Changing the church

“To live is to change,” wrote the 19th century English Cardinal John Henry Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Pope Benedict XVI will preside over Newman’s beatification — sainthood’s honorific antechamber — when he visits Britain in September, but between now and then he’s likely to hear growing demands for change in the governance of an ancient but scandal-ravaged institution

In a stunningly blunt editorial, for example, the current issue of the Jesuit magazine America argues that “direct efforts to correct and prevent abuse of minors are only the most obvious part of a larger healing needed in the church.... At all levels, right down to the parish, much of the church has proven deficient in its ability to listen and interact with adult believers. But at the center of the present crisis are found members of the Roman Curia.

“The Latin word curia means both administration, as in a government apparatus, and court, as in a company of hangers-on whose life revolves around flattery and the favor of a ruler. Pope Benedict made a good start on responding to the Irish scandals, but that promising beginning was upended by the misguided statements of others in the Vatican. For weeks we have witnessed the hard issues of sexual abuse being dodged while elderly and retired Curial officials, prodded by the press, made the red herring of Pope Benedict’s possible past mistakes the focus of their attention. Intelligent leadership was obscured by a black cloud of flattery. As it turned out, some of these same prelates stood at the very heart of the crisis, accepting payments from friends, like the disgraced Marcial Maciel, and offering high-level support to bishops for stonewalling civil authorities. What appeared to be vigorous emotional support for the pope turned out to be smokescreens for their own unconscionable actions. In those trying weeks, we witnessed the Vatican at its worst — as the last Renaissance court.”

The editorial goes on to make a variety of recommendations for overhaul of the curia, but the most striking feature of the analysis is that it marks the first recognition by an officially sanctioned church publication of revelations first reported by Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter: that money changed hands in the clerical abuse scandal and that the corruption extended directly into the late Pope John Paul II’s papal household.


Maciel, disgraced founder of a global religious order called the Legionaries of Christ, was a drug addict and pedophile who fathered several children by at least two different women. He also was a legendary fundraiser who bought immunity for decades by papering the curia with lavish gifts and envelopes of cash, ostensibly for charitable purposes; “opera carita” (charitable offerings) is the traditional term, though one Legionary described them to Berry as “elegant bribes.” Among the largest recipients were former Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, now dean of the College of Cardinals, and then-Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II’s Polish-born secretary and longtime confidant, now cardinal of Krakow.

One prelate who refused to play the game was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who — according to reports — pointedly refused to accept a cash-stuffed envelope after delivering a talk to a Legionary audience. As Pope Benedict, he forced Maciel into retirement and essentially put his organization into what amounts to papal receivership.

Still, in North America and Western Europe, the revelation that the Vatican’s malfeasant handling of the clerical abuse scandal involved bribery — elegant or otherwise — is likely to increase pressure for change, even among relatively conservative believers.

There was evidence of that in an interview given last week by the Viennese Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who attacked Sodano by name for dismissing recent media reports of clerical abuse as “petty gossip.” He pointedly recalled that the then-secretary of state personally prevented any investigation of his predecessor as primate of the Austrian church, who resigned in disgrace over allegations that he was a pedophile. Schonborn, the 65-year-old son of titled Bohemian aristocracy, is generally regarded as an ecclesiastical conservative and is considered by many a future papal candidate; he studied under Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg, and the two remain close. That makes it all the more remarkable that, in the interview, he also said that the church should “give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships” and reexamine its ban on remarriage by divorced Catholics. The church, he argued, needs to move toward a morality based on pursuit of virtue rather than avoidance of sin, and centered on happiness rather than duty.

Voices such as Schonborn’s come from the Catholic Church’s vital heart, and not its wounded or disenchanted fringes. They suggest that the paradox of Benedict’s pontificate may be that, while he assumed the Throne of Peter on the expectation that he would bring a restoration of tradition and curial efficiency, he can maintain the Holy See’s moral authority only through change — beginning with a curia that now appears not only dysfunctional but also open to corruption.