Francis X Rocca & John P Wauck. Church, Communication, and Culture. Volume 3, Issue 1, 2018.
The Top-Ten Vatican Stories
John P. Wauck: I know this may seem to be a somewhat simplistic question, but, if you had to come up with a ‘top-ten list’ of Vatican-related stories in the last year, in 2017, what would they be?
Francis X. Rocca: Well, these are always tough calls. And it bears noting that, for the mainstream secular press, what counts as news, even in the field of religion, are stories that involve change, and usually elements of tension and controversy. So that’s a different optic than the one many Catholics might use to look at events in the Church. But if I had to pick 10, in reverse order, starting from 10 and going to one, I would say:
- The pope’s visit to Egypt in April.
- The pope’s visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh in November and December.
- The departure from the Vatican of Cardinal Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, in late June, after being charged in Australia with child sex abuse.
- The recall from the U.S. of a Vatican diplomat suspected of violating child pornography laws.
- Pope Francis’ meeting with President Trump at the Vatican in May.
- The article by Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, two friends of the pope, in the Vatican-vetted journal La Civilità Cattolica, on the so-called ‘ecumenism of hate’ between Catholics and ‘evangelical fundamentalists,’ as they call them, in the United States, which created a big stir.
- The pope’s decision to replace Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the very of end of his first term, which is unusual, since Müller is still young for a cardinal, and to remove him without giving him another job.
- The very critical letter to Pope Francis from Fr. Thomas Weinandy, an American theologian.
- The pope’s suggestion that the Catechism of the Catholic Church needs to be changed to strengthen the language against the death penalty.
- The pope’s decision to give national bishops’ conference more authority over translations of the Mass.
The Challenges of Papal Trips
JPW: Thanks, Frank, that’s a fascinating list and there’s an awful lot to unpack there. I’m curious about the final two stories on your top-ten list: the papal trips. First, what was so significant about the trip to Myanmar in November? What did it reveal to us?
FXR: The pope was in a very tough position. He has made himself, without question, the foremost advocate for the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in one part of Myanmar. The United Nations and the United States have said that the Myanmar military’s policy toward these people there is ‘ethnic cleansing.’ They’re really trying to kick them out of the country. And, in fact, we know that terrible things have been happening: systematic rape and the burning of villages. It’s atrocious. And the pope has a long record of speaking very publicly about this, and he’s certainly their foremost advocate in terms of stature. There’s no question. There’s no one comparable. And he has been very frank about it. So, he was associated with their cause.
The Holy See and Myanmar established relations for the first time this year, and a few months later they announced the trip, just after the new outbreak of violence, which continued and continues now and was ongoing when the pope visited. So, it was inevitable this story would dominate the trip. You put together the fact that there was a full-blown humanitarian and geo-political crisis, because it involved neighboring Bangladesh, where the pope went on the same trip, and the fact that the pope had already spoken out about it so much, and it was clear that the pope would be expected to speak about this.
But the authorities in Myanmar really didn’t want him to do that. And his own hierarchy there didn’t want him to do that either, because they didn’t want to antagonize the military, and they didn’t want to weaken the civilian government, which they are supportive of, and the democratization process. And they didn’t want to provoke militant nationalist Buddhist sentiment against Christians. So, for all those reasons, in an unusual move which was guaranteed to get attention, Cardinal Bo, the first cardinal from Myanmar and the leader of the Church there, went around talking to the press a lot, saying the pope should not talk about this issue. Now, he clearly did that with the blessing of the pope, because… well, even Vatican Radio reported it.
So, I think, the pope and his diplomats understood that he wasn’t going to be able to do that there, so they needed to make it clear that there was this demand from the local church and that was the reason why. And, in fact, when he went, he didn’t address it explicitly in Myanmar, and then he did address it explicitly in neighboring Bangladesh. And that was the story, frankly, for the secular press: will he say it, when will he say it, how will he say it?
JPW: It was a good lesson, then, in the complexities of papal diplomacy and moral suasion, and how the two things have to be handled and balanced?
FXR: Yeah. It looks as though they handled it as effectively as they possibly could. He was obviously going to get some criticism, and he did get some criticism, from human rights activists, from NGOs. They said there would have a been a great value for him to have spoken out there, when he was speaking to the leadership of Myanmar. They were disappointed he didn’t do that. But he obviously made a calculation that the costs would have been too high – in a cost-benefit analysis—for his cause.
JPW: And, at the same time, the pope’s presence and even the will-he-or-won’t-he question dominated the news coverage and, in fact, put the Rohingya on the front page of newspapers around the world for several days, which they wouldn’t have been had the pope not been there. So, in that sense it was very successful.
FXR: That’s right. Our paper, just to take one example, ran six articles that week on the pope’s trip. We ran an article every day. And, basically, all but one was about the Rohingya issue—from one angle or another. So, if you want to give exposure to the issue, he did it. He drew attention to it.
JPW: And he was able to pull off something that not many world leaders can do: visiting both Myanmar and Bangladesh in the same trip and speaking with the leaders of both countries in a relatively open way. Certainly, in Bangladesh… and, even in Myanmar, where, without using the word ‘Rohingya’, he was fairly clear.
FXR: He used coded language in Myanmar, but, as you say, his very presence and the whole controversy swirling around the issue and the fact that he’s the champion of the Rohingya meant that, if that was his goal, then he was successful.
