2021 has been a doozy of a year in Church news, and especially in Vatican communications. In one sense, the year that was gave us more of the same – more of what has come to pass for what the Romans call normale amministrazione – which is to say: more bumbling corruption and earnest incompetence, more workaday wickedness and office-grey gracelessness.
If 2017 was the year in which micro-fissures in the Church’s central Roman governing apparatus became visible to the naked eye, and 2018 was the year the crisis of leadership in the Church was fully unmasked, and 2019 was the year that nothing happened (everybody saw), and 2020 was signed by ’rona; 2021 was the year of … meh.
On the last day of the year, the Vatican’s official comms outfit provided a perfect illustration of 2021’s tone and tenor.
Vatican News published a Year-in Review piece saying, among other things, that Pope Francis’s draconian edict, Traditionis custodes, restricting the use of older Roman liturgical books, garnered “generally positive reactions, but also diverse dubia, which received response from the Congregation for Divine Worship on December 18th.” Well, that’s one way to see it, and put it.
It’s not that there weren’t momentous doings, mind.
There was the autumn release of a damning report on abuse and coverup in the French Church. Pope Francis said the report made him ashamed, and then admitted two months later that he hadn’t read it yet.
There was the colossally convoluted exitus of the “other” big criminal trial in the Vatican earlier in 2021. Remember that one? That business saw a pair of clerics connected to the Vatican’s minor seminary on trial for abuse and coverup. It was a complicated prosecution. Frankly, it was a long shot for prosecutors. The proceedings didn’t do much for confidence in the Vatican’s ability to deliver justice. The big practical upshot of the business was that it proved the near-boundless capacity of both the institutional Vatican and of individual Vatican officials high and low to know nothing when it serves them.
The story that illustrates the state of the business, world-in-a-nutshell, must be the absurd display of ineptitude surrounding Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Mn. – inexplicably emeritus of Crookston – who celebrated a “Mass of Thanksgiving” for himself, after an investigation determined something about some coverup allegations. I said at the time:
The world learns that a Catholic bishop accused of interfering in a canonical or civil investigation into clerical sexual abuse gets early retirement with honor – full benefits, too? – and goes to live with relatives in the Sun Belt. That sounds more like a reward than it does a punishment.
It would be easy to say that the Hoeppner business is the nutshell version of 2021 in the Church, but it’s not. There are the stories out of places like Nigeria – to name just one – of enormous courage in the face of horrendous persecution. There are good works happening everywhere, like that of Malta House in Norwalk, Connecticut, which was dear to my own mother and continues to be dear to my whole family. I name it, because I know it. There are others like it, almost anywhere one looks.
I had a little book out in the fall of 2021, in which I noted that people are hurting – whether they know it or not – in large part because we all have a right to know what’s doing in the Church, and Churchmen aren’t making good on their promises to do better.
To say it in prosaic terms, the attitude and behavior of many Churchmen vis à vis Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency – the threefold watchword of Pope Francis’s reform agenda – is a threat to core mission-effectiveness. Said simply: It’s hard to trust men who tell you Jesus is God in the flesh and loves you without beginning or end and died for your sins and rose from the dead to save you from yourself and give you eternal life, if those men can’t tell the truth about their own conduct in the leadership of the Church that they say is the vessel of the salvation Jesus offers to the world.
That makes for tough going.
“We have it on good authority,” I wrote in the book I mentioned, “that the Barque of Peter will come safely to port.” I also said that we know much less about what condition she will be in when she does make her final call.
“Whether by design or by accident of providence,” I wrote in that little volume, “being in the world while not being of it requires that we be able to see clearly how bad things are, without losing sight of the good.” Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.
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