What do America and the Vatican want from each other?

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Pope Benedict elevates Timothy Dolan to cardinal. ()
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This week's resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has ignited the usual flurry of speculation. Why'd he do it? And who will be the next pope? What was Benedict's legacy?

With the conclave of cardinals that will elect the next pope not scheduled to meet until March 15, there's no shortage of chatter in Rome, and weeks of it still to come. How reliable any of it is is anyone's guess. It's probably worth noting that the media does not have a good track record predicting popes.

And as always, there is a story about every single country that has never had a pope but has a cardinal in the conclave. Will this be the year we get our first pope from Africa or South America? Or New York City?

For New Yorkers, the popular archbishop, Timothy Dolan, recently made a cardinal, who's also been highly vocal in U.S. policy disputes (especially health care and gay marriage) is a flashpoint. Most experts agree that he's a very long shot. But speculation season is all about having fun with the idea.

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For the U.S. media, this is also the season for a general assessment of the Catholic church in America. What is working and what isn't? What does the Vatican need to do to keep the church from continuing to lose its sheep?

Often, the church is depicted as alienating a large number of Americans who disagree with church teaching on issues like abortion and birth control, homosexuality and priestly celibacy, and the ordination of women. I wondered about that.

Part of the reason is that I've been a big reader of the Jesuit priest and social scientist Thomas Reese. The former editor of America magazine, the impressive national Catholic weekly magazine, fell out with the Vatican shortly after Pope Benedict's election, for editorial decisions he made in presenting the debates about women's ordination and priestly celibacy. He resigned. He's now a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

I was particularly interested in a lecture Reese had delivered way back in 1997 on what the church needed to do to prepare for the next millennium. Reese is also an expert on Vatican history and politics, and has written books about that. On the America website he also has compiled some of the most comprehensive information on how popes are elected, and what the church is facing around the world right now. You will never read a more detailed description of the ritual inside the Sistine Chapel that results in the white smoke than on that page.

I wanted to catch up with him to see how the church in the United States had changed since 1997; how the Vatican views the U.S. church and its current issues; and, of course, whether Dolan has any chance at all, and he kindly obliged.

Here's a transcript of our chat.

TOM MCGEVERAN: I guess to start at the beginning and with the easiest thing: there's a funny little game the media here plays with the prospect of an American pope or the possibility that that pope might be Cardinal Dolan. Even though every single article is very careful to say the odds are long, here's the cover of the Daily News: Dolan's on the short list! So why precisely are the odds long on an American?

THOMAS REESE: I think there's two reasons. Historically, the church has tried to keep the papacy out of the hands of whatever superpower is around, for example the Holy Roman Empire or France or Spain. In fact when a French pope was elected he carried the papacy off to Avignon and that was not a good thing. I think there is the fact that America is the superpower and so to have an American pope would be strange.

Then, since America is looked upon with suspicion in many parts of the third world, this would be problematic. A lot of people in the third world would think that the C.I.A. rigged the election or that Wall Street bought the election. And we don't need that kind of grief.

Clearly Cardinal Dolan has some of the qualities that people are looking for in a pope. He has the cheerful way of presenting the gospel, a joyful presentation of the gospel. He's obviously a happy person. And I think that there's been too much gloom and doom in the Catholic church and that kind of positive, joyful way of presenting the gospel message would be appreciated.

When you say people--what people do you mean? I can see why people that are interviewed on TV outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral would see that in Dolan, but they're not in the conclave. Is that something you think cardinals are talking about right now in the little period they have to have conversations about this before the conclave?

The cardinals are always concerned about the image of the church and how to preach the gospel in a way that's understandable and attractive to people in the 21st Century. Now we'll have arguments about how to do that, but that's the real challenge. So the cardinals will be looking at the candidates and asking, would this guy be a good pope? And by that they mean, does he agree with me on the vision of the church and what's important and does he hold the same values I do? That's the first thing they're looking for.