It wasn’t a feel-good trip—first, because there aren’t that many Christians there, and very few Catholics. It’s a small church, and he went to minister to them. And all that was overshadowed by this controversy. To that extent, I’m sure it was frustrating for him. On the other hand, there’s no question that we all know a lot more about the Rohingya now than we did before.
JPW: Finally, why was Pope Francis’s trip to Egypt important?
FXR: Well, this ties in with the Myanmar trip. One of the things about him being a champion of the Rohingya is that two big priorities for him have been, first, championing refugees—like the Rohingya—and, second, outreach to Islam. That’s really been a big priority for him. He’s visited 11 countries with Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations. He’s taken great pains to deny any connection between Islam as such, the religion, and the violence that terrorists commit in the name of Islam. He says that it’s not inspired by the religion; it’s something else. Which is not exactly the line that his predecessor took. So, when he went to Egypt to speak at Al-Azhar university, which had broken ties with Pope Benedict and re-established its dialogue with Pope Francis, the question was: is he going to confront them in some way with the need to repudiate violence in the name of religion, because many people say that Muslim leaders haven’t done enough or need to do more, to say ‘You can’t justify terrorism in the name of Islam.’ And is the pope going to tell them that? Is the pope going to say that? It’s clearly something he believes.
And he did. What was remarkable was that the reception that he received was friendly. The remarks by the grand imam there didn’t exactly match his own, but certainly there was no complaint. There was no bad press. There was no irritation. He came. He made his statement. He didn’t criticize Muslims. But he gave a forceful call to do this… on their turf. And it was well received. So, you could argue—people did argue—that it was vindicating his approach, his approach of saying ‘I am your friend. I speak up for Muslim minorities.’ That’s what he did in Myanmar and, when he went to Lesbos, Greece, in 2016, to a refugee center there, and he came back with some Syrian refugees, they were all Muslim. That certainly sent a signal – a controversial one in some quarters among Middle Eastern Christians. But he’s really taken pains to say to the Muslim world, ‘I am your friend.’ Maybe he used some of that capital to send a message that was a strong message that, coming from someone else, might have been seen as hostile, but was received well. So, I’d say that it was a successful trip on an important theme.
JPW: Let’s turn now to the most important story, the pope’s decision to give national bishops’ conferences authority over the translation of liturgical texts. The question that comes to mind is: why is that so important? It could seem to many people to be a somewhat technical, even bureaucratic issue. What are the issues at stake in that story?
FXR: Well, for the lives of ordinary Catholics, this is something that does affect people every Sunday—and more often, if they go to church more frequently than that—because of course the liturgy is where they encounter the Church in the most explicit way, and this change allows for significant variation in the way that people understand worship in the Church.
JPW: In other words, as the Latin expression goes, lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule for prayer is the rule for belief?
FXR: That’s right. It’s often said that Francis is not as concerned about liturgy as some of his predecessors, and that’s said to be a characteristic of Jesuits generally. It’s said that, with regard to the liturgy, they just want to ‘get it done.’ He’s not like Pope Benedict, who is a great expert on the liturgy and wrote about it. This is not Pope Francis’ ‘thing.’ Nevertheless, he clearly understands how important it is.
You saw recently that he set off a big controversy that lasted a few days, which is a long time in the current media environment, when he suggested that maybe we’re saying the Lord’s Prayer in the wrong way. This change in the rules about translations gives different bishops’ conferences the opportunity to go in different directions, using language that could have different implications, for instance, for Catholics’ understanding of salvation or the relationship between Persons of the Trinity. So… big topics.
JPW: What about the structural significance of this decision, in terms of the decentralization of authority, taking authority away from Rome and giving it to national bishops’ conferences?
FXR: We can see it also as a signal of an even longer-term project. The pope wrote in Evangelii gaudium, his first major document, that he wanted to give more authority to national bishops’ conferences even on points of doctrine, which was certainly not the idea under John Paul and Benedict, who said that authority lay either with all the bishops together with the pope, or with an individual bishop in his own diocese. National bishops’ conferences were merely technical structures to facilitate the work of the local churches—they didn’t have doctrinal authority.
But this pope said we need to reconsider that. He has said that he wants the Synod of Bishops to be more significant, and he did of course call two synods which drew a lot of attention, the synods on the family. But ironically, Evangelii gaudium, which was supposed to be a post-synodal exhortation, hardly referred to the synod on which it was supposed to be based, the last synod held under Benedict. And at the synods that Francis himself did call, he really made it clear in many ways where he wanted them to go, and forcefully voiced his disappointment when they didn’t do that. So, in terms of giving more authority to the bishops out there in the field, this legislation on liturgical translations has been his most substantive, significant movement in that direction, and if we take him at his word he’s going to keep doing that.
JPW: And this would have ramifications, as you say, beyond simply liturgical praxis because of this principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, which implies that how we pray is how we believe. Something that might seem to be merely technical or practical could have serious theological, doctrinal implications?
FXR: I should add that, at those two synods on the family, the most controversial issue that was discussed was the question of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. The pope has encouraged a more lenient approach to that than his predecessors. He has in effect given the authority on that to local bishops’ conferences or groups of bishops.
