God’s CEO on Earth
Mar 08 2013
The man who leads the world’s largest Church must be a spiritual guide for millions and the manager of a dysfunctional bureaucracy at the Vatican
Now he has broken six centuries of tradition and resigned, the Catholic Church is asking whether in an era of democracy, the papacy modelled on Renaissance-era monarchy is suffering the same fate. There have been sexual abuse scandals, disputes with Muslims and Jews, suspected money-laundering at the Vatican Bank and communications gaffes. Stacks of private files stolen by Benedict’s own butler have documented corruption and in-fighting among senior officials.
Benedict hands on a 2,000-year-old institution whose reputation is tarnished, whose teaching is challenged by an increasingly secular world and whose priests struggle to minister to its growing population. The man who leads the world’s largest church must be a spiritual guide for millions, an inspiration for the oppressed and the manager of a squabbling, dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy. “No sane man seeks the burden of the papacy,” says George Weigel, a prominent Catholic theologian in Washington DC. “It is by definition impossible, because it asks a man to take up a burden of leadership that no human being can possibly attract by his own powers.”
The challenge for the cardinals due to enter the conclave next week is to seize the chance to face up to the problems and identify reforms that help the next pope address them. Thomas Reese author of Inside the Vatican, puts it simply: “What they are looking for is Jesus Christ with an MBA.”
What went wrong
To get to the root of the Church’s problems, some look back before Benedict’s papacy to 1978, when, after a turbulent period, Pope John Paul mounted the throne of St Peter to reassert orthodox Catholic doctrine and Vatican authority. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger was doctrinal watchdog for a vigorous papacy, which stifled discussion on questions such as the role of women in the Church or issues concerning human sexuality. That problem will be highlighted by one man’s absence from the conclave.
Benedict dealt with sexual abuse cases in the final years of John Paul’s papacy, and when he became Pope, he started out boldly. He ordered Rev Marcial Maciel, founder of the strict Legionaries of Christ order and a favourite of his predecessor, to retire to a monastery in penance for his secret life as father of several children, sexual abuser of seminarians and drug user. He apologised for the scandals and made private meetings with abuse victims a regular part of his visits abroad.
But the dirt kept surfacing. Four official reports into clerical child abuse in Ireland in as many years exposed details of priestly sin, and how the hierarchy covered it up. One clearly said the Vatican was complicit, leading to a once-unthinkable rebuke by prime minister Enda Kenny. Dublin’s embassy to the Holy See was closed in late 2011 and relations remain strained.
Between December 2009 and April 2010, three Irish bishops resigned and apologised for mishandling abuse cases in their dioceses. Also in 2010, a German bishop quit and apologised for physically abusing children. Such “zero tolerance” did not always apply to bishops who protected the predators in their dioceses. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles stayed in office for years despite accusations — later proven true — that he shielded molesting clerics from the police. He has admitted to making “mistakes” and said he had been naïve about the impact of abuse.
“We long for the day when Church officials announce that this cardinal or this bishop is being demoted because...Church officials want to clean things up,” said David Clohessy, head of the survivors network of those abused by priests. No centralised figures exist to gauge the impact of this abuse on Church revenues, but in the US, a study in 2006 by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) in Washington showed Catholics became less generous towards their dioceses after 2002, the year the scandals broke.
Poverty haunts many Latin American congregations, too, but the Church’s main challenges there are the deep inroads made by evangelical and Pentecostal churches into what was once a Catholic bastion. These Protestant churches offer livelier services, practical help for the poor and an upbeat message more attuned to the continent’s growing economies than the sacrifice that Catholics are taught to endure. The numbers quitting the Catholic Church have been dramatic. In Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, just over 65 per cent of the population is Catholic now, a steep drop from the 92 per cent recorded in 1970. Much of this change has come with the migration of rural workers to big cities and the drift shows up among US Latino communities as well.
A clerical cliff
There is also an increasingly urgent shortage of priests, particularly in western countries; so many are near or beyond retirement age that the Church faces a ‘clerical cliff’ there. Catholicism is centred on sacraments, especially the eucharist at Mass, that only ordained men can administer. Without priests, local churches or parishes cannot operate.
The ranks of the clergy in Europe and North America began to thin out in the late 1960s as discontented priests left and fewer men entered priesthood. Those who stayed are dying off and new vocations are not sufficient to replace them.
Curing the Curia
Inside the Vatican, the new pope will have to face up to the Curia, a centuries-old bureaucracy dominated by Italian clerics, which can make or break a papacy because it can block or delay papal projects.
Most cardinals outlining their priorities for the future put “governance” or “reform of the Curia” high on their list, saying other reforms can flow from that. The “Vatileaks” scandal last year showed corruption and in-fighting at high levels, and the Curia is not known for efficiency in its ranks. Weigel, the US theologian, has named a series of reforms a determined pope could make, including introducing a 40-hour work week, turning the staff from an Italian fiefdom to a truly international team, and creating an executive staff for the pontiff.
“The Curia is still deeply influenced by Italianate work habits and that’s problematic,” he said. “If you look at the rest of this society, it doesn’t happen to be functioning very well.”