Pope Francis presses on with providential plan for reform
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Pope Francis is pressing ahead with his plans for Vatican reform. In his Christmas message to the Curia, he denounced the evils of gossip and ambition and rivalry. The curial response has been more bureaucratic skullduggery, with leaks to the Italian press about Cardinal Pell’s management of the Secretariat of the Economy.
Apparently the reforming prelate Pell spent a lot of money on vestments. The leaks thereby sought to discredit and to undermine Cardinal Pell’s mission from Francis to use the Secretariat of the Economy to reform Vatican finances.
The leaks were reminiscent of the “Vatileaks” scandal that Pope Benedict XVI found so disgusting and disheartening. It seems clear that Benedict abdicated from the papacy to make room for someone younger to do battle with the corruption and abuse of power in the Vatican.
Pope Francis’ response to the latest round of sneaky leaks has been to maintain unwavering support for Cardinal Pell. In fact, Francis has just approved statutes for the Secretariat that will allow it to scrutinize the darkest corners of the Vatican. Francis has empowered auditors to enforce financial accountability and thereby root out structural support for the petty careerism plaguing the Vatican.
Cardinals of the Church have traditionally been able to behave like “princes of the Church.” Ruling over their own little bureaucratic kingdoms, they get to authorize their own expenses. They have had to answer to no one for any budgetary shenanigans.
With his reform efforts, Francis seems to be challenging the “princes of the Church” to recall the words of Jesus: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant,” Jesus said to his disciples (Mt 20: 25-26).
It’s truly pathetic when the purported followers of Christ lord their power over others. But how many Christians do you know who, in positions of authority, seize the opportunity to spend money wastefully on vain ideas, or to hire their incompetent friends?
How many Christians do you know who actually run their businesses in a truly exemplary way? Or must Christians adopt a worldly way of thinking and be as dirty as their worst competitors? Surely it is a great scandal for Christians to give a religious veneer to Machiavellian behavior. Hiding in the shadows, they slander the just, and reward the undeserving. Then they publicly prance about piously as God’s great servants.
The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain writes about how even Christians can be completely seduced by the immediate successes that the abuse of power brings.
These authorities may fatuously congratulate themselves on their serpent-like wisdom. Yet in his essay on “The End of Machiavellianism,” Maritain assures us that their apparently immediate successes are in fact illusory.
In time, the illusion of success will be exposed by God’s providence. “I say that justice works through its own causality toward welfare and success in the future, as a healthy sap works toward the perfect fruit, and that Machiavellianism works through its own causality for ruin and bankruptcy, as poison in the sap works for the illness and death of the tree,” writes Maritain.
There are many instances in history of unexpected developments and unforeseen outcomes. In retrospect, we can best appreciate them as illustrating the “ruin and bankruptcy” of unjustly entrenched policies of corrupt Christians.
The current Vatican reform, instigated by Benedict’s abdication and Francis’ unusual efforts, is best seen in this long-term historical approach, as Maritain recommends.
God’s providence is best discerned over the time span of entire lives and of entire generations, in which the vanity and folly of human beings, especially the most self-deluded of Christians, is inevitably exposed.
Emile Perreau-Saussine’s brilliant book, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought, argues we should in fact speak of the “Vatican Reform” as extending from the time of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century to our own. Pope Francis’ current efforts are merely the latest steps in this unified “Vatican Reform.”
Perreau-Saussine’s thesis is that Vatican I and Vatican II are part of a coherent, ongoing response by the Catholic Church to the unforeseen development of liberal democracy and to the collapse of the confessional state (i.e., of nations with kings who decree an official religion of the land).
Given this new historical context, an unforeseen political revolution that could have been met with a variety of responses by Christians, Vatican I wisely discerned a new role for the papacy and Vatican II wisely discerned a new role for the laity.
The typical media narrative, however, would divide the Catholic Church into traditionalists (partisans who champion the reforms of Vatican I) and liberals (partisans who champion the reforms of Vatican II) at war with each other. Yet Perreau-Saussine’s argument helps us understand how delusional the media narrative is.
Viewed rightly, Vatican I and Vatican II are part of a unified and coherent response of a salutary “Vatican Reform,” analogous to the Gregorian Reform and the Counter-Reformation efforts of previous historical moments.
As Pope Francis helps us to appreciate, the real war is between a worldly frame of mind, which prizes Machiavellian schemes and immediate successes, and the Gospel path of a patient love, which never does evil, and always trusts solely in the wisdom of providence.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.