Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

This week’s installment of Vatican confusion

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 24, 2023

The early leader in the competition for the Understatement of the Week is my old friend Robert Royal, with this entry:

Theology departments in Catholic colleges and universities are not exactly noted for slavish orthodoxy, peer pressures to take a strict papal line, or succumbing to alleged threats from Rome.

Writing on his own commentary site The Catholic Thing, Royal was reflecting on a statement by Cardinal-elect Victor Manuel Fernandez. The Argentine prelate, who will soon be the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, had announced that he will take an approach very different from that taken by St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. Although he dutifully praised Veritatis Splendor (VS) as a “great document,” Archbishop Fernandez remarked that it “set certain limits,” and therefore “is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology.”

Well, Robert Royal responded, to “set certain limits” is a perfectly legitimate function. That is particularly true for the Roman Pontiff, who is called to defend the integrity of the faith. It is even more true for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which exists solely for that purpose. As I observed in this space last week,

…however useful it might be to encourage new lines of theological inquiry, that is not the proper role of the DDF. Indeed it is not the proper role of the Holy See. The role of the Pontiff, as successor to St. Peter, is to unite the brethren: to be the focus of unity and guarantor of orthodoxy. The papal office serves to settle theological disputes—not to encourage new ones.

Confusion on the faith

However, Fernandez, after making light of the need for the “limits” set by VS, asked: “In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar, or Von Balthasar?” Friend Royal counters: “The implication is that the ‘limits’ set by VS have somehow intimidated otherwise daring theological minds. But how so?”

Exactly. How many creative theologians have been silenced by the Vatican in the past decade? Are professors at Catholic universities afraid to argue for the ordination of women? Has Rome come down hard on Father James Martin for advocating a change in Church teaching on homosexuality? Does anyone really believe that we would see a renaissance in Catholic theology, if only we could overcome the “limits” imposed by orthodoxy?

On the contrary, the available evidence suggests to me that any decline in the fruitfulness of Catholic theology today might be attributed to the widespread indifference to what the Church teaches. For years we have been encouraged—first by academic theologians, then by some bishops, then even by the Roman Pontiff, and now by the DDF itself—not to worry about the “limits” of Catholic teaching. If you aren’t particularly worried about the truths of the faith—the truths defended in VS, against an onslaught that has strengthened over the subsequent years—what is the point of theological study?

Confusion on the law

On another front, Andrea Gagliarducci reports for MondayVatican on the bewildering financial trial that is finally nearing a conclusion, and sees a fundamental problem at the intersection of criminal and canon law.

The Pillar has set the standard for English-language reporting on this landmark trial. But the facts of the case are so convoluted, and the Vatican’s judicial procedures so unfamiliar, that even the most recent Pillar summary of the prosecution’s case will leave most readers shaking their heads. Can the prosecution’s case really be so disjoined? Can the Vatican tribunal really leave itself open to so many valid questions about the integrity of the entire process? Unfortunately, yes.

Looking at the mess (Hace lio!) in his own analysis, Gagliarducci reminds readers that the Vatican operates with two separate legal systems: the canon law that governs the Catholic Church and the criminal law that governs the secular affairs of the Vatican city-state. In this case, unfortunately, the prosecutor has criss-crossed the lines, and Pope Francis has repeatedly intervened—exercising his rightful authority as sovereign, but interfering with the independence of the judiciary. The net effect, Gagliarducci writes, is that “alleged corrupt behavior becomes the excuse for questioning an entire Vatican system.”

The trial involves disastrous investments that were made by officials of the Secretariat of State—investments that were certainly imprudent, apparently unauthorized, and, according to the prosecutor, fraudulent. But Vatican officials insist that the Secretariat of State must be free to act independently, to protect the sovereign rights of the Vatican city-state. So the prosecutor has the unhappy task of proving that investments that were made by the Secretariat of State, under the rules then in place, were not merely bad decisions but crimes. Gagliarducci writes:

The interrogations of recent months have shown that many procedures were legitimate, many decisions were part of the rules of the time, and many choices were dictated by needs that depended on the legal framework, the contracts signed, and the risk of becoming entangled in the international arena. However, if everything refers to the moral obligation of a good father of a family, everything can possibly become a crime. And this is probably how the prosecutor’s case is built.

The investment in a speculative London real-estate deal was a bad idea, badly managed. But a bad idea is not necessarily a crime, and neither is bad management. It may be a moral offense to squander the funds contributed by the faithful, through a series of imprudent deals with questionable characters; but that too is not necessarily a criminal offense.

(My prediction: Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the leading defendant in the case, will exploit all the confusion—much of which he painstakingly created—to avoid conviction.)

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: IM4HIM - Jul. 31, 2023 1:01 PM ET USA

    The Vatican has their own “fact checkers” who only permit opinions that Pope Francis approves which are often times contrary to what Holy Mother Church has taught for 2000 years.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 27, 2023 1:43 AM ET USA

    There’s no hope for reasonable behavior from Vatican officials at this point. Theology has become a activity that is ordered to making the individual famous rather than holy; financial matters are ordered to making one’s family and connections wealthy rather than saving souls; morality is something to be treated like a valuable antique, admired but kept on the shelf, an ideal that we praise, but don’t practice. The next Pope will have his hands full fixing all the confusion and wickedness …

  • Posted by: FrHughM - Jul. 25, 2023 5:21 AM ET USA

    Surely Popes should “encourage new lines of theological inquiry” – as did Pope JP II, eg. in Veritatis Splendor. Development is part of the orthodox Faith, “The Spirit will lead you into all truth”. It is much needed in the aftermath of a post-Enlightenment scholasticism which has proved unable to maintain the reins of Western culture. Certainly, that development without “setting certain limits” which is now promised to us is revolution not evolution, and definitively not orthodox Christianity.