VATICAN CITY (RNS) High-level debates over Catholic teachings on marriage and divorce and other hot-button issues heated up on Wednesday (Feb. 19) as a highly anticipated effort to overhaul the Vatican bureaucracy slogged through the devilish details of financial reform.

The multitrack talks launched months ago by Pope Francis ramped up this week as some 185 cardinals converged on Rome to watch the pontiff add 19 new members to their select ranks this weekend, part of what some called “the most critical week” of Francis’ year-old papacy.

Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service

Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service

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Anticipation is mounting for a series of closed-door discussions on Thursday and Friday, when the cardinals will hold what are expected to be frank talks about issues such as contraception, cohabitation, gay marriage and whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion.

“On way to Rome & some very interesting, perhaps challenging meetings,” South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier tweeted early Wednesday.

That may be an understatement.

Francis wanted the entire College of Cardinals to have a chance to talk about the controversial themes, which are to be discussed at greater length this fall at a landmark Vatican meeting of many of the world’s bishops.

But Francis also asked the hierarchy in each nation to provide feedback ahead of time about the attitude of their flocks;  the blunt responses so far have already made public the sort of views that many church leaders would prefer to ignore or only speak about privately.

“There is a big gap between the Vatican and reality,” the Japanese bishops wrote in a frank assessment, published on Wednesday, of the views of their flock on contraception and related topics.

And the church is not helping matters, they added: “Often when Church leaders cannot present convincing reasons for what they say, they call it ‘natural law’ and demand obedience on their say-so,” the bishops wrote.

Bishops in other countries have found similar results when they surveyed the faithful. They have stirred debate not only by publishing the results but by calling for — as German and Swiss bishops did — “a new approach concerning Catholic sexual morality.”

The bishops of England and Wales were among the first to survey the pews but recently decided to keep the results secret, prompting sharp questions from some in the church. “It is somewhat bizarre to consult the faithful on matters of doctrine and then not to tell them what the consultation amounted to,” wrote the editors of The Tablet, a leading Catholic periodical.

In the U.S., some bishops have decided to poll their dioceses, but many have not, and it is not clear what information the American bishops will send to Rome about the attitudes of American Catholics.

In another twist to the intrigue over whether or how much Francis will open the door to change, he invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to deliver a lengthy opening address to the assembled cardinals on Thursday morning.

Kasper is a favorite theologian of Pope Francis, and he is well-known for encouraging Catholics who are divorced and remarried (without an annulment from the church) to take Communion, something that is currently barred.

Kasper was also a frequent sparring partner of another, more conservative German theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. Kasper recently published a book on mercy, a favorite theme of Francis, and choosing him to set the stage for these closed-door talks could indicate how much things are shifting in the Vatican.

What may not be changing as quickly, however, is the overhaul of the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy.

Francis was elected last year with a mandate to overhaul the centuries-old, dysfunctional Vatican civil service. He quickly appointed an unprecedented “kitchen cabinet” of eight cardinals to lead to effort. The cardinals wrapped up three days of meetings on Wednesday, their third over the past year, but there were still no announcements of any concrete plans.

The Council of Cardinals, dubbed the G8 or “Gang of Eight,” instead spent most of the time discussing problems with the Vatican’s financial system and the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, and they submitted some initial proposals to the pope, the Vatican said Wednesday.

Those proposals and any response from the pope will remain secret for now, said the Vatican’s top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Lombardi also confirmed that the Council of Cardinals had scheduled a meeting for late April, in addition to the one set for July, in an apparent effort to push ahead with changes to the rest of the unwieldy Vatican bureaucracy before the momentum stalls.

Part of the problem, said longtime Vatican journalist John Thavis, is that there is so much to do and Francis has appointed so many groups to do it that “the Vatican is experiencing a virtual gridlock of commissions, councils and consistories.” In addition, the Vatican has hired several outside consulting groups to provide feedback on fixing the systems.

“If I had to predict,” Thavis wrote on his blog, “I’d say that the framework for reforming the Vatican’s economic affairs and in particular the Vatican bank will come first, and changes in Roman Curia offices will take shape much later.”

