"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Papacy and the Law of Unintended Consequences

To read anything about the papacy, past or present, is, I have thought for years, to see numerous and exquisite illustrations of the law of unintended consequences. Too often practices that began with good intentions in one generation come to do harm in later generations; customs that were once helpful seem later to be harmful. And yet, as the longest institution of governance in the Western world--antedating all the crowned heads of Europe, all the constitutions of all the governments across Europe and North America--the weight of its history often seems to render the papacy incapable of shedding practices and customs that no longer do the good they once did. "We think in centuries here," the oft-heard Vatican slogan, is good if it takes useful account of the past, but if it is used also to restrict action out of consideration for what the future might think or bring, then such a long-term perspective would seem to make the papacy sclerotic in the present.

This thought came back to me in reading through a brand new book whose author could not have foreseen the events of the past weeks with the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, but which nonetheless--perhaps itself unintentionally--illustrates why the retirement turns out to have been a very good idea indeed: John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church (Viking, 2013). 

Thavis's book is not high theology, and pace the title, it is not a collection of the intimate and pithy thoughts one often associates with the word "diaries." Instead, it is a very cogently written work of solid journalism by a journalist who covered the Vatican and papacy for decades, and who, unlike almost all the others in the world on that beat (save for such as John Allen, e.g.), here reflects on the workings of the popes, Curia, and Vatican with critical but charitable intelligence. If the new pope--whoever he may be--has anything approximating a functioning brain in his head, he will immediately make Thavis director of the Vatican Press Office, for Thavis clearly understands how the media works, and in this book clearly sets forth, in a painful "syllabus of errors," how often the Vatican fails to understand the media and as a result ends up shooting itself in the foot, leg, thigh, groin, stomach, chest, both arms, and head.

Having read this important and very useful study, I am amazed that for an institution so deeply imbued with the Italian fixation on la bella figura, various figures in the Vatican have so singularly failed to grasp how badly the Church has appeared in the bungling of the many problems of the last eight years--child sex abuse, the Sodano-Schonborn public dust-up, the Holocaust denial of the SSPX's mentally defective bishop Richard Williamson, the AIDS and condoms debate, and the infuriatingly fatuous comments by someone like Fr. Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household who, staggeringly, compared the media treatment of the sex-abuse crisis to the Holocaust! Time and again in all these incidents--and others--Thavis notes that nobody vetted the comments of any of these figures. Making matters worse is the huge irony that, for all its focus on centralization, hierarchy, and control, the Vatican, as Thavis puts it wonderfully, "is more medieval village than corporate headquarters" (2). As he puts it equally well, the Vatican's "culture is founded on hierarchical order but swamped in organizational confusion" (2). As a result, few people talk to one another, and fewer still know what any other office or person is about to do or say. Consequently, people, above all the pope, are regularly blindsided by comments and events. Instead of being able to spread the good news, the Vatican is forever having to mop up the bad, confused news that gets printed in no small part because of a lack of (forgive the vulgar phrase) "message coordination."

Thavis brings a unique and welcome perspective to his work. Noting that most of his colleagues in the media view the Vatican with great skepticism if not disdain for its supposedly "medieval" and retrograde attitudes and practices, Thavis by contrast, in talking about the 2005 conclave, says of it that "it was undemocratic, it was nontransparent, and it was wonderful" (17; my emphasis). Thavis also has an ear for good stories and lines, and tells some hilarious ones, including an anecdote about that last conclave when many of these "princes of the Church" and their underlings were all standing around the famous, if obstreperous, smoke-producing stove in the Sistine Chapel arguing over how to get it to work better and to produce the right color of smoke. Quoting his colleague Cindy Wooden, Thavis records that this seemed like nothing more than a bunch of guys in the backyard debating the merits of charcoal over gas. Sic transit gloria mundi.

In recording his time on many papal trips on the papal plane from the late 70s until last year, Thavis makes one thing clear: the media are human beings, and a bit of good will, a bit of papal honesty and access, and a bit of good treatment go a long way. He records one story of a return from some papal junket only to have all the reporters herded on to the plane, starving and thirsting, but told no food or drinks were yet loaded and they would have to tough it out waiting for the pope, running behind as usual. But someone discovers a bottle of vodka and begins passing it around, and soon everyone is in much better spirits. Why should this be either mystery or scandal to anyone? If you want good press, or at least not a consistently hostile one, treating the media as human beings and adults--rather than as enemies--would seem to be a good place to start.

Thavis has a sick-making chapter on the scandals involving the now-disgraced Legionaries of Christ. What a vile organization that seems to have been. Viler still is how protected their founder was until after the death of Pope John Paul II--and even then Benedict XVI did not move with all dispatch in disciplining a figure of such iniquity. But Thavis lets go unremarked a stunning detail about one of the mass ordinations of priests that made the Legionaries so legendary in their heyday: the ordaining cardinal, Velasio De Paolis on Christmas Eve 2010, "never actually touched their heads--he held his hands an inch or two above their heads" (112)! According to Latin theology of the "matter and form" of the sacraments, such a failure should surely have rendered the ordinations invalid. I know of  one Catholic priestly ordination in the last decade where the bishop, about the soundness of whose mental faculties many people have long wondered, failed to put his hands anywhere near the head of the would-be priest, and as a result was forced to do the ordination over again--this time making tactile contact.
I won't go into detail about the other chapters--read the book for yourself--but let me conclude with Thavis's final chapter, "The Real Benedict." Thavis does not attend--or at least does not quote--any of the pope's thoughts about that office recorded over many years in his scholarly works. So Thavis does not always seem to have realized that he's stumbled onto the truth--he thinks, good journalist that he is, that there must be more. E.g., Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, asked about Benedict's modus operandi in public especially, says that Benedict wants to depersonalize the papacy. Quite so. That pithy sentiment covers a depth of thinking about the office over many decades, the net effect of which has been to call for a paring down of what the papacy is expected to do, and of how the pope is portrayed. "The pope is not an oracle" Benedict says to a group of young people (305), and that is exactly right. But too often the papacy and the Vatican, beginning under Leo XIII and ramped up to an unhealthy degree under John Paul II--for, again, commendable motives but with unintended, and unhelpful, consequences--has often allowed itself to be portrayed as an oracle, cranking out statements on everything from how to drive safely to infant formula, sexual morality, capitalism, war, doctrine, and everything in between. Little could W.G. Ward imagine when he tossed out his famous aphorism in the 19th century about demanding a papal bull at breakfast every morning along with the Times of London that a century later Catholics would be "treated" to just that.

One final thought acutely, indeed painfully, clear after reading the final chapter: nobody seems to have considered just how deeply Benedict is an introvert. Many of us academics are introverts--I certainly am--and being surrounded by people all day is tiring; magnify that tenfold or more in the huge masses of people the pope is forced to meet every day, and you can understand perfectly why Benedict found the job so utterly exhausting. He has my complete sympathy, and he certainly lasted longer in such an outsized, extroverted job than I would have.

This, surely, has to be something else the cardinals consider in the upcoming conclave. In addition to reconsidering their lack of a "media strategy," and in addition to extracting a promise from the new pope to hire John Thavis as Vatican press officer, the cardinals should consider personality and temperament before they vote. They do not need to haul in a couch from Vienna and make all the papabili lie on it and disclose their temperaments on the Myers Briggs Type Inventory, but surely Christian charity should stay their hand from electing someone who would find the papacy as crushing a burden as Benedict did. They should also consider that the office needs further critical examination in many ways--some of which I suggested in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

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