a horrendous enabler of child abuse who resigned in disgrace in 2002 as archbishop of Boston. Another unforgivable breach was the pope’s stubborn defense of the dastardly Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pedophile, womanizer, embezzler and drug addict.  The world has seen many saints, some of them canonized by the Catholic Church, but John Paul II was not one of them.  It is wonderful that John Paul told other societies, Communist and capitalist, to repent.  But his tragedy is that he never corrected the failings of his own society, over which he ruled absolutely.

Tough criticism.  The Church defends John Paul.  It was reported that his former spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told journalists “that the ‘purity of his thought’ had made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse children”.  Dowd doesn’t buy such an argument, nor do I.  You won’t find a volume Being Pope for Dummies at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.  It takes a sharp and focused mind to climb the ladder to the papacy and, as Dowd might put it, John Paul “wasn’t no dummy”.  At this point, we may just remember the frail old man with severe Parkinson’s, but John Paul took over at a vigorous 58 years old.  He was an activist and nothing missed his attention.  So one can only conclude that his and the church leadership’s decision to avert their eyes was calculated.  Cover-ups are always that way, even if the perpetrators are deceiving themselves.

Putting this in a broader context, and the last and most important thing that caught my attention, comes toward the end of Maureen Dowd’s piece.  “The church”, she says, “is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here.”  I said earlier that what intrigues us about the Roman Church is that it mirrors the larger society — political entities and corporations.  Is there any greater link than the “buck…doesn’t stop here”We have been through some terrible times of late and perhaps worst among them is that the buck doesn’t seem to stop anywhere, least of all at the top.  John Paul II hasn’t had to take responsibility or to pay for perhaps his greatest management failure.  Sound familiar?  None of those who had the power and could have made a difference — politicians, regulators, and corporate executives — have had to pay for what was done to all of us either.  Like the late pope, they have just cashed in at a saintly sum. 

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