The Next Conclave: A Referendum on Reform?

Cardinal Parolin

Vatican journalist Sandro Magister recently reported that three names are being mentioned around the Vatican and beyond with respect to the next conclave: Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and Cardinals Robert Sarah (Guinea) and Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle (Manila). However, he confidently rules out the latter two. Tagle is too young (60), and Sarah (77) is too conservative and could never get the necessary two-thirds support. He adds that as an African, Sarah’s candidacy would be only “symbolic”, leaving Parolin in “pole position”.

Marco Tossati  thinks Sarah stands a much better chance and senses a growing fear among progressives that Sarah’s “papabile” is increasing. The Pope’s public reproach of the Cardinal concerning his interpretation of Magnum Principium, according to the Vaticanist, reflected this fear. “…[T]he letter was celebrated as a just humiliation of the cardinal and accompanied by calls for his resignation.” While he admits that Parolin is in a strong position, he adds that Cardinal Sarah,

Cardinal Sarah

“….is known for his holiness of life and lack of interest in any form of power or coercion, even in the Church. Moreover, Africa is the continent where the Church is growing most dramatically, and where faith is often practiced to the point of martyrdom. Nothing could be more fitting than for the next pope to come from that continent. And so we come to the great irony of the campaign to discredit this quiet and long-suffering churchman. Cardinal Sarah is attacked precisely because he is seen as having the makings of a pope.”

Interestingly, Crux’s John Allen, commenting on the international character of recent Cardinal appointments, explains that the western categories of “liberal” or “conservative” don’t apply to many of them and may not be a factor in their vote. It may also not have been the major factor in the 2013 conclave as one analysis concludes that it was “…a clash between two ‘parties’—curialists on one side, reformists on the other.”

“Certainly the 115 voting Cardinals were conscious of the fact that electing an Italian—regardless of how distant from the Curia—wouldn’t be a great sign of reform. For Massimo Franco of Corriere della Sera, the election of a Pope originating from South America was necessary to convey a new start, as well as send a signal to the strong Latin American catholic community, that up to now has always felt marginalized by a European-centric church.”

The next conclave, in my view, is likely to have the same concerns as the last one — reform of the Curia, toward which the present Pope has not made much progress. Candidates seen as representing the status quo, like Cardinal Parolin, may not fare as well as expected. For example:

  • Careerism has been an issue for the Church as it distracts a priest from his duties to his flock. While Pope Francis has long been and outspoken critic of careerism among the clergy, the only concrete action he’s taken was to eliminate the title, “Monsignor”, an honor usually reserved for very devoted priests.
  • The Pope has been criticized for a weak response to the sex abuse scandals. The commission he established to protect minors had a member quit, because “…she could not accept the obstruction she encountered from some of the Roman Catholic Church’s most senior clerics” (BBC). Also, the discovery that drug-fueled orgies were being organized by a member of the curia in a Vatican apartment was never acknowledged by the Pope or Vatican authorities.
  • Francis appointed Cardinal Pell to oversee the reform of the Vatican Bank, a good start. But in the course of an external audit, 200 million Euros were discovered that had been held off the books. Suddenly, without the Cardinal’s knowledge, the audit was terminated by the Secretary of State (Parolin) for no apparent reason. Moreover, the Pope had established a commission to advise him on the progress of financial reform (COSEA); it was disbanded after two of its members were arrested for leaking documents to journalists.

The selection of the next pope might be similar to the last, an outsider who appears capable of reforming the Curia. In this regard I would speculate that it might be one of the African Cardinals like Sarah, Turkson (Ghana), or Napier (South Africa).



Amoris Laetitia and the ‘Humpty Dumpty Effect’

In E.D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation, a classic on the subject of literary hermeneutics, professor Hirsch argues that the goal of interpretation is to understand what an author intended, a concept that had been abandoned by many authors and critics. One common error which he labeled the “Humpty Dumpty effect” struck me as evident in the general response to the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. This particular fallacy was illustrated in the following lines from Alice in Wonderland:

“The question is,”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Humpty wants to make words mean what he’d like them to mean. T.S. Eliot, for example, had no problem with interpreters determining meaning in his poems that had no connection with what the poet may have been thinking when he wrote them.