The second is, I think they're looking for someone who they get along with. They want one of their friends made pope. They want to have a relationship with him. They want to have somebody as pope who listens to them. That's important, those personal relationships.

Thirdly, they're gonna be looking for someone who will be well accepted in their home country. For example, for the American cardinal is the last thing they would want is somebody elected who doesn't understand the sex abuse crisis and says something dumb about it like it's not a crisis. If you're a cardinal from a country in Africa where there are lots of Muslims you don't want somebody that's gonna say something dumb about Islam, that would be very bad for your church and your people.

Picking up on your second point, Dolan's pretty new. Does he have that kind of network in Rome?

Remember Cardinal Dolan as a priest worked in Rome as Rector of the North American college so he already knew some of these folks--and knows Rome, and they know him so that's certainly possible.

Right. So then there's something else which is that a lot of what I'm reading seems to mirror the way we talk about fielding a candidate in American politics, that a candidate from this region can shore up the party's popularity somewhere it's weak or that there are problems in a certain region that it's important to pick a candidate who understands the problem and can fix it.

And one thing I've wondered over the last 20 years or so is whether the Vatican views the American church as a problem at all, a problem they need to fix?

(Laughs) Right. That's a good question!

I mean they complain every once in a while about the number of annulments American bishops give out, but they don't really do anything about it; they don't like some of the reforming movements, they must not like that American priests are not really in a position to pontificate from the altar about abortion or contraceptives.

But then it almost seems like they don't want to stir the pot too much. There's that directive to priests hearing confessions, from back in 1997, not to dig too deep into their congregation's sexual mores because their minds won't be brought around to think those things are wrong anyway, so best to leave them on a good standing with the church. A sort of "we don't ask, they don' tell," as you've described it before.

I think all of these issues would be of concern but honestly, when the Cardinals look at the United States, in comparison with Europe, we look like we are thriving. I mean the church is in such disarray in Europe, where they've had people leaving the church for generations. So this is more of a newer phenomenon in the United States.

When we--I guess my answer is yes and no on this. But then there are two different views of how to respond to this.

One view is, OK, crack down on all these dissident theologians and priests and nuns, and get out the message, and that's all that we need to do. And even if people don't accept, it, we're being true to the faith, and that's what we're supposed to be.

Another view would be to say hey, there's obviously something wrong here, let's see what we can do about it and is there a better way to present Christianity to the people of our time.

That's not the same set of approaches that the bishops of Europe would be deciding on or Africa or South America.

There are different situations in different parts of the world. In Africa, it's a growing Catholic population. It's mostly people who practice indigenous religions becoming Christians--you don't see any Muslims in Africa becoming Christian. In Latin America, we see a large number of Catholics becoming Evangelical. I mean more people have left the church in Latin America in this past generation than left the church during the Reformation in Europe. So this is a big issue, and for instance the Latin American bishops are not very ecumenical in their attitude toward Evangelicals; they see them as people that are stealing their sheep. So this is a very serious issue for them. And then throughout the world you've got hunger, you've got huge unemployment issues, poverty, corruption in government, so all of these issues are in play also, whereas in Europe and the "first world" we're talking about issues that they just do not comprehend. I mean we are talking about gay marriage and women priests.

It seems to me that at the beginning you were talking about what attitude the Vatican takes really toward bishops--because they'd be the ones made to crack down on their congregations. But what you say about Europe versus the U.S. is interesting. It almost sounds like a lot of the very same issues that are causing Europeans to disidentify with the Church and stop attending mass on Sundays, in the United States people maintain their identity and keep going and complain with varying degrees of loudness.

Well I mean we do have a problem here in the United States. I mean one out of three people raised Catholic in the United States is leaving the church now. Pew Forum has some wonderful data on this. We've had an influx of hispanics that have kept our overall numbers up. The number of baptisms has gone down though, significantly, and this could have a long-term effect on the percentage of Catholics in the United States. So we've got some serious issues that need attention.