For instance, in Argentina, the bishops around Buenos Aires came up with guidelines on when you can give Communion to people in that situation—guidelines that are at variance with those of bishops in other parts of the world—and the pope has approved those guidelines in Buenos Aires, but he hasn’t said anything about the bishops who disagree. In effect, he’s encouraging this kind of diversity even on a significant and controversial issue.
An Innovative Pope
JPW: Turning to the pope’s statements about the death penalty, haven’t other popes in recent years been speaking out against the death penalty, sometimes quite strongly, and didn’t John Paul II even change the Catechism at one point regarding the issue of the death penalty? Why is what Pope Francis said particularly new or important?
FXR: It was under John Paul that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was first published, and then he himself, after he published an encyclical that touched on the death penalty among other issues, tweaked, let’s say, the language in the Catechism to make it even less permissive toward the death penalty, although not entirely forbidding it. Now Francis has essentially said that it needs to be changed yet again to say, regarding capital punishment, absolutely not.
So why is that a big deal? I think that, like so many things that Francis does and says, in isolation you can say it’s nothing remarkable, it’s nothing untraditional, but you have to see it in context. He made that statement at a conference that was marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism, a big celebration, but he didn’t give much attention to praising this project of John Paul’s, which took years to produce and was a major part of John Paul’s legacy. Pope Francis focused instead on a defect, something that he felt was lacking. So, the effect of that was to say that it’s a work in progress and raised the question for me, and I suspect for others, that maybe there are other things he wants to change.
JPW: Hasn’t the pope’s response, when some people have called into question his orthodoxy, been something to the effect of ‘I am a son of the Church and believe what the Catechism says’?
FXR: That’s true, and what remains the single most famous statement of his pontificate—‘Who am I to judge?’—was part of some remarks he made about gay Catholics, specifically gay priests, and in those remarks—it was in an answer to a question – he cited the Catechism. He said that the Catechism says there must be no unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. So, the pope is certainly not discarding the Catechism. But to make the context a bit wider, this is just one of a series of statements that, while not individually unprecedented, give the impression that this Pope is underscoring the mutable nature of a lot of teaching.
JPW: What might that mean in practice?
FXR: That the Catechism is imperfect, the Catechism is a work in progress. Or that we’re saying the Our Father the wrong way, or now I’m going to suggest some new Beatitudes that are more relevant to our age—without of course replacing the words of Jesus—Beatitudes that say blessed are people who care for the environment or who promote ecumenism. He added two works of mercy about care for the environment.
Now, of course, Pope John Paul added mysteries of the Rosary, and Pope Benedict changed the prayer for the Jews in the traditional liturgy. These are all things a pope can do. But the cumulative message of such changes, by a very innovative pope, is not to underscore continuity and consistency, but to say that things are more fluid than you might think.
JPW: We know that, in the United States, the death penalty is legal and supported by many Americans, including many American Catholics. Do you see a conflict on the horizon here between the pope and part of the Catholic world?
FXR: The position of popes for a while now, whenever they speak up about the death penalty, specifically in the United States, has always been to intervene to plead for clemency for somebody on death row, and the bishops in the United States are overwhelmingly against it, so I don’t know how much this will heighten tensions. Will some Catholics change their views because the pope has underscored this? Perhaps.
JPW: Is this a case of the development of doctrine?
FXR: That would be a fascinating question to have him elaborate on. The pope can change the Catechism with a stroke of a pen if he wants. But the Catechism was prepared in a very elaborate way by a lot of people, with a lot of theologians spending a lot of time, so if a revision along these lines were done in a systematic way then you would imagine that we would hear an elaboration and explanation, a rationale for this change that would have references to Scripture and to the tradition of the Church.
JPW: Outlining the process of the development?
FXR: There would be some kind of an explanation.
JPW: Yes, it’s not as if prior generations simply hadn’t heard of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ They were always aware of that prohibition, and they always thought—for two millennia – that the death penalty was permissible.
FXR: And even this Pope is not a total pacifist. When we asked him on one of the trips, I think it was in 2014, if the use of force would be justified to stop an unjust aggressor, which in that case was ISIS, he said yes, though he added that he thought it should be a multilateral force and not any one power, because that could be used as an excuse for a country to impose its power.
Now, there are people who want the Church to revise its teaching about a Just War. They want to say that the Just War theory has been abused, so the Church should not be teaching about the conditions under which it is licit to wage war, that it’s a bad idea because it encourages war. But the pope would seem to be not convinced of that, because he does say that there are conditions, however narrow, under which it is licit. But if the Catechism can be changed on the death penalty, then why not about war?
Challenging the Pope
JPW: The Franciscan Friar Thomas Weinandy wrote a letter to the pope taking him to task for the way he was exercising the ministry of Peter. You’ve made that the third most important story of the year. Given that others have already expressed concerns about the pope’s teaching or lack thereof, why is the Weinandy letter a particularly important one?
FXR: Because of his stature and because of how explicit he was. It’s true that four cardinals, two of whom are still alive, posed critical questions publicly to the pope, known technically as dubia, in late 2016. Cardinal Burke, who is one of the four, has said that if the pope does not respond to those questions, he thinks they will have to publicly correct him on these points of doctrine, related to the aforementioned teaching on Communion for the divorced-and-remarried. That would be a big deal because nothing like it seems to have happened since the 14th century. It would be remarkable for cardinals to do that, but they haven’t done it yet. What they have done is somewhat short of that, and in any case, it didn’t happen in 2017.
