ROME — Back in the St. Pope John Paul II years, the Vatican once brought out a document on lay ministry decreeing restrictions intended to drive home the uniqueness of the ordained priesthood, such as a ban on laity holding the title “chaplain.”
Since that was common practice in the U.S., many American Catholic laity were alarmed, especially those who worked in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces.
Amid the hubbub, I asked an American cardinal about it who told me not to worry, that the document would be a dead letter. When I pressed as to where his confidence came from, he told me he’d spoken to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, at the time the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and the pope’s powerful vicar of Rome.
Ruini apparently said the document was really intended for Germany and the Netherlands, and the Italians had no intention of applying it.
“I figure if that’s good enough for the Italians, then it’s good enough for us,” the American cardinal laughed.
That’s by way of saying, the Italians matter. Because of their proximity to the pope, pastoral practice and interpretations of Vatican edicts worked out here set a tone all across the Catholic map.
Moreover, senior leaders in the Church pretty much everywhere probably have spent time here either studying or working or both, most have friends here, and so they’re influenced by the realities here in a special way.
The insight comes to mind in light of Pope Francis’ address to the Italian bishops on Monday night, opening their May 21-23 General Assembly. The speech raised eyebrows both for what it contained, and what it didn’t.
In terms of the latter, it was striking that on the eve of European elections when right-wing, anti-immigrant populist forces appeared poised to make historic gains, including within Italy itself, Francis didn’t say anything about the importance of welcome and compassion for migrants and refugees — ordinarily, one of his stock themes.
The omission was notable given that just two days before, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the major populist coalition in the European elections, had staged a rally in Milan in which he quoted John Paul and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and even brandished a rosary at one point to style himself as a defender of traditional European values and identity.
In that context, many had expected Francis to tackle the immigrant question.
The proximity to Salvini’s jamboree, however, actually may help explain the pope’s discretion. Not only would pushing immigrant rights immediately afterward have seemed overtly political, but it could have created the impression that Francis was being drawn into a tit-for-tat with a populist firebrand — which, frankly, probably ought to be below the pope’s paygrade.
In this case, Francis seemed content to let the Italian bishops do the heavy lifting — which they did, among other things using the front page of their official newspaper to admonish Salvini that “rosaries are for prayer, not rallies.”
In terms of what Francis did say, the top note was a rather stern rebuke to the Italian prelates for failing to implement the pope’s reform of the annulment process, issued in 2015. It was intended to compel dioceses, or groups of smaller dioceses acting together, to create simplified and accelerated procedures for considering annulment requests.
“It is with regret that I note that the reform, after four years, remains far from being applied in the great majority of Italian dioceses,” the pope told the bishops’ conference.
Among other things, the new process gave a stronger role to the local bishop, dropped automatic appeals in obvious cases of annulment, and ensured that the process would be free of charge. Francis called for “full and immediate application” of those measures, saying the process should be fast, free, and characterized by “closeness” to families in difficulty.
Though he didn’t say so out loud, in the background of his stern tone may be mounting frustration with the Italian bishops (and prelates elsewhere taking their cues from the Italians) for their slowness to embrace other aspects of the Francis agenda too, including measures intended to combat clerical sexual abuse.
When the pope recently issued a “motu proprio,” or amendment to Church law, requiring every diocese in the world to have a clear reporting mechanism for allegations of either abuse or cover-up, many Italians took it in part as a reaction to a perceived failure of many Italian dioceses to implement such measures on their own despite repeated papal exhortations.
During a media presentation of the new rules, the pope’s point man on the anti-abuse effort, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, told a major Italian broadcast network that he would actually invite laity to rise up and hold bishops accountable if they again fail to act.
“I would ask the people of God to help the pope,” Scicluna said.
Perhaps Francis is simply running out of patience with the Italian hierarchy. Its perceived lethargy may be especially frustrating for this pope in particular, given that his own family hails from the northern Italian region of Piedmont.
For Americans, there’s a deeply intriguing coda to all this. Neither the annulment reform nor the new anti-abuse rules contained in Vos Estis Lux Mundi seem likely to have much impact in the United States, largely because the American Church had already done most of what they mandated decades ago.
The Church in the U.S. adopted a streamlined annulment process after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which for decades led to perceptions of the U.S. Church as an “annulment factory,” each year granting around two-thirds of all the annulments in the Catholic world.
Similarly, the U.S. Church created clear reporting mechanisms for abuse cases in the wake of the 2002 “Dallas Charter,” as well as strong procedures for investigating and prosecuting allegations if verified.
At the beginning, those reforms, too, drew criticism from other parts of the Church, including many in the Vatican, who saw them as an example of the American penchant for litigiousness and “cowboy justice.”
Here’s the irony: From the beginning, observers, rightly, have taken Francis as deeply ambivalent about the United States due to his strong rhetoric on capitalism and militarism and many other factors.
Anyone who’s spent time around Francis and his team understands the distaste with which certain aspects of American culture are regarded — for instance, a supposed “ecumenism of hate” in the U.S. between conservative Evangelicals and Catholics denounced in a celebrated 2017 article by a couple of the pope’s closest advisers.
Yet in at least these two areas, annulments and clergy abuse, Francis basically has ratified and universalized the American approach. If nothing else, perhaps that shows this pope’s alleged “anti-Americanism” isn’t quite as inflexible as some may be tempted to think.
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