Do you think the Cardinals understand those issues and are motivated by them?

Some of them don't want to know, don't want to hear bad news. Others, I mean they'd have to be blind to miss it. They simply might have another vision about how to respond to it, like two parents disagreeing about how to handle a teenage child.

That does seem like an apt metaphor for the American church.

Right! Do you crack down or do you give them more freedom?

It's mostly been freedom, right? With some admonitions. What you described in 1997 was a self-serve church, a do-it-yourself church, a don't ask, don't tell church, that is most of Catholic parish life in America. Do you still see that today, 25 years later?

I think--I think if anything the problems have gotten worse because people are actually leaving now, young people.

But I mentioned that one out of three Catholics are leaving the church; that's a huge population, it's 10 percent of the population. If they all got together, they'd be the third largest denomination in the United States after Catholics and Baptists. So, this is huge, and this is something we were not as aware of in 1997.

We knew people weren't going to mass as much, but now we have people saying, yeah I was raised Catholic but I am not a Catholic anymore. This is not just people who aren't going to mass anymore. This is people who no longer call themselves Catholic. So that is a significant issue that we have to figure out how to respond to.

How much of that has to do with the Church's positions on social issues that those young people care about?

People leave for different reasons. Of the third who leave, half, about half, become Protestants; and half become unaffiliated, or unchurched.

The ones who become Protestants, two thirds of them become Evangelical. They're not looking for a more liberal church!

I think they're going to the Evangelicals because the Catholics are boring. Our worship services are boring, the preaching is boring, the music is boring. The No. 1 reason the Catholics who leave and become Protestants give for leaving the church is their spiritual needs are not being met in the church. That outranks all of the theological, all of the other issues. And the very high ranking thing that they like is the worship service of their new church. So the church is failing in its two biggest jobs: spiritual nourishment and putting on a decent, good worship service on Sundays.

With highly educated people, friends of people like you, some of these other issues are coming into play and are impacting it. Part of the problem is we think people leave the church for the reasons our friends leave the church. And there are a lot more people out there. I'm struck by the people who leave for Evangelical churches.

And then the ones who become unchurched, they are the ones that have the highest percentage who object on some of these social issues. They're not becoming atheists. Many of them are saying I'm spiritual, I'm just not religious. So you've got a lot of variety there, and not one response fits all the people who are leaving.

Right. And in fact, what helps with some might hurt with others. I think I didn't know what to expect from Benedict but within weeks of his election, Catholic institutions in the U.S. were getting audited for their unorthodoxy.

Yes, that was right around the time I lost my job!

Right, but it didn't seem to continue very vigorously did it?

Yes and no. It did continue. They push for a while, if they start getting headlines they hold back for a while, and then push for now. I mean now they're going after the nuns, the LCWR [Ed. note: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is presently under investigation by the Holy See for alleged "radical feminism" that runs counter to church doctrine]. So it never really stopped. It's just sometimes it goes underground for a while but then it pops up again.

But then another element of Benedict's papacy was this liturgy stuff, which you pointed to as a key reason the church is losing people even when they don't object to the church's conservative views. And we're supposed to have this better translation of the Latin in the mass as a result of Benedict's changes ...

... Which is a terrible translation ...

... I don't know but it's inelegant English ...

... It's very hard to say out loud, to proclaim, so people can hear it. It's not for being heard; they're more concerned about following the Latin style and vocabulary which doesn't work in modern-day English communication.

But there are some segments that are more moved by a fully Latin mass but I'm betting most of the young people leaving the church aren't them.

The percentage of people who want the Latin mass is very, very, very small. Having the liturgy in the vernacular was widely supported by the laity in the church. It could have been done more smoothly but once people got used to it they liked it very much.

Right. So but Benedict has been big for the liturgy, and from what you are saying, precisely in a way that does not address the liturgy problem in the U.S.

And one thing we've been reading is that it's unlikely that the conclave will intentionally bring in somebody who breaks with the precedents set by John Paul II and Benedict. So if the liturgy is a big deal for us in America, what can we expect?