There have been petitions by Catholics who were distressed by the pope, and there was the so-called filial correction, but none of the people who signed that have quite the standing of Fr. Weinandy, who, when he sent this letter, was a consultant to the U.S. bishops and formerly their head advisor on doctrine, and is a member, appointed by Pope Francis, of the International Theological Commission. So, Francis obviously thinks he’s an authority on theology and so did the bishops. Now the bishops asked him to step down after he published this letter, but he’s still on the Theological Commission as far as we know.
He was very blunt. He warned the pope that he risked sinning against the Holy Spirit, which is as serious a sin as you can commit. Jesus says it’s unforgiveable. Fr. Weinandy said the pope purposely uses ambiguity and that he’s scandalized people. And he practically claimed to be speaking for a lot of bishops who he said didn’t dare speak for themselves. He said many bishops around the world are silent because they’re afraid but in private they express great misgivings. We know that Fr. Weinandy is held in high esteem by many U.S. bishops and is close to some of them. How many exactly is he speaking for? Who knows? But he’s not an eccentric crank, a fringe figure, but very much part of the establishment, in the Vatican and the United States. So, for him to do this is remarkable.
JPW: Was his letter unique in that it focused more on the pope’s exercise of his ministry than on doctrinal questions? It didn’t delve into doctrinal issues in the way the other petitions or letters addressed to the pope did, some of them in highly technical theological language. Weinandy’s letter is actually more of a moral correction; it’s about the pope’s behavior as Pope. Is that unique?
FXR: I guess it is. It’s a rebuke in accessible language. If you read the dubia, you have to know something about the language of moral theology. This is written for the most part in ordinary language, not specialized terms. It’s a rebuke to the pope’s leadership, which is quite remarkable, and I think people were quite shocked by it—that he would send it and that he would then publish it.
JPW: Shocked because of who he is, right? It wasn’t expected from him.
FXR: And so far, very few people of anything like that stature have said anything publicly.
JPW: And his subsequent dismissal from the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops, what kind of message does that send? Is that a confirmation of what Weinandy says in the letter, about bishops being afraid of the pope? Some people saw Cardinal DiNardo’s dismissal as being harsh. Others saw it as being too lenient; they thought the language with which he dismissed Weinandy should have been more condemnatory.
FXR: Anybody who’s had to deal with bishops and the Church knows that deference to hierarchy is an important value, so I assumed that it was unsustainable for Fr. Weinandy to have a formal role with the bishops’ conference after sending that letter publicly, which I assume he knew. It would have been taken by many as an endorsement of what he was saying to leave him in that role. Again, it’s interesting that I haven’t heard that he’s been dismissed from the International Theological Commission. So, the pope himself doesn’t seem to have taken any action.
JPW: Have many bishops in the U.S. been aggressively criticizing Weinandy?
FXR: No, and I thought Cardinal DiNardo’s statement was mild. He said it’s okay to have differences of opinion, but he said we ought to give the pope the benefit of the doubt. He just was saying, you’ve been uncharitable. And also, he said the pope is our boss. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that the boss is wrong.
JPW: Another doctrine-related story is the fourth in your list, which is the removal of Cardinal Müller as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There have been stories about how the consultative role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been minimal in recent times, so does it matter who the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is?
FXR: Pope Francis kept Cardinal Müller on, whom Pope Benedict had appointed very late in his pontificate.
JPW: Many people were surprised how long Müller lasted.
FXR: Right, but as you suggested, he in effect pulled the plug on the Congregation in its doctrinal capacity. In the whole pontificate of Francis, the Congregation has published two documents, one in conjunction with another dicastery, neither of which got much attention or really had much of an impact. Whereas we remember in the heyday of Cardinal Ratzinger under John Paul, and even afterwards, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was publishing important documents on important issues which were taken to be magisterial statements of the Holy See. And it was famous, and in some sectors notorious, for disciplining and correcting and investigating theologians. Anecdotally, we understand that that’s not happening anymore. Theologians who had been under investigation before say they haven’t heard from the Congregation. The disciplinary function of the Congregation with regard to sex abuse does continue, with some difficulties, but in the doctrinal section there is not much going on. So, does it matter? Symbolically, Cardinal Müller had been seen as a figure of continuity with Benedict and had spoken out increasingly at variance or in tension with some of the statements and actions of Pope Francis. He suggested he had sympathy for the cardinals who had written the dubia. He complained publicly, even before he was replaced, about some of the pope’s personnel decisions within his dicastery. The pope had said he wanted him to get rid of certain people there, and he objected publicly. He also complained about the way he himself was fired. He’s said that it was only at the very end of his five-year term that the pope said, I’m not renewing you, which is extraordinary given his age, because he was just short of 70, which for a cardinal is the prime of life.
JPW: Does he have a new job now?
FXR: We can all infer that the way to win over the pope is not to go out and complain publicly about the way he runs the Vatican.
Pope Francis and the U.S.
JPW: The fifth story was the article written by the Jesuit priest Father Antonio Spadaro and the Protestant minister Marcelo Figueroa, both of them, as you say, friends of the pope. Why was their article so noteworthy, and what exactly was the point of that article? What purpose did it serve?
