Earlier this summer I wrote about what I had learned from my students during a week-long theology camp devoted to discovering the beauty of traditional Christian iconography from the Byzantine tradition. One difficulty in coming up with readings for the students to discuss was that any theological statement about beauty had to be able to address the question: can we really claim that the battered and bloodied body of a dying Christ on the Cross is beautiful?
One man who has done so much to help us grapple with that question is the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), whose many works have been translated into English by Ignatius Press. Throughout his life and following his death, von Balthasar attracted and gathered many “disciples” and students of his work, including Marc Cardinal Ouellet. It was from von Balthasar, especially in his magnum opus The Glory of the Lord, that I learned this overriding lesson: beauty can only be sustained if its underlying form is both true and good. Otherwise, if the underlying form is rotten, any perceived beauty will be superficial—“mere aesthetics”, or what in Italian is called la bella figura.
The notion of la bella figura came out in two books published in the last decade, both of which came to mind in thinking about the ongoing Viganó-McCarrick-Ouellet-Francis debacle.
The first of these was La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, a very entertaining book written by journalist and essayist Beppe Severgnini, who lived in the United States before moving back home to Italy. He noted that “if you want to understand Italy, forget the guide books. Study theology.”
Veteran journalist John L. Allen, Jr., did just that in his 2004 study All the Pope’s Men, in discussing the who, what, and when of the Vatican at the time. Allen noted that an anxiety for preserving la bella figura is “undeniably influential in Vatican psychology”, which can be seen in several examples: the reluctance to replace incompetent people or even to criticize their work; the preference for dealing with scandal outside the spotlight; and the fact that “if there’s a choice between doing something quickly and doing it beautifully, beauty is going to beat speed every time.”
It seems to me that Allen has provided a helpful hermeneutic for interpreting Cardinal Ouellet’s recent and much discussed letter to Archbishop Viganó. A key aspect of the cardinal’s complaint against the archbishop may be found in the opening words: “In your last message to the press.” Vigano’s real error, apparently, is that he has not preserved la bella figura by maintaining discreet silence in these matters. If there is any doubt of this, Ouellet’s next paragraph removes it: “I find your current attitude incomprehensible and extremely troubling … because your public accusations gravely harm the reputation of the bishops” (my emphasis).
Note what harms the reputation of bishops: not their sins of commission (abuse itself) or of omission (covering up the abuse), but insolent inferiors talking about the sins of their superiors in public. Such talking, as Ouellet again makes plain in his strong conclusion, has led to Viganó’s “open and scandalous rebellion that inflicts a very painful wound to the Bride of Christ,” the healing of which will only come when Vigano learns to “repent of your rebelliousness, and come back to better feelings towards the Holy Father.” Is this really about feelings?
Many of those curialists around Francis, and perhaps the pontiff himself, seem to think there is still a bella figura to be preserved—if only the rest of us would be silent.
The problem here is two-fold: first, it’s too late. Second, it’s bad theology.
It’s too late because the ugly stories and uglier realities of abuse, cover-up, and corruption are out there, and there’s no going back. In a digital age, those stories will not die. Never again will a tiny handful of scholars, in fifty or a hundred years, have to make onerous treks to, say, the Vatican Archives to dust off faded folios of documents and yellowed news clippings from 2018. There is no hiding from these stories and the many questions around them, which will continue to be read and asked by anybody anywhere who wishes to do so.
The faithful know that priests and bishops are sinners. However, this is not about good men who have stumbled, but about patterns, plans, obstructions, denials, stonewalling, lies, and deliberate evils perpetuated for years and decades. As Ouellet himself admits:
How is it possible that this man of the Church [McCarrick], whose incoherence has now been revealed, was promoted many times, and was nominated to such a high position as Archbishop of Washington and Cardinal? I am personally very surprised, and I recognize that there were failures in the selection procedures implemented in his case.
So, those surprising acts and many more are slowly coming into plain view, and pretending otherwise is not just fatuous but deeply counter-productive, increasing the already catastrophic loss of credibility and authority across the Church and making the proclamation of the good news even more difficult.
If Cardinal Ouellet, who is widely acknowledged as a brilliant theologian, wishes to follow Mother Teresa and “do something beautiful for God,” then I think there is only one thing needful: full and unsparing confession of everything that is known in curial files and by curial personnel, including the pope himself. He can make those files accessible for others to see, and take heart and be not afraid for Catholics of the world are unafraid of these ugly stories: we want them to come out for, with Christ, we know that “nothing is hidden that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).
We are not “scandalized” (a term regularly misused) by them. No, we are appalled by the handling of them. We do not want bishops and cardinals to try to cover up the gashes in the Church’s image and reputation: we want them to admit their part in rending and ruining her garments. Only full and honest confession of everything will be beautiful for it alone will have (as von Balthasar might say) the solid form of truth and goodness. And only by recovering those—the true and the good—will the beautiful, in God’s good time, ever again be manifest in the Church’s figura.