The Irish Prime Minister gave a very apt description of the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church when he described it as “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican”. Ambition and ruthlessness are two words that should be on that list as well.
It’s no small secret within the Roman Catholic Church that the only ones who ascend to the lofty heights are those with ambition. Very few men aspire to work within the mediaeval feudal culture of the Vatican where ecclesiastical obedience and deference are the order of the day. In every sense of the word, it is Catholic Corporate Central – from the parents who push to have their sons join the Sistine Choir through to the Monsignor who knows that if he bides his time and stays out of trouble for another few years, he too might get the Archbishop’s ring that will make him part of the real elite. He becomes “Your Grace”. Church royalty. Even the Swiss Guard recognizes the owners of those rings as being the real movers and shakers within Città del Vaticano.
If the men in control at the Vatican are ambitious types who want to move up the ladder, then it is highly unlikely they willingly will admit to error – whether in thought or action. That’s why, like a good civil service, they take so long to do anything. And, like a good civil service, they will quote chapter and verse at you as to why change is neither permitted nor encouraged. Unlike a civil service, they can use Scripture and tradition as the dual foundations of their argument.
So, the stage is set. If you want to move up to and within Catholic Corporate Central, then you follow the party line. This means for example that those responsible for seminary formation, who aspire to higher ranks within the Church, will do whatever it takes to impress those above them on the ladder. If Joseph Ratzinger thinks that Vatican II was a little too progressive, then you can be sure that seminarians are going to be taught what the Boss thinks. The seminary rector, whether Roman or Sulpician, with his mitre-in-waiting, does not want to upset the apple cart.
So while the “fellowship of persons” described by Yves Congar has evolved in the celebration of their faith, the young and younger new priests want to haul the liturgy back to Gregorian Chant and 16th century dirges. These young and younger new priests also want the faithful to know who’s in charge and it’s not the people who built the community church; instead, it’s the new priest just assigned by the bishop to be the spiritual leader.
I recall a few years ago having a 30-something priest-in-training (who was a convert from the Mormon Church) tell me that he could hardly wait to become my “spiritual father”. I barely made it to the Gravol in time!
Maturity is an issue. The four English seminaries in Canada still accept 18-year olds into priestly formation. These young men, directly out of high school, are enrolled in philosophy studies and placed within the same formation programs as others who have completed undergraduate degrees and in some cases, advanced degrees. In many cases, these teenagers are still searching for self-identity while expected to become mini-priests. As you might expect, many of them don’t last.
The real problem is that many diocesan Vocation Directors, the priests assigned by their bishops to find new priests, play a numbers game. The more warm bodies they push through the seminary door, the better they’re doing their job and the happier the bishop who can tell the pope that he has an increasing number of seminarians. Talk about an archimedean paradox.
There is no question but that there are good and holy priests who graduate from such a system but there are just as many, if not more, who are so convinced of their own superiority in all things that it is frightening. I have heard too many anecdotes over the years from pew-dwelling Roman Catholics like me, who say that the new priest tells them their expression of their spirituality is wrong. “Bind Us Together” is being replaced with “Dies Irae”.
This “father-is-right” attitude is not new – it’s been with us for generations. But just like the Irish Roman Catholic kneeling on the street to ask a blessing from the priest, the sense of blind obeisance meant that many things, including the sexual abuse of children, happened right under the noses of the parents and guardians of those children. Experts have written reams about it, but this blind obeisance, coupled with the psycho-social and psycho-sexual immaturity of the abusing clergy, nourished the depravity.
I remember the first time I heard the stories from the Newfoundland outports of how parents would allow the visiting priests to share a bed with their young sons, not knowing and/or not being willing to accept, that the priest might be sexually abusing their son while they slept in the next room. To be fair, the abusing priests were in the minority, but it has stained the priesthood to such an extent that never again the line “suffer the little children to come unto me” will be part of the priest’s presence in the community. I know good and holy priests who are afraid to touch a child.
The response of most bishops to allegations of sexual abuse on the part of their priests was simply to move the priest to another parish, another town, another province, whatever it took to sweep the problem under the ecclesial carpet. As we saw in the case of cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, pope Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) thought it best to simply move Law to Rome and made him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in a move that many thought was an attempt to save Law from further legal entanglements in Boston. Law himself was never accused of sexual abuse of children, but was considered to be a champion ecclesial carpet sweeper.
Another example of the Vatican’s role in the sexual abuse scandals was the case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican-born Roman Catholic priest who founded the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement. Reports speculate that Maciel maintained relationships with at least two women and fathered up to six children, two of whom he allegedly abused as well. He enjoyed what appeared to be unlimited support from pope Wojtyła, who observers suggest, had to have known about the rumours surrounding Maciel. Was it a case of no one would challenge the pope? Did the Vatican “culture” permit Maciel to achieve as much influence as he did?
Some have wondered aloud if the rush to move Karol Wojtyła into sainthood is an attempt by that same Vatican culture to stay one step ahead of investigations into the late pope’s approval of the Mexican priest.
In Part IV, some critical questions from the Cloyne Report in Ireland.
Your comments are welcome.