The last few days have brought me so many cheerful Christmas messages from friends, and also some troubled questions about our nation and the world. The questions are a mix of the political and the theological. They become more difficult as they move from one category to the next. Could I address them here? I have neither the stamina nor the space, but there is one question, which I don’t believe a serious Catholic could or should avoid.
It has to do with Pope Francis’s Christmas message to the Roman Curia. The Curia is equivalent of a president’s Cabinet. It is composed of dicasteries, or “congregations,”such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through which the Pope administers the affairs of the universal Church. Each one of these is headed by a cardinal-prefect, who is supported by a bishop-secretary, and a staff usually made up of priests. As reported by the secular world press, the Pope’s traditional Christmas message turned into a “blistering attack”on many of the Curia’s “ailments.” He publicly faulted the members of the Curia for these.
Among them, the sickness of feeling immortal, immune or indispensable; working too hard without allowing for sanctifying rest; becoming spiritually and mentally hardened; planning too much instead of letting the Holy Spirit in; working without coordinating with one another; having spiritual Alzheimer’s, forgetting one’s encounter with the Lord and focusing merely on the here and now; sowing rivalry, being boastful and overly concerned with titles; suffering from existential schizophrenia and living a “double life”; committing the terrorism of gossip and backstabbing; glorifying one’s bosses in order to court honors and favors; being indifferent to others; having a “funereal face” instead of being a vessel of serenity and joy; wanting more of materials things as a source of personal security; forming “closed circles” that seek to be stronger than the whole; seeking worldly profit and showing off.
These, if true, and they cannot not be true, are not “sins” of members of the Curia alone. They are common to men and women in public and in private life everywhere. Priests, bishops, cardinals and even popes are not free from them because although the Church is holy, she is full of sinners. The greatest before God are the saints, and not every priest, bishop, cardinal or pope is a saint. Yet, were the members of the Curia guilty as charged, and their “sins” the gravest anyone could ever imagine, was the Holy Father’s public reprimand, as the world press reported it, the best way of dealing with them?
For those who truly love the Pope and the Church, this seems to be the most troubling question. As one friend puts it: How should we, Catholics, think of that speech, as reported in the secular press? Was it (is it) good for the Pope or for the Church? Assuming everything the Pope said is correct, and woe to us if and when it were otherwise, did that speech (does that speech) ensure the best possible results? Can the Pope hope to correct all those “sins”, just by exposing them in that speech, and would he able to tell the world anytime soon that he has purged the Church, or at least the Curia, of those impurities?
Or will the Curia, and the Church for that matter, not remain “condemned,” “branded,” “stigmatized,” not by the faithful who love the Church, but by all her enemies, who would be quoting the sensational press reports on the Pope’s speech? In other words, did not the Vatican unwittingly give the enemies of the Church a blunt weapon to use against her?
In the most famous Gospel scene about the woman caught in the act of adultery, the scribes and the Pharisees ask our Lord what to do with her, whom the old Mosaic law has condemned to be stoned to death. Our Lord begins to write on the ground with his finger, but when they persist in asking him, he straightens up and says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And they go away, one by one, leaving the woman alone standing before him. And he says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one,” she replies. Then he says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (cf Jn 8:11).
The Pope’s speech began as an invitation to the Curia to engage in a collective “examination of conscience,” a kind of spiritual stock-taking in preparation for the birth of Christ. The “examination” is a spiritual “norm,” which many Christians perform regularly each day before retiring in the evening. But this was quickly lost on the media as soon as they heard the “15 problems that ail the Curia.”
It was not extremely helpful that the Holy Father boldly defined the problems in his catchy prose, instead of simply allowing his collaborators, as normally happens in an ordinary examination of conscience, to ask themselves the questions——Did I fail to remember my encounter with God in favor of the baubles of this world? Did I allow myself to be consumed by my sense of importance or power? Did I gossip against my brethren and commit an act of detraction, etc.?——or to accuse themselves of having sinned, as one does in confession.
The cardinals, bishops and priests could not have debated with the Pope, but they must have felt they had to protect themselves somehow from public opprobrium in the face of that. Thus they sat there “stone-faced,” as the reports put it. This allowed the media to portray the intended collegial exercise in self-criticism as a public dressing down. Reacting to the press accounts, one Catholic friend said he thought he was listening not to the Pope at all, but rather to someone like Oliver Cromwell chastising the corrupt members of the English Parliament before disbanding it. He doubted that what the Pope had said to the Curia was limited to what the media said he had said; my friend thought the secular media was now shaping the world’s perception of the Pope so much that we no longer see him through our own eyes only but mainly through the lens of the secular propagandists. Many share this misgiving.
Was it not possible, my friend asked, for the Pope to have simply intimated his disappointment with the human failings of the Curia and admonished its members to make better and more frequent use of confession, or “spiritual direction,” without publicly expatiating on their specific failings? It would have passed for a great act of fraternal correction, my friend pointed out. In confession, they would have had the opportunity to accuse themselves and be forgiven their sins; none of them would have had to feel the need to defend themselves from any “unfair attack.” That is now moot and academic.
No one saw it coming, and no one was prepared for it. The Italian Church historian Alberto Melloni, who writes for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, has called it “a speech without historic precedent.” And indeed it was (it is). From the very beginning, popes and ecumenical councils have denounced and repudiated heresies such as Arianism, Trinitarianism, Pelagianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, etc. And at least from Pope Gregory XVI onwards, they have continuously condemned errors, which were not necessarily heresies.
From Gregory’s 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos, which condemned liberalism, to Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception, they have spoken consistently against errors from within and without the Church that sought to deny or subvert a doctrine or teaching of the Church. But no Pope has ever before delivered the kind of Christmas message Francis did to his collaborators.
Because it is unprecedented, its consequences could be unprecedented as well. We have our fears, but we hope and pray that everything would turn out well; that the Church could use this moment as an auspicious starting point for significant reform, without allowing any of her enemies inside and outside her premises to exploit any suggested weakness and try to impose their own ideas of “reform.” I personally hope that even as we prepare for the Pope’s apostolic visit to the Philippines in January, our own ecclesiastical authorities would respond to this challenge with great care and competence.
I also hope and pray that as the government prepares for the same visit, President B. S. Aquino 3rd and his Cabinet would look at those 15 “ailments,” which purportedly afflict the Curia, and see how many of them, and to what extent, afflict the Cabinet as well. The 15 points have a general application to all men and women in public life everywhere, and our officialdom, who are mostly baptized Catholics, would be doing something positive for a change if they “examined their consciences,” using those indications.
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Personal: All thanks to God for the gift of a long and fruitful life to Dona Rizalina Bello vda.de Cardenas, who completes 100 years of service to the Lord and to others today. Thanksgiving mass at Mary the Queen Parish, Greenhills, 4 pm.
And heartiest congratulations and best wishes to my friends Dingdong Dantes and Marian Gracia on their wedding day tomorrow, 30 December 2014, at The Arena in Pasay City. May they have a long, happy and blessed life together!