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Issue Date:  October 15, 2004

By John L. Allen Jr.
Doubleday, 392 pages, $24.95
The Roman curia gets an even break


John Allen has broken the rules of Vatican journalism. In his brilliant new book All the Pope’s Men, he gives the Curia Romana an even break. His goal is to facilitate communication between the Vatican and the English-speaking world by “identifying the core values and experiences that underlie specific Vatican policy choices.” To do this he must strive for fairness, objectivity and respect for the sincerity and good will of “the pope’s men” and the culture of which they are a part. It cannot be easy to suspend judgment and listen, especially, I should think, when those one is interviewing are often quite incapable of doing the same thing.

If Allen’s style of inquiry represents the highest ethic of journalism, it is also a bit old-fashioned. The elite media in this country no longer practice it, especially when the subject is the Catholic church. Reporting about the church in the “good, gray New York Times,” for example, sometimes reminds me of nothing so much as the absence of a boundary between news reports and personal opinion in Col. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune when the subject was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Old-fashioned or not, this dispassionate book is the best written about the Vatican in a long time and belongs on the desk of every editor and religion writer in the English-speaking world. You don’t have to like these people (and I don’t), but honesty and integrity demand that you know where they’re coming from.

After describing in some detail the organization of the curia, Allen demolishes five “myths” about the curia. It is not monolithic. It does not speak with one voice. Some curialists would like to see the birth control decision reviewed. Some also believe in greater decentralization of power. Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper disagree on the theology of the church. Archbishop Piero Marini, the pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies, disagrees with -- and ignores -- Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, who until recently was trying to re-reform the liturgy. No one is really “in charge” of the Vatican. The various offices are independent of one another by both law and custom. The pope’s style of governance is to go around the curia rather than through it, though he signs off on the major documents that are brought to him.

The Vatican is little better at keeping secrets, no matter how much it might try, than any contemporary institution. It is not wealthy -- its endowment is smaller than that of the University of Notre Dame. While there is careerism in the curia, many of its members are free of excessive ambition. From my own experience -- far more limited than John Allen’s -- I agree with his demolition of the myths. The curia is overworked, undereducated, Italianate in its efficiency and untroubled by self-doubt. It would be quite incapable of organizing the kinds of conspiracies that novelists like Dan Brown would like us to believe. (The last two sentences are my gloss, not Allen’s opinion, which is impossible to tease out of the book.)

He then turns to the psychology, sociology and theology of the curia. His descriptions ring true. There are solid theoretical paradigms that shape the culture of the curia. Its members, in good faith, believe that these paradigms are essential for the church. However, all bureaucracies have their cultures and these cultures are always narrow -- think of the CIA! All bureaucracies require constant reform. Ecclesia semper reformanda is not only sound theology but sound organizational management.

Finally, Allen considers two problems that epitomize the strains between American Catholics and the Vatican: sexual abuse and the Iraq war. “The ground,” he writes apropos the former, “is being prepared for a cycle of recrimination and misunderstanding that could last a generation, producing a sort of undeclared rupture such as the Catholic world has already seen in Holland, Germany and Austria.”

Granted, as Allen argues, the Vatican’s main concern was protecting the rights of a priest to due process, the media impression is that the Vatican doesn’t understand the problem and is uninterested in the suffering of victims and their families. In fact, the meeting between four American bishops (including Cardinal Francis George) with curial counterparts worked out a flexible compromise. Alas the media, following the models they have developed about the Catholic church, presented the solution as a surrender by the Americans.

The widely distributed comments by some curial cardinals -- which Allen quotes at length -- reinforced the American sense that the Vatican didn’t get it. There will be more trouble ahead when the church orders bishops to reassign priests who have appealed their cases and when the temporary American norms expire.

I’m not so sure that Vatican opposition to the Iraq war causes much of a problem for American Catholics. Most of them hardly know that the pope has condemned the war -- which suggests that the “undeclared rupture” has already occurred.

A couple of personal comments, not about this impressive book as much as occasioned by the book.

The repeated comments by curialists about American “individualism” are simply false. In extensive research I’ve done with two ongoing international studies, I have found that on measures of generosity with money and time and altruism in motivations (for volunteering and job choice), Americans score much higher than Europeans. They are also more likely to join civic organizations. Does anyone seriously think that the English, the French, the Dutch or the Germans are any less selfishly individualistic than Americans? Does any other Catholic population in the world have anything like the intense communalism of the American neighborhood parish?

Finally, John Allen, younger than I am by a lot of years, does not remember the hope that the Vatican Council stirred up in my generation and hence can be objective about the men who have tried so hard to destroy that hope -- men like Medina and Ratzinger. Their good intentions I do not question, only their prudence and humility. Their ignorance and arrogance have done great harm to the church. From those who know everything, libera nos, Domine!

Fr. Andrew Greeley is the author of The Making of the Popes 1978 and the novel White Smoke.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004

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