"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two peeks that obscure

Consider this AP story, dated yesterday, about the opening of the Apostolic Penitentiary to public view. I've long been amused by that official title of the oldest, and one of the most secretive, of Vatican departments; to this American, it conjures images of aging clerical heretics and pederasts unable to escape from an ill-guarded prison. I suppose the ApoPen was overdue for some sort of corrective publicity; but I'm afraid that, given its stated purpose, this peek will be self-defeating. And I'm afraid the same goes for the widely anticipated report from the Congregation for Catholic Education on the state of American seminaries.

The stated purpose of the first peek was "to explain what the Apostolic Penitentiary actually does, and thereby encourage more of the faithful to go to confession, said Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, the tribunal's No. 2 official." The ApoPen's main work is to deal with sins whose absolution, if sought, must ordinarily come from the pope—which, according to the story, include defiling the Eucharist, breaking the seal of the confessional, or offering absolution in exchange for sex. A fourth type of case considered by the ApoPen is that of men who, having once formally cooperated in abortion, seek ordination.

Having inquired about this, I find that such a man can get ordained if he no longer has financial obligations to born progeny. A related irony surrounding the recruitment and deployment of priests is the one described by this story about foreign (mostly African and Asian) priests brought into the US. Apparently a man can have bad English, a rudimentary theological education, and no familiarity with American culture, but still serve as a priest in an American parish, so long as he doesn't have really serious baggage such as a wife and/or minor children. This while thousands of Roman Catholic American laymen with great theological educations, pastoral talent, and a keen desire to give their lives to the Church (leaving aside, of course, the thousands of priests who left to marry) cannot get themselves considered for ordination simply because they do have such baggage. I find the irony a bit much to appreciate.

But I digress. Notice that all of the aforesaid matters reserved to the ApoPen involve the sins of priests or of those who aspire to ordination; only "defiling the Eucharist" is something any ordinary layperson can be guilty of. Yet how many lay defilers are there who would be held to account for the deed and care enough to appeal to Rome for absolution? Even the case of Eucharistic defilement seems to draw the Vatican's attention only when a priest is the guilty party and seeks absolution for it. How is this focus on those actually or potentially in the clerical state going to encourage the run of laity to go to confession more? All it's going to do, if it does anything, is draw attention to the fact that the papacy allows common murderers and child molesters to be absolved at a lower level than itself. That hardly advertises the sense of priorities that the Church ought to be inculcating. The only people who will "get it" will be those who don't need to get it. And I say that as somebody who celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation at least twice a month because he follows the only prudent course and regards himself as an inveterate sinner.

Then there's the seminary report, the second in a little over a decade. The "apostolic visitation" whose results are therein reported was apparently thought to have been necessitated by the sex-abuse scandal that peaked in 2002-3. But what does the report conclude? "This visitation has demonstrated that, since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the U.S. seminaries. The appointment, over time, of rectors who are wise and faithful to the church has meant a gradual improvement, at least in the diocesan seminaries." Now I do not dispute that conclusion; even if I were inclined to, I would be in no position to come up with enough counter-evidence. My disappointment is over the fact that it's been made available to the general public. The countless people who were, and in many cases still are, outraged by the scandal will not be mollified by said conclusion. The somewhat fewer people who know that homosexuality was at the epicenter of the scandal are not going to be reassured by the nuances that qualify said conclusion. And I doubt that the report's call for a greater emphasis on orthodox "moral theology" is going to address whatever spiritual diseases still afflict seminaries. Being told "the rules" does not, by itself, increase either the willingness or the desire to abide by the spirit of the rules. What we need in the seminaries are more and holier men. The report has nothing to say about how to meet that need. And its release to the general public will only give that public impression that the hierarchy still doesn't "get it." That impression wouldn't be universally true; some fine bishops are attracting more and better men to their seminaries. But the impression retains more than enough truth to resist being dispelled by reports such as this one. Worse, there will now be less impetus to weed out those insiders who still constitute the problem. The pressure is off even if that was not the intent.

When I ponder the Church's prospects, I do not go quite so far as the French bishop who, in response to Napoleon's boastful threat to destroy the Church, replied: "You cannot succeed where so many generations of bishops have failed." But I sometimes veer perilously close to such cynicism. One of the best signs of the Church's divine origin is how she keeps on managing to survive her leadership. We happen to have a very good pope; but he is after all only a man, and he lived in an ecclesiastical bubble for too long. So, apparently, do many of his lieutenants.
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