And You Wonder Why Reform Doesn’t Happen

The Vatican has a long tradition of bishops covering for bishops:

Francis was compelled to remove Tebartz-van-Elst in October 2013 due to public backlash against his spending an estimated $42 million on remodeling his diocesan center and residence, including $1.1 million for garden landscaping and even $22,000 for a bathtub.

Originally, the Vatican said the Bling Bishop was being granted a temporary sabbatical outside the diocese. That “temporary” measure became permanent in March 2014, at a time when the Vatican was trying to negotiate an agreement under which Tebartz-van Elst would not be sued by the Limburg diocese in an effort to recoup its losses over the construction projects.

The question then became what to do with him since Tebartz-van-Elst was only 54 at the time of his exile, a full two decades short of the usual retirement age for Catholic bishops of 75.

In the end, Tebartz-van-Elst was brought to Rome and given a new gig as a “delegate for catechesis” in the Council for New Evangelization. Although his appointment is a matter of public record – it’s even on his Wikipedia page – the Vatican understandably made no effort to broadcast it, leaving even seasoned clergy a bit surprised to see him today taking charge of Roman meetings.

Given that the main complaint against Tebartz-van-Elst in Limburg was that his regal spending habits were “unevangelical,” at odds with the witness of Jesus in the Gospels (not to mention Francis in the papacy) and thereby driving people away from the faith, many observers would likely find his present assignment as a top Vatican official for evangelization not just a little bit jarring.

In reality, however, no one probably should be surprised. There’s a long tradition of clerics in disgrace in their homelands ending up in Rome, but in the Francis era they sometimes wind up in jobs that almost seem a private papal satire.

Most famously, there’s the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina, who resigned his post heading the Diocese of Oran in August 2017 amid accusations of abuse of power and “strange behavior” (charges of sexual abuse of adult seminarians came later). The rap sheet against Zanchetta also features charges of financial misconduct, including selling a building belonging to the diocese for $800,000 without going through the proper channels and leaving the transaction off the diocesan books.

Despite that, Francis in 2017 not only brought Zanchetta to Rome but named him Assessor to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s financial powerhouse which oversees both the Holy See’s investment portfolio and its real estate holdings in Italy and around the world.

Once again, it’s hard to imagine a Vatican gig (other, perhaps, than with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) that would seem more ironic given the baggage Zanchetta carried.

Another fitting for-instance is Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, who was forced to resign as the Vatican’s communications czar in March 2018 after attempting to pass off a doctored letter by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI as the real thing and getting caught. For presiding over such a PR fiasco, Francis moved Viganò to a different post – not as prefect of the Dicastery for Communications but its “assessor,” meaning to this day he’s still in a position to shape the communications operation.

Further back in time, there’s Monsignor Mario Salvatore Battista Ricca, who was confirmed by Francis as prelate of the Vatican Bank in 2013 despite revelations in the Italian media that during his previous service as a papal diplomat in Uruguay, he’d been involved in a couple of scandalous situations involving homosexual activity – one in which Battista Ricca was apparently beaten up after leaving a gay bar, and another in which he was trapped in an elevator at the papal embassy in Montevideo with a young man and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Despite that, Francis confirmed Battista Ricca in a sensitive post at an institution which, at the time, was also trying to shake off a well-earned reputation for scandal.

Of course, Francis presumably knows more about these situations than any of the rest of us, and he may well have perfectly valid reasons for appointing or confirming such officials to the posts they currently hold.

However, it’s hard not to wish there was a “Simpsons” for the Vatican – because, let’s face it, the Bling Bishop in charge of evangelization probably would be the basis for one hell of a Halloween episode.

Some aspects of church life don’t change. They develop. (Not even mainline Protestants have this kind of chutzpah.)

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This Is How Bad Protestantism Is

When scandal hits the Roman Catholic church, Roman Catholics would never countenance becoming Protestant.

In fact, when scandal happens, you rinse and repeat that Jesus promised the gates of hell would not prevail against the church:

He knew we’d sometimes have really bad shepherds. The Church has gone through a lot of bad patches in her almost 2,000-year history. She tells us, yes, these popes and those bishops and that crowd of priests, awful people. And those laymen, just as bad, and maybe worse. But those popes upheld the Church’s teaching and unified the Church, and those bishops and priests celebrated the sacraments that brings Jesus to his people.

The fundamental things, the necessary things, they always work no matter how bad Catholics get. Jesus lives with us in the Tabernacle and gives himself to us in the Mass.

Our Father didn’t promise all of these men would be saints, or even just run-of-the-mill good guys. He promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church, no matter what. He promised to be with us to the end of the age. He promised to write straight with crooked lines. For God so loved the world, and so deeply knew his people, that he gave us the Church.

And most relevant here, perhaps, he gave us the sacrament of confession. We can’t do much directly to change the culture of the Church in America. We can do something to change ourselves, with God’s help. And therefore, together and over time, change the Church.

Two curious pieces of this standard apologetic. Why do you think that priests and bishops who are awful shepherds will get the doctrine right, will do the right thing in the confessional, and they will actually understand the sacraments correctly? This is contrary to every single way that humans view flawed officials: they are awful, wicked, despicable. But we still trust them because Christ gave them to us.

That’s not exactly how it worked for the churches in the apostles’ day:

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has ethe sharp two-edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 2)

Somehow we’re supposed to think the danger of apostasy doesn’t apply to Rome? Talk about exceptionalism.

The other curiosity in this defense of Rome is that it never seems to take into account what happened to Israel. God made all sorts of promises to Abraham, Moses, and David. But those promises did not mean the nation or the people would always be faithful or that they would escape God’s punishment. In fact, they were (Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics believe) promises to the spiritual seed of Abraham and his descendants (see Galatians). But now all of a sudden institution in redemptive history, one institution trumps faithfulness.

Can it really be true that no Christianity exists outside Roman Catholicism? Vatican II even admitted that Protestants were brothers. So why is it so unthinkable, when the going gets tough for Roman Catholics, to think about following Christ in a Protestant communion?