Oh, I forgot. John 23rd was. The Vatican since then has been trying futilely to get back to the status quo ante, but the "Vatican Security System" has been in a slo-mo implosion mode since then. Things move a little more slowly in such ancient institutions. Anyway, this paragraph struck me in an article in today's NYT about Pope Francis's new appointments:
Vatican experts also noted that Francis favored men who had worked long years as priests before becoming bishops, and who had shown the sort of merciful pastoral style he advocates. And the Vatican also highlighted the selection of Archbishop Loris Francesco Capovilla as an emeritus cardinal. He is 98, and served as the secretary for Pope John XXIII, who will be canonized by Francis in April during the continuing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
I don't want to oversell what Francis is doing, but he does seem to be doing some structurally substantive things as well as some stylistic things. He does seem to "get it", if by getting it we mean that the real church is on the local level, and the people who play management roles are there to serve the work that goes on at the local level. In order to do that you need to appoint bishops and cardinals who have had long careers working in parishes on the front lines. And you need to get people who are not going to be Yes men, empty cassocks, who will simply do as they are told.
For someone who is old enough to have lived through the Vatican II reforms and then to witness the retrenchment that followed it, I have been pessimistic that anything could be done by a single personality to take down the Vatican Security System. For the last several hundred years it has operated as a corrupt little city state, and there are too many vested interests that like it that way for some interloper to come in and change things. But I think there come moments in the history of all institutions when they are no longer viable and must either collapse from their own dead weight (as the Soviet Union did) or grow something new from within, which like the new chick bursts the shell of the brittle old thing when the time is ripe. John XXIII started the process, and maybe Francis is going to finish it.
Maybe, maybe not. I have no idea whether we are entering such a time for the Roman Church, and I'm sure many readers here could care less one way or the other. But let me explain why it matters to me. I have often enough explained my reasons for remaining a practicing Catholic despite how difficult it has been to take the institution seriously. In the last ten years I've been holding on by my fingernails. But I have this belief, which might be naive, but it's that the pre-Reformation Churches provide a part of the essential infrastructure for a cultural rebirth.
They have played, often rather clumsily, an essential role as a sign of contradiction to the materialist/rationalistic frame that has shaped optimistic modernity, and pessimistic postmodernity (so far). The core element in this being a sign of contradiction is their insistence on the fundamentally sacramental and multidimensional nature of reality. The post-Reformation churches, particularly those in the Calvinist wing, tip their hat to that reality insofar as the scriptures point to it continuously, but their worldview is otherwise thoroughly modern and rationalistic. Faith is not a head trip.
And while these churches have been in a defensive mode and in such a posture have not introduced anything new of any broad cultural import in over 500 years, I think of them as like fallow fields, rich in nutrients from having been rested, and as such providing fertile ground for the emergence of something new, something that can have broad cultural import.
It will bear some resemblance to the old, but will be different, the way Aquinas is like Aristotle or Bonaventure like Plato. But I don't mean this as something new in purely the intellectual sense, but more in an experiential sense. New thinking has to come out of new experience broadly shared. This will be something that comes not top down, but from the bottom up, and with the right people in place in the hierarchy, people who 'get it', people who are themselves looking for it and doing what they can to nourish and cultivate it, it might have a chance of taking root, flowering, and fruiting.
UPDATE: Pope Removes Cardinals in Shakeup of Vatican Bank. Cleansing the temple? It looks like it. I hope this guy doesn't get himself killed. There is a very interesting story unfolding here. It's time to start paying attention. This from the National Catholic Reporter:
Most recently, we have from Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, a detailed account of the pope's conversation in November with leaders of men's religious orders gathered in Rome. This appears to be another important segment of a corner of the puzzle that, while perhaps not as apparent as other elements, is fundamental to the rest. From the start, the pope has been slowly dismantling that portion of the clerical culture that has led to destructive secrecy, corruption and lack of accountability. . . .
The headlines his comments generated were not inappropriate. After all, this was the pope warning that "formation is a work of art, not a police action" and that the result should not be the creation of "little monsters." How many of us sitting in the pews recognize those "little monsters" or have had our parishes disrupted by priests "who have hearts that are as sour as vinegar"?
That would be tough talk for any group to hear, but Francis also went on at length talking about the need for tenderness, for forgiveness. He made the distinction between sin and corruption. "Sinners are accepted [into religious life], but not people who are corrupt."
He's a mensch who has entered a den dominated for so long by moral midgets, but don't underestimate the resentment of the midgets and their power to push back.