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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Innocens manibus et mundo corde

"Innocent in hands and clean of heart" (Ps 23.4) A short essay, but a little longer than my usual posts, in which I reflect on the story broken yesterday by Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter.

A “story of Vatican skulduggery to make you gasp” (to use the expression of Damian Thompson) was published in the National Catholic Reporter yesterday. Fr Marcel Maciel, founder and head of the Legionaries of Christ, whose crimes and sins against the sixth commandment are now well known, accumulated a vast fortune for the Legionaries which he felt able to disburse as and when it suited him. He particularly saw fit to give large cash sums to various senior figures in the Vatican, for which he was protected from investigation, allowed to get impose a ridiculous vow of silence on his subordinates, and given access to the “private” papal Masses of Pope John Paul II.

I remember those private Masses. The day after the Diaconate Ordinations at Pallazzola, (the Summer House of the English College at Rome) the newly-ordained Deacons went to Castelgandolfo with their parents to assist at the Pope’s Mass early in the morning. After the Mass, we got to meet the Holy Father and say a few words to him. It was one of the happiest moments in my parents’s lives (God rest them). These Masses were fairly frequent and I did have an inkling as a young student in Rome that if you knew the right people to talk to, you could wangle tickets for the Mass. In my naivety, I would not have imagined that you could pass over a bung of $50,000 to get yourself or your benefactors admitted. I am relieved that my dear parents never got to hear about this sort of thing and I feel saddened for good and devout Catholics who have to hear it now.

Essentially, the age of the Borgias never really passed. The Council of Trent did much to reform the Church internally in response to the reformation which was partly fuelled by similar scandals. St John Fisher and St Thomas More stand as shining examples of clear-sighted understanding, going to their deaths in defence of the authority of the Pope despite the scandalous example of some popes during their lifetime. St Ignatius, St Robert Bellarmine, St Charles Borromeo and other great witnesses of true Catholic faith did their best to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent despite fierce opposition. When the religious of Milan realised that St Charles was actually going to do what Trent said, one of them attempted to assassinate him. There remained many obstinately comfortable senior figures in the Church who treated their office as a personal money bag and, in some cases, indulged their other vices with impunity.

Still today, as ever, and probably until the end of time, the Church is in need of reform. We should not make the mistake of thinking that it is only the reform of other people that is necessary. Any crisis in the Church is a call for all of us to return to the standards given us by Christ. I have just picked up once again the classic Introduction to the Devout Life by St Francis de Sales with the resolution of trying to live a little more closely according to its teaching. I recommend it to you, though you may prefer Granada’s A Sinner’s Guide or Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat. I cannot stress strongly enough that the personalist psychology of Carl Rogers and his friends is spiritual poison and to be avoided like the plague. If you want to read a short account of why, see the interview with William Coulson: We overcame their traditions, we overcame their faith.

Nevertheless, we do all long now for reform at the highest level. The NCR story shows beyond reasonable doubt that Pope Benedict is the man to begin it. They highlight the most significant incident where he was offered the brown envelope “for your charitable use.” Cardinal Ratzinger refused, even though he had just given a lecture to the Legionnaries and an honorarium might be thought innocent enough. I know it sounds a bit nerdy but I do in fact have a copy of the Regolamento Generale della Curia Romana, the "General Regulations for the Roman Curia", which I picked up out of interest from the Vatican bookshop a couple of years ago. In it, there is the text of the oath of fidelity taken by all Vatican officials. Part of it reads:
Simulque promitto munera mihi in remunarationen, etiam sub specie doni oblata, nec quaesiturum, nec recepturum.
At the same time, I promise that I will neither seek nor accept gifts given to me in remuneration, even if they are given under the appearance of the offering of a gift.
Cardinal Ratzinger took this seriously.

It also struck me that from the start of his pontificate, Pope Benedict dropped the system of admitting people to his private Masses. They are only attended by a few religious who are part of the Pontifical Household. You can’t get to see Pope Benedict by “knowing the right people.” It is perhaps a disadvantage that genuine attendees such as the parents of newly-ordained deacons cannot any longer have the joy of meeting the Pope in such a setting, but I feel quite sure that my parents would understand the Holy Father’s desire to stamp out corruption.

Cardinal Ratzinger moved against Maciel and, by opening investigations about his activities, effectively forced him to step down as head of the order. At around that time, he made his comment about removing “filth” from the Church: a reference that could hardly escape being applied to Maciel. He did all this despite determined opposition from those in the Vatican who had benefited from Maciel’s largesse with the funds he had amassed from pious donors. As Pope, he finished the job, dismissing him from public ministry to retire to a life of prayer and penance.

In this whole sordid story or bribery, corruption, and abuse, Pope Benedict stands out as the man who is innocens manibus et mundo corde (Ps 23.4): his hands are innocent of bribes and his heart is pure. The reform of the Church in response to the scandals of the day include reform at every level. The Sacred Liturgy is far from irrelevant. If you sacrilegiously mess up what is most sacred, why should anything else remain untouched? If the doctrine of the faith can be cast into doubt, why should anyone respect the moral teaching? The world is essentially saying to us that we should live according to the moral teaching that is contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict, throughout his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as the Supreme Pontiff, has pursued reform in all of these areas and, as the NCR story shows clearly, he has exercised determination to rid the Church of the filth which shames us. He deserves our wholehearted support, our fervent prayers, our penances offered in solidarity, and our loyal acceptance of any necessary reforms in liturgy, doctrine, morals, and asceticism that he judges fit to impose.
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