FXR: The article got a lot of attention first of all because of who wrote it, Father Spadaro especially. He is always with the pope on his trips and on many other occasions, and he’s interviewed the pope on more than one occasion for publication. We know he’s close to the pope, and so inevitably he’s taken as a kind of surrogate for the pope. When he speaks, people say he must be speaking, if not directly for the pope, then in any case what he’s saying can’t be at odds with the pope. Mr. Figueroa is less well known but is also a friend of the pope, and the pope did the extraordinary thing of naming him as the head of an edition of the Vatican newspaper even though he’s not a Catholic, he’s a Presbyterian pastor. For the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, which didn’t exist before. So, obviously he’s someone whom the pope also esteems very highly. Moreover, the article was published in an organ which is regularly vetted, its contents are approved, by the Vatican. So, put it all together and you have what everyone would assume reflects, if not the pope’s view, then a view that must be acceptable to the pope. That caught people’s attention, especially since it was so incendiary.
JPW: Fr. Spadaro’s fellow Jesuit, Thomas Reese, writing in the liberal National Catholic Reporter and expressing sympathy with the article’s goal, called it ‘a full-throated attack’ that ‘boggles the mind’ and deserves to be characterized as ‘extraordinary, unique, unprecedented.’
FXR: If it had been on some very technical question, then you might have said, well maybe the pope doesn’t have an opinion on that. But surely the pope could not be neutral on an article that, first, criticizes by name the president of the United States and, at that time, one of his top advisors who happens to be Catholic, Steve Bannon, but also assails collaboration between Catholics and what the authors call ‘evangelical fundamentalists,’ conservative Protestants, in the United States, on issues including abortion and same-sex marriage and other cultural issues, what we think of as ‘culture war’ issues.
JPW: The article received a good deal of criticism, right?
FXR: A number of people, including Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, criticized what they said were the inaccuracies of the article. The critics were not only from the right, though, and included Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen.
JPW: I recall that Fr. Reese quibbled with certain specific points and suggested more generally that the authors didn’t fully understand the phenomenon they were describing and that they would ‘have to go to the small towns of the Midwest’ to understand better the people they were attacking. And Fr. Christiansen’s response, which you mentioned, appeared in another Jesuit magazine, America, which he used to edit. He said that ‘Catholic-evangelical relations in the United States… are richer and more nuanced than the fearsome conspiracies Civiltà described.’
FXR: And the former bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, Bishop William Murphy wrote a very long rebuttal, also in America. The term in the article that really set people off was the ‘ecumenism of hate,’ which said essentially that conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants in the political arena are united by their hatred for Muslims, for foreigners, and equated at one point this movement with Islamist terrorism.
So, this was really strong language and there was no retraction or qualification from the Vatican. It wasn’t as if the Vatican spokesman came out and said, this controversial article doesn’t reflect the personal views of Pope Francis. We didn’t hear anything like that. Which has a lot of implications for the Vatican’s view of the Church in the United States and the priorities it’s had over the last years.
JPW: It wasn’t walked back at all?
FXR: It wasn’t walked back. And although the article didn’t mention the U.S. bishops, a lot of people saw it as criticism of their agenda, which is certainly not in contradiction to the pope’s, but it doesn’t perfectly match it.
Their priorities are still reminiscent of the previous pontificate on some of these so-called culture war issues. We saw that in November, when the bishops chose Archbishop Naumann to head their prolife committee, preferring him over Cardinal Cupich, the pope’s major episcopal appointment in the U.S. so far, who wanted the pro-life agenda to encompass social justice issues, whereas Archbishop Naumann favors a continued focus on abortion. The La Civiltà Cattolica article was an implicit indictment of that. It was an indictment, certainly, of conservative Protestants, very severe. It didn’t claim to be an exhaustive survey of conservative Christianity in the United States, but the implication was that the Prosperity Gospel and certain very strident conservative Catholic media figures are dominant, that they really set the tone.
JPW: My big question about that article is this: what were the authors trying to achieve?
FXR: The timing was a few weeks after the meeting between President Trump and Pope Francis in the Vatican, which was, by all accounts, a surprisingly friendly meeting, so it may have been meant to make it very clear, among other things, that the pope is no fan of what’s going on in the United States right now…
JPW: … that Trump is still in the doghouse?
FXR: It was clearly gratifying to people—Catholics and others—who are very distressed about this administration in the United States right now and for whom the pope is the antithesis of all that, the pre-eminent anti-Trump figure. The pope is today, as I wrote, the leader of the global left. Of course, you can’t reduce him to that. But there’s no figure comparable as an inspiration and as a kind of rallying point for people who perceive what’s happening in the United States as a destructive thing. On the other hand, it was unrealistic to expect that the pope would be rebuking Trump or criticizing him when he came to visit him at the Vatican. That didn’t happen, and there may have been a desire to counter-balance that and send a signal from the Vatican that we really don’t like what’s going on there.
Of course, as our friend John Allen [editor of Crux, specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church] likes to say, you can go overboard by attributing too much intentionality to things that happen in the Vatican. Sometimes they just happen. But remember that La Civiltà Cattolica is vetted by the Secretariat of State, which among its other responsibilities, handles diplomacy for the Holy See. So, the fact that they didn’t say, ‘Hey, you need to change that; be more diplomatic,’ means that, at a very high level, people were willing to let that message go out.