While we can’t know everything an author is thinking when he or she composes a text, Hirsch argues that the “norms of language” allow the interpreter to access the intention of an author because they impose limitations on both:

“Although verbal meaning requires the determining will of an author or interpreter, it is nevertheless true that the norms of language exert a powerful influence and impose an unavoidable limitation on the wills of both author and interpreter. Alice is right to say that Humpty Dumpty cannot successfully make words mean just anything he wants them to.” (p. 27)

“Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs”. (p. 31)

Authorial irrelevance with respect to interpretation is not confined to literary criticism, but has affected all forms of textual inquiry including biblical studies.

Amoris Laetitia

There have been questions directed to Pope Francis respectfully asking him to clarify his intended meaning in certain passages of his Apostolic Exhortation. His refusal to respond has led priests and bishops to interpret the document differently and hence implement it differently.

Cardinal Müller, former head of the CDF, interprets the phrase “irregular unions” as couples living as brother and sister with respect to the sacraments. The phrase in AL, however, always refers to couples that do not refrain from sex, and includes unmarried cohabitating pairs (see esp. pars. 78, 298, 301). Ignoring the author’s intention based on the “norms of language”, the Cardinal conveniently elects to redefine the phrase as he pleases, concluding that the text upholds perennial Church teaching.

The truth is that the last few paragraphs of AL along with note 351 that offer a pathway to the sacraments for folks in “irregular situations” do not require clarification; there is no ambiguity (in my estimation). This is why Professor Josef Siefert, suspended from his teaching post by the archbishop for his opposition to AL, declined to join the 62 theologians and clergy and sign on to the filial correction. He referred to the problem as a “moral-theological destructive atomic bomb”, to be dealt with by a much higher authority:

“…because only the Pope himself, and possibly the College of Cardinals, or a Council, could correct this statement, and avoid drawing in praxis its logical consequences.”

“If our conscience can know (not only falsely opine) that God wants us to commit in a certain situation intrinsically bad, adulterous or homosexual acts, then pure logic must draw the consequences that the same applies to contraception (HV), to abortion, and to all other acts which the Church and the divine commandments excluded ‘absolutely’.”

I fully expect that this will lead to a “Third Vatican Council” in my lifetime.



A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture

While numerous passages in the Bible are ambiguous in meaning and can be validly interpreted in multiple ways, certain passages are so clear one would have to try very hard to get them wrong. One of those is Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats and Christ’s judgment upon His return. The ethical imperatives that will form the basis of that judgment are the treatment of those people he regards as His “brothers”. Identifying Jesus’ brothers is the key to understanding the passage:

“‘When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vv. 37-40).

Throughout Church history the “brothers” were primarily interpreted as referring to Christ’s followers. More recently however, the modern concepts of social justice and universal brotherhood have influenced the way this text is read and most interpreters wrongly identify “brothers” as anyone who suffers hunger, thirst, etc. But that isn’t what Matthew wrote or intended. Continue reading “A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture”

The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments

It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they tested him on which is the greatest commandment:

”Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).

The Pharisees responded with silence because Jesus answered correctly. That the entire Law can be summarized in those same few lines can be found in the Rabbinic literature of the first-century. Continue reading “The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments”

Historical Perspectives on the Pope’s Chinese Accord

Joseph Cardinal Zen

The Pope has cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that gives the Vatican a say in the selection of Bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic Church. The deal is supposed to give the Vatican the ability to approve episcopal appointments made by the Chinese government.

To Joseph Cardinal Zen, Retired Bishop of Hong Kong, the Pope would be making a choice for the government-controlled church over the faithful underground church.  His opposition is impassioned, calling it a “surrender”, and a betrayal of Christ. The underground Catholic Church is substantially larger and carefully guards its independence from the government and maintains loyalty to the Holy See, but at the price of persecution.

