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counting on the cardinals

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 27, 2006

The Boston Globe's Michael Paulson reports on the newly increased level of co-responsibility with which Pope Benedict wishes to invest his cardinals:

On Friday, Benedict repeatedly used the phrase, "I am counting on you," as he bestowed red hats on the 15 men he had chosen as his first crop of cardinals. ... "I am counting on you, dear brother cardinals, to ensure that the principle of love will spread far and wide, and will give new life to the Church at every level of her hierarchy, in every group of the faithful, in every religious institute, in every spiritual, apostolic, or humanitarian initiative," Benedict said Friday. "I am counting on you to see to it that our common endeavor to fix our gaze on Christ's open heart will hasten and secure our path towards the full unity of Christians. I am counting on you to see to it that the Church's solicitude for the poor and needy challenges the world with a powerful statement on the civilization of love."

The read given by Paulson's experts to this address is that the cardinals are to assume a more important consultative role in Vatican policy. I think this interpretation is largely correct. But the Pope's repeated "I am counting on you" sounds to me less like an announcement than an entreaty, specifically, an entreaty that the cardinals go beyond their minimal official duties and take on a larger share of the dirty work. In another words, the Pope's plea is that, faced with Church business where the solution is clear but unpleasant, the cardinal archbishops stop passing the buck and thus forcing the Holy See to deal with it.

"I am counting on you." That's not a request for advice. It repeats the plea for cooperation Pope Benedict addressed to the cardinals immediately after his election. He didn't, and doesn't, mention specifics, but we can picture many examples where conflict-adverse churchmanship has made a joke out of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

Take the case of Fr. Roger Haight, S.J. While connected to the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and to Boston College, he wrote a heretical book. If the relevant churchmen were doing their jobs, Haight's heresy would have been strangled in the cradle. His immediate religious superior could have spiked the book in the draft stage. That guy funked his job, which meant the book got published, which put the problem in an uneasy triangle formed by the President of Weston, the Archbishop of Boston, and Haight's major superior. Only the last-mentioned has drop-dead authority in the matter, but interference in theological scholarship by invoking obedience has a bad odor to it. A school president would have the powers that belong to an employer, but of course it would be a fatal career step to use them against a progressive. The archbishop in turn has no direct authority over a member of an exempt order, but is always able to apply indirect pressure to get wayward religious to toe the line. (There's also the doctrinal peer review exercised by Haight's fellow theologians, comparable to the restraint a rugby team typically exercises over its favorite cheerleader's drinking.) Each of the pertinent authorities, were he willing to pay the price, could have tackled the Haight Affair at the local level and resolved it there. They didn't.

Instead, they took the easy way out and let the inevitable protests carry the problem all the way up the ladder to the CDF, where the predictably slow, patient, and thorough process of examination, clarification, and re-examination took place, resulting in the finding that the statements "Jesus is the unique Savior" and "Jesus is not the unique Savior" cannot both be true. Thus, a doctrinal judgment that was well within the theological competence of Fr. Haight's mother, through the fecklessness of clergymen up and down the chain of subsidiarity, morphed into a disciplinary problem, and so came to absorb the energies of the highest ecclesiastical authority. This is like having Chief Justice Roberts rule on whether your two-year-old ate enough of his peas to get his dessert.

Ideally, every member of the Church should do his own part to pick up the nasty jobs and, according to his authority, accept his own share of the attendant odium. Washing one's hands of the conflict means that the guy upstairs gets to be the bad cop, and the pyramid of ecclesial hand-washers meant that the man at the apex became the Grand Rottweiler -- a caricature not only bad for him but bad for the Church. Joseph Ratzinger knows that this systemic gutlessness cannot continue indefinitely. True, the cardinals can pass the buck without (in most cases) violating Church law. But the pope is asking for, is counting on, something more: the kind of tough love that will give "new life to the Church at every level of her hierarchy, in every group of the faithful, in every religious institute, in every spiritual, apostolic, or humanitarian initiative." Let's hope he gets it.

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