JPW: Speaking of that meeting with Trump. It’s number six on your top-ten list. Who got more out of that meeting? Here you have a very high-level meeting, between two of the best-known figures in the world. Did one of them benefit more than the other? Was it different from other meetings that the pope has had with other heads of state?
FXR: I think Trump couldn’t have had a better meeting… except if the pope had smiled more. And, as we know, sometimes he does smile more, but it’s very easy to find pictures of the pope looking kind of grumpy with leaders. Where the pope lights up is when he’s meeting children, when he’s meeting elderly people, sick people, crowds of pilgrims. That’s when you see the pope in a cheery mood. When he’s in these stately occasions, in these kinds of circumstances, this is not his favorite milieu. And we know that.
JPW: So, we shouldn’t put too much stock in whether or not he smiles.
FXR: He could have smiled a little more. It’s easier to find photos of him smiling with President Obama. On the other hand, a few days after meeting Trump, he met with Justin Trudeau of Canada, who is certainly, for many people, another anti-Trump figure, who represents a lot of things that are contrary to what the Trump administration is doing, and, in those photos, the pope is frowning too. Of course, the Church has its own issues with the government in Canada.
Visuals are hugely important, because most people don’t read the fine print. The Vatican did, for example, on its own, circulate photos of the US president and the first lady visiting the Sistine Chapel and, even more importantly, of the first lady visiting the children in the Vatican’s children’s hospital, which a lot of people found to be very affecting and very appealing images. Which the Vatican put out.
And the Vatican communiqué stressed the issues where the Vatican and the Church in the United Sates are in harmony with the Trump administration, which was remarkable. Even very high-level US bishops didn’t expect that. It stressed the life issues—basically, abortion—and religious liberty, which are issues where the Trump administration had promised to give the bishops what they want. And it didn’t mention the environment, very surprisingly, because that is a real point of tension, because at that very moment, Trump was contemplating leaving the Paris agreement—and did, in fact, do that—and the pope was making very clear that he didn’t want him to do that. But they left that out of the communiqué. The pope didn’t talk about it with him in the private meeting. We know that from the account of people who have talked with pope. It was brought up later with the secretary of state.
So, they’d had words, through the media, and there was no desire on the part of the pope or the Vatican to perpetuate that image of antagonism.
JPW: In other words, the reason the pope’s meeting with Trump was a major story was because it was surprisingly positive, given previous tensions—the tit-for-tat, so to speak—between the pope and Trump?
FXR: Yeah, I think so. People who were paying attention were not surprised that it was going to be relatively cordial, civil, but I think it was even warmer than that. In an official way, I mean.
JPW: Next up on the top ten lists… that Vatican diplomat in the nunciature in Washington DC suspected of child pornography crimes.
FXR: Yes, a case which, as we speak, at the end of the year, has faded from view, because we haven’t heard anything new. The Vatican did acknowledge it publicly in an official statement. There are a number of interesting aspects here—not least of which is the fact that we’re not hearing anything about it. What happened was—I don’t want to recapitulate the whole thing—that the law enforcement authorities in the United States went to the Vatican embassy in Washington and said that an official there has, we think, violated laws against child pornography. We don’t know if he was consuming or producing—or both—but, in any case, violating the laws. And so, the Vatican used its privileges of diplomatic immunity and recalled that official back to the Vatican.
But a couple of things happened. One is that the US bishops made it very clear both in their public statement and, even more so, in private statements, that they wished they had been consulted. And even that they would have liked him to be handed over to the authorities, assuming that the evidence was strong enough to have him tried there. They would have preferred that. Now, they didn’t explicitly say that, but we know, privately, that there was that feeling. And they made it very clear that they wished they had been consulted.
Now the Vatican said that there would be an investigation here in Rome. But we haven’t heard anything more. Certainly, the whole sex abuse question remains a concern for people all over the world, especially in the United States. If the Vatican tries this person, in a trial which the press is allowed to attend, as is done in other cases, that would draw a lot of attention and perhaps be a very strong statement of transparency and action on these questions. If we don’t hear anything about it for a long time, it might be taken very differently. It might send a very different message.
JPW: It seems that the big story here is how difficult it is to find out exactly where we stand with these cases. Somewhat related to this opacity is the resignation of Marie Collins from the papal panel on the sexual abuse of children and the subsequent contrasting declarations about her communications with the pope. Isn’t it unusual for her to walk off the job without having raised the issues that concerned her with the pope?
FXR: Yeah, this panel for child protection which Pope Francis instituted in 2014 and put under the leadership of Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, who’s always been very involved in this issue, is an advisory panel. Not all of its advice has been taken. It suggested that there be a special tribunal for trying bishops who mishandle cases—not those who have committed abuse themselves, but who failed to discipline or who covered up for clergy. Now, one of the features that drew a lot of attention to the panel was that there were survivors on the panel, Marie Collins and Peter Saunders. But Marie Collins resigned. And now, just the other day, this week, Peter Saunders has also resigned. He’d already been forced to take a leave of absence. But now he has formally resigned.
JPW: So, they’re both gone?
FXR: Yes, they’re both gone.
JPW: Does that send a signal?