Well look, as you know, Benedict appointed more than half of the college of Cardinals and the rest were appointed by John Paul. So we're not gonna see something radically different. He'll have a different personality, a different style, just as John Paul was different from Benedict.

On the liturgy, that's an interesting question. You know, I think that the odds are we're gonna have a pope who isn't gonna micromanage the translation of liturgical texts. I think this was something that was peculiarly of interest to Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict. Now, you don't know. But it's not a dogmatic issue, it's a pastoral judgment and a style question. And I think that's something that could clearly change.

And I think there's a number of bishops that really did not like the way this was forced down their throats by the Vatican. But you never know.

And of course it depends whether the person's first language is English or something else, how important they take this.

Wait, why is that?

Well if your first language is English and you've been using these Eucharistic prayers, you've got a very strong opinion about whether they're good or bad. I t's not a theoretical issue it's a pastoral issue.

But some of the other languages there've been these fights too, but for example, most of the Romance languages followed the Latin pretty closely from the start. For example, the French have been using "and with your spirit" from the very beginning. [Editor's note: Benedict changed the text of the response to "May the Lord Be with you," from "And also with you," to "And with your spirit."]

On the other hand there was a big fight in Italy over the line in the consecration, "for you and for all," which is now "for you and the many" or however that's supposed to be translated. There were some Italian bishops that did not like that at all. They did not want to change that.

I guess I'm left after reading your writing with the question not how much it matters, but how different the church in the United States really feels when the Pope changes actually?

Well we are a very hierarchical organization. Clearly John mattered, and Pius mattered, in very different ways. Those popes that we've seen have definitely impacted the church. There was more continuity between John Paul and Benedict.

But one question at the conclave is do they want to elect another intellectual. The last two popes have been intellectuals, academics, scholars, people who took their role as teacher very seriously. That isn't absolutely necessary for the pope. We've had popes that have been diplomats, trained in the secretary of state at the vatican. Someone who was more into negotiations and dialogue and consensus building. A lot has been said about reforming the Vatican curia. Well, intellectuals are not very good at reforming bureaucracies as we clearly have seen. We've been talking about this for decades. Maybe they need somebody who's a good manager as pope. So these are some of the things they may discuss when they get together.

That reminds me actually, one thing I am not sure I understand when people talk informally about there being a "short list." How do the names come up in the first place? If I am sitting in the conclave, about to write a name on the first ballot in the first vote, I mean, where is the name drawn from? Are there nominees somewhere? Can I write down anyone?

There have been informal conversations going on among the cardinals even before the Pope made this announcement. Certainly the phone lines are burning up now with people asking, who do you think would be a good pope? Who are you looking at?

That's probably where the gossip and speculation is coming from.

Yes. And there will be people who will be calling around promoting their friend as pope. So there's a lot of lobbying and politicking going on in the back rooms over dinner and that sort of thing. And we have two weeks til the end of February, and then 15 more days before the conclave starts. So there's gonna be a lot of discussion going on in the curia. And as people arrive from around the world, they're gonna be part of that conversation. So I think by the time they get into the conclave they're gonna have a pretty good idea of who are the top three, four, five candidates.

Is that the number of names that tend to turn out in they first ballot? I always wonder if it isn't 20 names that show up in the first ballot.

There used to be a tradition where everyone voted for--the French used to all vote for their senior cardinal in the first ballot, just to make a point. And other people would vote for their mentor, it's kinda nice you got at least one vote during the conclave, it's a kind of courtesy. But then the second vote everybody gets serious.

Now, there are other people who don't do it that way. They just simply on the very first ballot, they vote for whoever they think would be the best pope. Which is of course what they have to swear to do anyway!

So maybe Dolan's name will sneak on to one or two ballots after all! Thanks very much Fr. Reese.

Sure!

Editor's note: This interview has been very lightly edited for readability.