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Divisions in the Vatican

Divisions in the Vatican         Gerry OShea

On February 10th, 2013, Pope Benedict shocked the world with his announcement that he would step down from the papacy at the end of that month. He promised that his contribution to the church in retirement would be "a life dedicated to contemplation and prayer."

He chose rooms in the Vatican for his domicile and announced that his title would remain Pope followed by the descriptor emeritus. He continues to wear the pectoral cross and the white garments which are seen for centuries as part of the papal regalia, and he is comfortable being addressed as Your Holiness.

This rather haughty behavior raised hackles in many places with Diarmaid McCulloch, the renowned professor of Church history in Oxford, predicting ominously that "two popes is a recipe for schism."

Francis, true to his belief in a modest lifestyle, lives in Casta Santa Maria, a guesthouse for visiting clergy where he eats in a self-service cafeteria and gets his coffee from a coin-operated machine.

In February Francis called together in Rome the heads of all the national bishops' conferences and leaders of religious orders to deliberate on the awful abuse of children by ordained clergy. This gathering was strongly and appropriately criticized by progressive Catholics because very few women or lay people participated.

However, it was an unprecedented and serious effort, unmatched by any of Francis' predecessors, to come to terms with what is undoubtedly the biggest crisis in the Catholic church since the Reformation 500 years ago. The deliberations extended over four days, and  since its conclusion Francis has unveiled the first church law which mandates that all  allegations of sexual abuse must be reported to the top members of the local hierarchy.

A few months after the conclave ended Benedict published a long article in a conservative German magazine placing the blame for the sex abuse crisis on the liberal culture of the 1960's and certain changes in church thinking evident in the Second Vatican Council. He pointed his finger of rebuke at the anything-goes liberal sexual culture of those years for releasing the demons of pedophilia.

The former pontiff decries the move away from theology based on natural law and strict adherence to biblical rules in favor of a situational approach where what is right and wrong depends on the circumstances of each case. This moral  relativism, in his opinion, led to faulty moral reasoning and confusion, even in the Vatican.

The longstanding maxim of church governance recited - often in Latin - in every presbytery and seminary, Roma locuta est; causa finita est (Rome has spoken - end of discussion!) no longer carries weight because the two popes and their followers preach different sermons, one legalistic and highlighting sin and possible damnation, the other far more anchored on actual human dilemmas and focusing on mercy and compassion, especially in dealing with the poor.

In the area of sexual ethics which so often engage the celibate moralists in the Vatican, the liberal wing led by Francis advocate for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion while the traditionalists consider that approach an abandonment of a sacred biblical principle that precludes adulterers - their language - from participation in the Eucharist.

Conservatives blame the provenance of a gay lifestyle in seminaries as a major cause of the sex abuse crisis. 80% of the children abused are male so, they conclude, the abusers must belong to what they name disparagingly as the lavender mafia, active homosexuals in clerical robes. Blaming gays has a long  history among Catholics, but it is contradicted in this situation by most experts who argue convincingly that the clerical culture that approved excessive power for men wearing the Roman collar opened the door wide to all kinds of abuse, including sexual predation. In addition, they point out that young boys are more accessible than girls to corrupt priests and brothers.

The crisis predated the liberal sixties. In the 1950's Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, a priest from the Archdiocese of Boston, wrote to his superiors and met  Pope Pius X11 warning about the widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests. He admonished bishops that re-assigning known pedophiles in the hope that they were cured by therapy was a terrible mistake.

 Fitzgerald referred to these wayward clerics as repugnant vipers and paid a deposit for a remote island in the Caribbean where he wanted to consign all predatory priests. The bishops weren't ready for that isolationist approach sixty five years ago.

Benedict's 5500 word letter portraying the church as a victim in an unfair and hostile world is not a new perspective. The former pontiff would prefer a smaller church with members committed to the traditional teachings that go back centuries, crowned by the belief in papal infallibility passed at the First Vatican Council in 1870 at a time when strong and dominant leaders were greatly admired throughout Europe.

On the other hand, Francis' big tent philosophy sees the church at its best comforting the poor, welcoming the refugees and opening the door to waverers. He has proclaimed - no doubt with the southern American border in mind - that building walls to keep people out is unchristian.

There should be no problem with theologians presenting scholarly disquisitions that disagree with the prevailing wisdom in the Vatican. However, when a former pope sets down a detailed analysis, a parallel and contradictory story to the reigning pontiff's, on the biggest conundrum facing the church, we are looking at a truly scandalous situation. Which one of the popes should people believe?

Church rules regarding the behavior of a retired bishop in dealing with his successor are instructive and explicit: deference to the new appointee guided by a spirit of generous co-operation. It seems that Benedict doesn't believe that this mandated behavior for retiring bishops applies to popes.

Francis is under open attack from arch-conservative Catholics led by Cardinal Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, who was photographed wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with the message: Benedict is my pope. These hostile actions came to a head last summer while Francis was visiting Ireland. Archbishop Vigano, a former papal nuncio to Washington, issued a letter accusing the pope of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse and urging him to resign.

 These dissidents, who include Steve Bannon, stalwart promoter of anti-immigrant  balderdash, are shocked to see him kissing the feet of Muslims at a Vatican ritual, and they wince at his fierce critiques of modern capitalism, a system which often shows scant regard for workers' dignity.

Archbishop Ganswein, Benedict's right hand man and a very powerful Vatican functionary, asserted in 2016 that the two men are, in his words,  really part of the "one expanded papacy", one "active" and one "contemplative."Francis rejected the idea out of hand, but can anyone imagine a previous pope having to deal with such impudence from a senior prelate.

Natalie Imperatori-Lee, a professor of theology in Manhattan College in the Bronx, warns Benedict about his inappropriate behavior, telling him that he needs "to practice a ministry of silence. To continue to speak out is to flirt with schism. Let the pope be pope." Indeed!

Gerry OShea blogs at


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