Francis “has started reforming the Curia but this is a process that will take some time and the reforms will need to be carefully examined,” Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a longtime curial official, told the Vatican Insider website.

But, Re said, “Francis is a determined reformer.”



  1. Pope Francis was presented with centuries, even millennia, of problems to resolve in a church that has always been plagued with clericalism. A part of clericalism are the aspirations of young seminarians and priests studying in Rome who are eager to climb the hierarchical ladder. Romans who are familiar with that youthful clerical ambition deridingly refer to it as “Romanita.”

    Clericalism is an evil that has always harmed the church. It could not exist except for the positions of the clergy over non-clergy, supported by their claim of “sacramental powers” that give them dominance over the non-clergy who are usually put down with the pejorative title, “lay people.” Clericalist clergy and lay people, royalty and subjects.

    Martin Luther revisited the topic and became convinced that the positions of priest and bishop were inventions, later distortions of positions temporarily assigned by various Jesus communities to particular members in which those members served the larger community. Other reformers followed Luther. We now have all the divisions of Christianity, some of whom, from time to time, seek some form of union, ecumenicity.

    However, the stronger and more dangerous practice of Christianity and later Catholicism has always been SECRECY. The blame for that can be placed on the non-Christian Emperor Constantine who called the Council of Nicaea in 325 for the sole purpose of politically exploiting the vastly growing communities of Jesus followers. Royalty has always protected itself against its subjects with secrecy and punishment ranging from murder to excommunication. Christian bishops claimed royalty and pursued those same practices after Nicaea.

    John Paul II defended the autonomy of bishops and seldom interfered with them, not even when they were hiding the sexual abuse of children by themselves and priests. Benedict was not much different except that he give the crimes a bit more lip service. Remember, John Paul and Benedict colluded to place the handling of all sexually abusing clerics under Benedict’s control when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    There is hope that the likes of Cardinal Kasper of Germany and other clear thinking and strong-willed German Catholic clergy and “lay people” will pursue a practice of disobedience to Vatican edicts which they find contradictions to the precepts of Jesus in any ways. There is a group of German priests and “lay people” who properly resent the term “lay people,” but I think their suggested substitute is rather awkward.

    The plague of secrecy could not exist and continue to do harm to the People of God if “lay people” were properly respected and included at all levels of thinking and management in the church. Formally, “lay people” are relegated to being the payers of the bills racked up by the clergy, including hush money for crimes, accounting and legal fees, and court costs and awards for sexual crimes against the very kids of those who pay the bills. They clergy does not pay the bills. Few clergy admittedly have kids.

    It is long past time when the ranks of cardinal and archbishop should be abolished. It is much longer past the time when “lay people” should be termed less downgradingly and when they have full participation in all church thinking and management. The church will continue to die away if that does not happen. Perhaps that death is unavoidable. Perhaps it is the new sacrifice needed to renew life in the true and full People of God.

    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      I don’t know what the future holds for the Catholic Church –but one thing I know is wrong is the speculation about the Church dying unless it obeys Western orders.
      For according to “The Next Christendom” by historian (non-Catholic) Philip Jenkins Christianity and Catholicism is being re-invigorated powerfully by the burgeoning number of conversions in the so-called Third World (or Southern World.) He wrote the book a few years before we had a “Southern-Third World” pope. And in spite of liberals in the Church expecting a Third World revolution-Third World Christians and Catholics are turning out to be very, very traditional in their faith.
      He had some famous quotes for those waiting with bated breath for the Catholic Church to collapse or radically change.
      St. Vincent de Paul (about 1620) recalled Jesus’ promise that his Church would continue until the end of days–he also noted that Jesus had said nothing about the faith necessarily surviving in Europe.
      Then in 1850 Lord Macaulay famously warned that the Roman Catholic Church may still exist in undiminished vigor, when some traveler from New Zealand shall in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul.

  2. Whatever the result, the reform will dictate its decision.
    Americans and other free people have been showing less and less
    interest in Dictatorships of all kinds.

    If The Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world
    then how about we just leave it to the next world and abandon this nonsense for a few centuries?

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