Neither the state Church or the underground Church have a direct connection to Rome; this is obviously what the Pope wants to fix by the compromise. But first he might want to consider a number of historical precedents that suggest such accords don’t end well and consider a more conservative path: Continue reading “Historical Perspectives on the Pope’s Chinese Accord”

The Validity of a Marriage is Determined by Proper Consent

marriage2Marriage as we know it today originated in the twelfth-century. It was the result of the efforts of the Gregorian reform movement to wrestle full jurisdiction over marriage from the pagan-influenced customs of the feudal nobility. The latter treated marriage as means of forming strategic alliances with other families, or as a way of keeping wealth within an extended family. Arranged marriages precluded consent which often meant that it precluded love. They were often arranged before the child (usually the daughter) had even reached adolescence.

Church authorities used a variety of strategies to accomplish its goals, one of which was that fact that within Latin Christendom it was the Church that determined whether a particular marriage was valid or not. People wanted their marriage to be valid; it determined the legitimacy of their children and their ability to inherit. The Church knew this. But its problem was that it did not possess a uniform definition of what constituted a valid marriage. Continue reading “The Validity of a Marriage is Determined by Proper Consent”

“You are Allowing Evil to Raise Itself up Arrogantly!” St. Hildegard Reproves Her Pope

“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”


There was a time when St. Hildegard would have probably agreed with these paradoxical but generally true shortcomings of the Holy Roman Empire. As an adult Hildegard had come to know a succession of Emperors, since they were in reality no more than Kings of Germany and she was as famous a German as they were. She especially detested Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for his determination to usurp the authority of the pope in ecclesiastical appointments. Hildegard received a gracious letter from the Emperor, in which he referred to her as “holy lady”, and “beloved lady”, requesting her prayers as a means of obtaining grace. Not uncharacteristically, she responds by fearlessly assuming her role as a prophet, of the Old Testament type, delivering threats in the first-person voice of God (very unusual for a woman in medieval times):

“He who Is says: By My own power I do away with the obstinacy and rebellion of those who scorn me. Woe, O woe to the evil of those wicked ones who spurn me. Hear this O king, if you wish to live. Otherwise my sword will pierce you” (Baird, Joseph L. The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Letter #44, p.78).

She follows up with another letter in which explicitly insults the King (a guy who could make her life very difficult):

“…[I]n a mystic vision I see you like a little boy or some madman living before Living Eyes. Yet you still have time for ruling over worldly matters. Beware, therefore, that the almighty King does not lay you low because of the blindness of your eyes, which fail to see correctly how to hold the rod of proper governance in your hand. See to it that you do not act in such a way that you lose the grace of God” (Letter #45, p.78).

Continue reading ““You are Allowing Evil to Raise Itself up Arrogantly!” St. Hildegard Reproves Her Pope”

St. Hildegard’s Cryptic Message to Clerics Who “Neglect the Precepts they Were Meant to Uphold”

Cardinal Walter Kasper

In light of the upcoming final session of the Synod of the Family, with the “shadow synod” lurking in the background: closed-door meetings and behind-the-scenes strategy sessions to ensure success in their determination to overturn Church teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried. What came to my mind was a particular vision of St. Hildegard’s as recalled by Pope Benedict XVI, which in turn brought to mind a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


The focal point of Benedict’s Christmas speech were the revelations of a new series of sex abuse accusations against priests which had surfaced throughout Europe during the year. Recall that 2010 was the “Year of the Priest”; Benedict laments the unexpected irony:

“…[W]hen in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred, profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.”

Continue reading “St. Hildegard’s Cryptic Message to Clerics Who “Neglect the Precepts they Were Meant to Uphold””

The Synod and My Conversion

John Piper is a well known evangelical author. I was a student of his many years ago. He holds a Ph. D from the University of Munich but quit teaching to become a minister. I was briefly on staff as an intern at his church in downtown Minneapolis. I viewed him as a man of integrity. He invited me to Thanksgiving dinner one year when I didn’t have the money to fly home.

I had already been exploring the Catholic Church after taking a course on the Early Church Fathers as a student at an evangelical seminary; but something that happened at Dr. Piper’s church pushed me over the edge. He was preaching on Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19: “so that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”. The people in the pews gasped when he told them that he could not marry people who were divorced with their former spouse still alive; nor could they be voting members of the church. Continue reading “The Synod and My Conversion”