FXR: Saunders was more vocal from the beginning. Marie Collins was a little bit more diplomatic. From the very first press conference, he criticized the pope—I’m pretty sure it was at the very first press conference—in the spring of 2014, for the pope’s remarks on spanking. He’d recently said that you can spank kids on the rear end but don’t hit them on the face. Which is not very PC. By the way, you could put together quite a collection of the pope’s politically incorrect sayings. He has a lot of them. But, anyway, Saunders was criticizing him right from the beginning.
JPW: There were accusations, from the very start, that the commission was window-dressing. Didn’t some people say that its very existence was a response to pressure and that the only reason it was created was to allow the Vatican to say that it was doing something?
FXR: We have to assume that Cardinal O’Malley took it very seriously, because he’s very concerned with that problem. He’s dealt with that in his career as bishop—even before he went to Boston. Certainly, in Boston, he had a terrible legacy to deal with. The commission has raised awareness of the issue, but hasn’t had much of an impact within the Vatican itself.
We know that the commission has had things that it wants the pope to do, but most of the members haven’t wanted to be seen as publicly lobbying the pope. Marie Collins and Peter Saunders, who are activists in this area, who have a personal stake in it and personal experience, were the ones who lost patience first.
Whither Financial Reform
JPW: Continuing with stories related, in some sense, to sexual abuse… Cardinal Pell, the head of the secretariat for the economy, has left the Vatican to go back to face charges in Australia. This year also saw the departure of Libero Milone, the Vatican’s auditor general, and the firing of Giulio Mattietti, deputy director of the IOR [Vatican Bank], both under mysterious circumstances. What does this all mean in terms of the economic reform project? Are we, in fact, now back to square one? And has anyone been named to replace Pell?
FXR: A lot of this is murky. No, the pope has not yet replaced Cardinal Pell as prefect of the secretariat for the economy, but presumably that’s because Cardinal Pell hasn’t reached retirement age and it’s not yet official that his case will be going to trial. That hasn’t been decided.
JPW: Is he still the prefect?
FXR: He is. He’s still the prefect. But he’s not here. He has a leave of absence. If the pope were to have replaced him immediately, it would have been like saying, ‘Well, I’m just writing him off.’ Whereas, the pope has said that he wants the legal process to run its course. It’s very easy to imagine that, if it becomes clear that the cardinal is going to be facing a long trial in Australia, given his age and length of time that it would take, at that point, one can imagine that he would resign and the pope would accept that resignation. And that would be understandable. But at the moment it’s still possible that the authorities in Australia will decide not to proceed with a trial, and so Cardinal Pell could come back – soon. I don’t think that observers in Australia think that’s likely, but it could happen.
But in any case, even before the cardinal left, the pope had already scaled back his powers—after giving him, either explicitly or implicitly, sweeping powers at the beginning to oversee the economic dimension of the Holy See, in a way that made him a kind of parallel figure to the secretary of state. He even presented himself that way. He said that the secretary of state takes precedence, but he’s the chancellor of the exchequer, to use the British analogy.
JPW: In American terms—or pseudo-Russian terms—the economic ‘czar’?
FXR: Right. And then, over the course of more than a year, that changed, and the pope, in a series of steps, scaled back that power and gave back power and authority, in some cases, to the entities and people who had it before. So that had already happened. I think the cardinal’s departure was not the turning point. If financial reform is stopped, then…
JPW: It was already stopping?
FXR: Maybe. The cardinal was a controversial figure. Some people say that this was a distraction and that now things are proceeding in a quieter way. But, it’s true that, from the point of view of an ordinary Catholic who’s curious about what’s going on in the Vatican, there isn’t more transparency. The Vatican used to—for years—publish financial statements every year for the Holy See and the Vatican City State and have a press conference and release excerpts from that, and send all the bishops of the world the financial statements. And they haven’t done that for several years. And so, at the moment, there’s even less transparency. It is said that they are going to start doing that again, in some form, next year.
JPW: There seems to be some kind of a curse on the economic reform project—even from the time of Pope Benedict, with the dismissal of Ettore Gotti-Tedeschi, and then with Paolo Cipriani, who was dismissed under Pope Francis in 2013.
FXR: Recently, we saw the trial of some officials involved in the Vatican children’s hospital for allegedly misappropriating funds that belonged to the children’s hospital to renovate the apartment of Cardinal Bertone, the former secretary of state. Obviously, people who have been powerful or remain powerful could be embarrassed, at the very least, or have their interests threatened when there’s too much change in this area. The amounts of money are not huge by the standards of corporate America or the financial industry, but they’re still significant. And so, you’re bound to make enemies whatever you do—whether what you do is competent or incompetent. It’s a very delicate area.
So, we’ll have to see. People say these things take time, and I’m sure they do. A lot of this is very technical. A lot of it is not very sexy. A lot of it requires patient and rather boring work.
It still could be that we’ll see more transparency, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for what many people in the United States would want or expect. Many people want the kind of transparency you would expect of a non-profit organization, like a charitable foundation or a museum, where you give money and you get an annual report where you’re told what is being done with the money. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen at the Vatican. I think the attitude there is ‘We are a sovereign state, and we have good reasons, in some cases, for confidentiality.’ I think that’s the attitude. You can dispute that, but I don’t think that it’s going to change. It’s not going to become like an NGO.
The ‘Non-Stories’ of 2017
JPW: We’ve come to the conclusion of the list of the top ten stories of 2017. I wanted to ask one final question. What would you say has been the biggest ‘non-story’ of the year? I have a few stories in mind that might be contenders.
