Today’s First and Second Readings:
“For those who’ve seen the place in better days, the Vatican looks deeply troubled. In the absence of strong leadership, internal tensions seem to be bursting into view. Even at the height of his powers, the pope took scant interest in governance. As he ages and becomes more limited, a sense of drift is mounting — a conviction that hard choices must await a new day, and probably a new pontiff.” (John Allen noting in a 24 February NCR aticle that the observation first made in 2004 is especially apt today.)
” ‘No one puts new wine into old wineskins,’ warns the gospel. ‘Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins.’ The ‘new wine’ that came forth from the Second Vatican Council – the rediscovery of episcopal collegiality and shared governance between the Pope and the bishops, the aware- ness of the Church being a communio of all the baptised, the full participation of the laity in the liturgy and the mission of the Church – risks being lost because the post-conciliar Church has not been able to provide ‘new wineskins’ or new structures to sustain such a kind of Church. The skins have not yet burst, but there are signs of them springing leaks, which the men in Rome are struggling to plug.” (Robert Mickens reporting in The Tablet on 25 February)
As Robert Mickens from TheTablet, John Allen from NCR, and others have observed the institutional tectonic plates beneath the Vatican are shifting in a major historic way. Some observers speak of meltdown or an institutional implosion with tremendous international aftershocks….
Massimo Franco, Italian political writer for Corriere della Sera, has a new book which analyzes it all: C’era Una Volta Un Vaticano —- Once Upon a Time, There was a Vatican.
Franco, some may recall, wrote another best seller 2005 that analyzed relations between the Holy See and the United States. (Perhaps, after the 2012 US presidential elections, he can on a sequel on relations between the USCCB and the White House.) Anyway, back to the Vatican.
C’era Una Volta Un Vaticano sketches a kind of fin du régime life and spiit at the Vatican. (My sense too watching the recent consistory: everyone wrapped up in fancy party dress but not much of a party spirit.) Franco quotes Holy See diplomats who see themselves like the very last ambassadors to the Republic of Venice just before it collapsed in 1797.
Franco sees the Vatican meltdowns of the last five years as symptoms of a much deeper crisis. There are, John Allen observes, “signs of the end of an epoch, in which the Vatican represented the religious and moral sentiments of Western civilization, and the dawn of a new era in which Catholicism has become a minority subculture. Neither the Vatican nor the hierarchy more generally has figured out how to respond to this new world.”
I think my friend Robert Mickens says it best of all: “What no senior Vatican official seems willing to admit or able to grasp is that there may be something more serious going on. Certainly, there have been other moments of governing crises and lapses in the last few decades – and each time they were overcome. Each time also, as calls arose for change, the Pope would state that true church reform could only come about by ‘spiritual renewal’ and ‘internal conversion’….While Popes Paul VI and John Paul II made modest ‘reforms’ to the Roman Curia, they failed to address the lingering and deeper crisis. Quite simply, the crisis is this: the structures of the Catholic Church are no longer adequate for life in the modern world or responsive to the developments of the Church’s own ecclesiology and self-understanding.”
An implosion and a seismic shift for sure. On both sides of the Atlantic. And it is still rumbling deeply. When the air clears, perhaps we will see these days as days of grace when our institutional leaders rediscovered the church as a community of faith.