Now that we’re in the dog days of summer, this year featuring record high temperatures across Europe, one might think the Vatican would be entering a “mad dogs and Englishmen” sort of lull. However, that’s not the nature of the Pope Francis era, in which down time is a relic of the past.
Just the last few days have brought several important developments, including another papal missive to the Catholics of China, a strong defense of the seal of confession, and a remarkable papal shot across the bow to the Catholic Church in Germany.
Herewith, brief reflections on another busy stretch.
When Francis removed Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in 2014, in tandem with taking American Cardinal Raymond Burke off the Congregation for Bishops, it was one of those early signs that Francis was moving in a different direction from St. John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Piacenza is originally from Genoa, formed in the school around the late Cardinal Giuseppe Siri - once famously dubbed “the pope who was never elected” by Vatican writer Benny Lai, since Siri was the traditionalist alternative to St. John XXIII in 1958. (According to a conspiracy theory popular in certain traditionalist circles, Siri was actually elected but forced to renounce the office.)
Today Piacenza heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal dealing with the “internal forum,” meaning situations where something can’t be demonstrated publicly through a judicial process but where there may be confidential reasons for mercy, such as the lifting of excommunications.
Though Piacenza has flown below radar for a while, he came back strong Tuesday with a document defending the seal of the confessional at a time when it’s under assault from California to Australia due to the clerical abuse crisis.
“The inviolable secrecy of confession comes directly from revealed divine law and the roots of the very nature of the sacrament are immersed in it, to the point of not permitting any exception within the ecclesial ambit nor, all the more, in the civil sphere,” Piacenza wrote.
Generally, when the Vatican addresses some sort of external threat such as a push to roll back the confessional seal, it’s really speaking to two audiences. The first is the authors of that threat, warning them the Church plans to stand strong; the other is Catholic bishops and other leaders, letting them know the boss expects them to hold the line.
Certainly Francis, the “Pope of Mercy,” is a major proponent and practitioner of the sacrament of confession, and Piacenza quoted the pontiff from a speech Francis gave to the penitentiary in March: “The sacramental seal is indispensable, and no human power has jurisdiction over it or can claim it.”
One way of sizing up Monday’s statement, therefore, is somebody seen as on the outs with Francis getting back into the game by echoing a favorite papal refrain.
On another level, it’s also an object lesson in the weakness of erstwhile Vatican heavyweights in the Francis era.
Time was, the fact a Roman cardinal said something like this would have reverberations around the Catholic world. Yet because Francis has shown himself inclined to work around, rather than through, Vatican kingpins, many insiders have drawn the conclusion that at least some of the traditional centers of power don’t count for as much anymore.
In other words, the fact that Mauro Piacenza said something Monday matters largely because it’s what one might think his boss would want him to say - meaning the weight behind it comes not from Piacenza, but from the boss.
Germans and their discontents
Saturday was the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, considered the patrons of Rome, and for the occasion Francis released an extremely “Roman” document - a letter addressed to the “People of God on a Journey in Germany.”
Coming at a time when the German Church has announced a “binding synodal process” to discuss priestly celibacy, sexual morality and clerical power, the letter amounted to a fairly blunt reminder to Germans that they’re part of a universal church and can’t just strike out alone. Notably the letter was released in Spanish, suggesting that if Francis didn’t write it personally, he was closely involved in the drafting.
Francis warned that “the father of lies and division,” the Devil, may be “pushing us to look for an alleged good or an answer to a specific situation, [which] ends up fragmenting the body of the holy faithful People of God.”
He also told the legendarily technocratic Germans that systems and structures aren’t the heart of reform vis-à-vis the Church, counseling them instead to prioritize “spiritual medicines” such as prayer, penance and Eucharistic adoration.
It’s one of those narrative-bending moments from Francis, in which, if you close your eyes and have someone read the text aloud, you’d swear it was Benedict XVI (or, for that matter, Pius IX during the First Vatican Council).
It’s especially ironic given perceptions that Francis is beholden to the more progressive wing of the German Church on other fronts, including his push for Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics during the family synods of 2014 and 2015.
Precisely because of the power of narrative, the pope’s letter to the Germans hasn’t gotten nearly the coverage that it deserves. Depending on what the Germans actually decide, Francis may have to react - and then, perhaps, push will come to shove.
Though a much-heralded deal between the Vatican and China over the appointment of bishops last year has been touted as way to improve the climate for religious freedom in the long run, in the here-and-now reality seems to be cutting in the opposite direction.
Recently China has been demanding that Catholic priests and other religious leaders register with the government and sign a pledge to support the “independence, autonomy and self-management” of the Church, forcing the Vatican to issue a statement on Friday providing guidance on what to do.
In essence, the Vatican punted.
It appeared to recognize both compliance and civil disobedience as legitimate options and left the choice to individuals and dioceses. Veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s editorial director, issued a commentary insisting that the Vatican’s stance is “clearly based on a realistic outlook on the current situation” and that “there is no naïveté in the pastoral orientations.”
What would seem evident is that the Vatican is trying to walk a tightrope with China, defending the interests of its flock, including freedom of conscience, but at the same time not wanting to set back the march toward closer ties and, eventually, the ultimate prize of full diplomatic relations.
For sure, Friday’s statement will disappoint champions of the underground church in China who want the Vatican to take a more robust stance, many of whom are already pointing to the tensions over civil registration as evidence Communists can’t be trusted. That said, the Vatican did include a line saying it expected that no intimidation will be applied to “non-official” Catholic communities, meaning those that spurn government control.
Whatever one makes of the Vatican’s fine line, it should be clearly understood that this isn’t just some personal idée fixe of a “Third World” progressive pope. Détente with Bejing has been the consistent policy of the Vatican since St. Paul VI, and doubtless will remain so long after Francis is gone. In essence, the Vatican’s calculation is that it cannot refuse to engage a nation that represents one-fifth of humanity and is a global superpower.
Like it or not, what we got Friday was a predictable application of that broader policy, and there are no signs it’s likely to change anytime soon.