The first one is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which seems to have come and gone without much attention, though the pope’s own trip to Sweden, in 2016, was probably one of the major stories related to that anniversary.
Another contender is the pope’s ongoing ‘non-trip’ to Argentina.
And the last one is the somewhat surprising story about the pope and his Jewish psychiatrist which appeared in a book-length interview with the pope published in French, where he spoke about seeing a psychoanalyst for six months in the late 1970 s. Perhaps, in another day and age, that would have been a huge story, and yet today it seemed not to draw that much attention.
FXR: Yeah, that’s right. It was briefly of interest. It was the main thing from that book-length interview that got attention. But, perhaps it’s because now so many people are used to being in therapy of one kind or another or know people who have been and are more open about that. There’s no longer a taboo about ‘seeing a shrink’. There’s a therapeutic culture now in the West… certainly in Argentina. A lot of us quipped when we first heard about it, that it would have been strange for an Argentinian not to have gone to a psychoanalyst, because it’s very common there. And we’re already so used to Pope Francis breaking so many papal conventions—flouting protocol, riding in small cars, wearing black shoes, carrying his own briefcase. By now, we’re used to him seeming like a normal person. Perhaps that made it less remarkable.
As for Argentina, it is odd that the pope will have gone—after January, by the time this is published—to every major country in South America except for Argentina, Venezuela, and Uruguay. He’s expected in Central America in 2019, so, really, he will have covered Latin America, with the conspicuous exceptions of Venezuela, which is problematic for obvious reasons—you can’t really take a trip to Venezuela right now—and Argentina. And, of course, Uruguay is next door, so presumably if he ever goes to Argentina, he’ll pay a visit to Uruguay. That’s strange. It’s his own country. Pope John Paul went nine times to Poland. Benedict went three times to Germany.
JPW: The pope said—this was back in early 2015, prior to the election of President Macri in Argentina, on the plane flight back from the Philippines—that, in principle, he wanted to go to Argentina, along with Chile and Uruguay, in 2016. But it hasn’t happened—not in 2016, and not 2017. What’s holding things up?
FXR: I wish I knew the answer or had a theory about that. This is a pope who made a point of getting his Argentine passport renewed, even though he’s a head of state and doesn’t need a passport, with an ID photo of him wearing his skullcap. Just to show his Argentine patriotism. Or at least that was the implication. So, it’s very odd.
And as for the Reformation story, as you say, the pope did go to Sweden, which was already unusual; it’s a country with hardly any Catholics. But he went in 2016 to mark the beginning of the memorial year—not this year, at the culmination of the historical observance. Remarkably, the Vatican did issue a stamp honouring Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.
JPW: I guess I was wondering less about the Vatican—which has, so to speak, done its part, even in an unexpected way—than about the press in general not paying much attention to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, as a general religious story. It just wasn’t that big a deal. In fact, judging from the press coverage, the Vatican almost seems to have paid more attention to it than some Protestant countries.
FXR: How many Protestants today get excited thinking about Martin Luther? So many of them belong to various different traditions, communities and churches that trace their origins more immediately to other people. Is Martin Luther a figure that many Protestant Christians—outside the ranks of historians—think a lot about or identify with?
JPW: People do think, though, of the Protestant Reformation as being about more than just Luther, right? At least, the general impression one has is that, when we think about the Protestant Reformation, we date it by Luther’s 99 Theses and all that, but it’s seen as loosely including what are, as you say, quite disparate personalities and theological views—Calvin, Knox, even Henry VIII, who persecuted Lutherans!
FXR: It would be interesting to go back a hundred years to 1917, and see how this was perceived then.
There was this narrative, as you know, at least in the Protestant or English-speaking world—I don’t think this is fashionable anymore—in which the Reformation is seen as the forerunner of the Enlightenment and, therefore, of democracy and, well… the United States! There was a state legislature in the US that created a resolution that was much mocked, basically commemorating the Reformation saying it was the reason we enjoy freedom and human rights today. It was a rather anti-Catholic statement.
But that’s not fashionable anymore. In the universities now that would be seen as a complacent, Whiggish point of view. We have lived in an iconoclastic culture for a long time, and Luther is not an icon. And also, he was anti-semitic.
JPW: He’d be quite politically incorrect now.
FXR: So, it might be problematic to lionize him like that.
JPW: Except on Vatican stamps!
FXR: Oh, I want to say a word about a story we haven’t mentioned, which is the pope’s trip to Fatima, Portugal, in May, to canonize two of the shepherd children who experienced visions of the Virgin Mary there. It’s not a story that qualifies as news in the ways that I mentioned at the start. Now, it’s true, the whole topic of Marian apparitions does arouse curiosity… and controversy, when it comes to Medjugorje, the town in Herzegovina where some claim the Virgin Mary has been appearing since 1981. And there is a portion of the Catholic Church that still heatedly discusses the third secret of Fatima. But the pope’s canonization Mass itself, you would have thought that it would be of interest purely to devotees. And yet our readers at the Wall Street Journal showed a lot of interest in it. I was actually surprised how much. Wall Street would seem to be pretty far from Fatima. And yet the Catholic Church and religion in general really exert a powerful appeal, even in the most worldly milieus. A good thing for religion journalists!