Gnostic Audacity

The myth:

What I came to recognize, in other words, was that the Catholic position was in actuality the much more humble of the two. Indeed, it was downright self-effacing. For the Catholic position, paradoxically, was that it is precisely because mere men can claim no genuine spiritual authority that the successors of the apostles could claim it; and, in particular, it is precisely because no man can possibly be infallible that the bishop of Rome had to be.

The fundamental conviction here is really quite straightforward: Catholics think that we’d better not be left to our own devices, or else we’ll probably screw things up. When you get right down to the core of the thing, it isn’t that Catholics are misanthropes; they don’t think that human beings are just absolutely idiotic or irredeemably horrible. But they do have a lot of skepticism about man’s inherent capacity to get things right on his own; to see things straight for himself; to understand things clearly and objectively, apart from the potentially adverse influence of the cultural categories and presuppositions, the inherited traditions, through which he sees the world and understands the Bible – but which themselves usually remain unseen. They believe that owing to these inherent and historical limitations to which all men are subject, an individual person, even if he is a Christian indeed, cannot always rely upon himself – that his own internal “feelings” of certitude, or the inward confidence he has in his own views and in those of his tradition, do not necessarily come straight from the Holy Ghost and do not automatically mean he is right.

The reality:

The Vatican is not an organism that thinks only one thought at a time, it’s a bureaucracy. It’s staffed by human beings, each of whom has his or her own wants, fears, intentions, visions, hopes and dreams. There’s far less internal coordination than the mythology would suggest, meaning that often, diversity – at times, even border-line chaos – is the order of the day.

For every official inside the system who embodies whatever one thinks “the Vatican” said or did today, there are probably routinely a half-dozen who aren’t on the same page.

There are at least three reasons why: Structural, cultural and political.

Structurally, Vatican systems are set up in some ways to minimize interaction among different departments. There’s a strong emphasis on respecting the juridical “competence” of each, so that cardinals and their lower-level aides are often hesitant to intervene outside their area of authority.

Documents and policy decisions can be in the works in one department for months, in some cases years, before anyone else knows about them.

Although the atmosphere has loosened up somewhat, I recall distinctly when I first began covering the Vatican twenty years ago, if I were to go out to dinner with two officials from different offices and ask each what was bubbling in his shop, they’d get nervous – not so much about discussing it in front of me, but someone from a different outfit inside the system.

The bottom line is that there simply is no Vatican “war room” where officials hammer out a master plan on much of anything.

Culturally, the Vatican is an international milieu, home to people from a staggering variety of geographical points on the compass. What seems natural or obvious to one official in one office, therefore, will often seem puzzling, even objectionable, to others.

It’s almost always a mistake to assume, for instance, that if an American official in the Vatican says “x,” that view would be shared in precisely the same way by, say, the Italians, or the French. Similarly, if a Latin American head of a department makes a statement on some news story, one can’t presume that his German or Polish colleagues would see it the same way.

Politically, popes often like to appoint officials to Vatican jobs who don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, on the theory that what results can be a sort of “creative tension.”

During the John Paul II years, it was well known that Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, the Vatican’s top official for liturgy, and Archbishop Piero Marini, who organized the pope’s own liturgical celebrations, were on completely different planets – Medina a staunch conservative, Marini an ardent reformer.

Insiders knew not to take much of what either man might say on liturgical matters as a corporate Vatican line, but rather as part of an ongoing internal debate, until the pope officially pronounced one way or the other.

When will Bryan and the Jasons tell the truth that John Allen tells while actually covering real-life church officials in the Eternal City?

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