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Triangulating the Vatican

[ by Charles Cameron -- three ways to get a fix on the present status and future needs of the Catholic Church ]

Perugino, The Entrusting of the Keys to Peter, Sistine Chapel


I want to make this brief. It seems to me that the most powerful statement of the present situation of the Church was that delivered by John Colet at Convocation in 1512:

You are come together today, fathers and right wise men, to hold a council. In which what you will do and what matters you will handle, I do not yet know, but I wish that, at length, mindful of your name and profession, you would consider of the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs; for never was there more necessity and never did the state of the Church more need endeavors. For the Church – the spouse of Christ – which He wished to be without spot or wrinkle, is become foul and deformed. As saith Isaias, “The faithful city is become a harlot”; and as Jeremias speaks, “She hath committed fornication with many lover,” whereby she has conceived many seeds of iniquity and daily bringeth forth the foulest offspring. Wherefore I have come here today, fathers, to admonish you with all your minds to deliberate, in this your Council, concerning the reformation of the Church.

The full text can be found here, where it is drawn from John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham U.Pr., 1992). I was pointed in this direction by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who quoted from it in his piece The church after Pope Benedict today.


By way of comparison, here’s a snippet from this week’s Time report, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, on the status of another large entity whose purported focus is the common good:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.


And for a third angle on the upcoming conclave, I would like to offer a brief cull from Anthony Judge‘s tabular listing of cardinals aged 80 and below, in which he identifies those who have some indication of competence in the “social” and “natural” sciences in their Wikipedia biographies.

I have omitted those who had no listing in the natural sciences — mathematics included — and those aged 80, since I understand they will be too old to vote. Of the 116 cardinals that remain, these seven apparently have some acquaintance with what Judge terms the natural sciences, as detailed in the final column:

Of these, Cardinal O’Brien, who appears to have the widest range of scientific disciplines in his background, has recently been the target of accusations of impropriety.

As those who read me regularly are aware, I “come from” the arts rather than the sciences myself. But I cannot help but agree with Anthony Judge’s comment, particularly insofar as it relates to mathematics and the sciences:

It is striking how few disciplines are represented in what amounts to a table of cognitive competence of those from whom guidance in world governance is expected.


I’m tossing you these three quotes not so much for themselves as for the ripples of thought, the further questions they may raise. Colet’s sermon, for instance, was delivered only five years before Martin Luther “nailed his theses to the door” — or at least sent them to his bishop — thus starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The aptness of Colet’s sermon to today should give us considerable pause.


4 Responses to “Triangulating the Vatican”

  1. Madhu Says:

    Medicine is such a racket. When still practicing within the “nonprofit hospital group” environment, I never could figure out where all that money was going. Everyone’s benefits were being cut, salaries stagnant, departments running a loss (we were told) and so where was it all going? Lots of new shiny buildings on campus, glamor hires, and marketing television adds, though. Never could figure it out. What a racket.

  2. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Cardinal O’Brien has resigned, effective immediately.
    Wasn’t it the point of the Church that expertise in mundane affairs was not relevant to administration of the world? I suppose if we go far enough back in its history, “administration of the world” was not the goal at all; after all, kings and emperors and such were put here by God to do that.  But then a funny thing happened on the way to Rome’s forums….
    I’m greatly curious to know how the Church will handle the issue of homosexuality.  I expect they will continue to hold the line they’ve always drawn in the sand–that is, the dotted line, with moralistic and spiritual teachings (abstractions) representing the drawn portions of the line and all those bothersome mundane realities seeping through the gaps.
    I believe that the Iranians took a different approach for their own clensing revolution, targeting and killing and persecuting the homosexuals that they blamed for their misfortunes prior to their own revolution.  Homosexuals, you see, were manipulative, controlling cabals who had taken over the state, leading to all that was bad in Iran; so, the revolutionaries took action.  I don’t expect the same from the new Papacy however, but it is certainly an issue they will need to address whether they do so openly or behind-the-scenes.  But it needs to be said that holding back reality with dotted lines of carefully constructed abstractions has always been a losing proposition, even if it might succeed on a temporary basis.  (Which is why I assume that the Iranians utilized more mundane methods, like executions and real-world persecutions.  Those who can’t win an argument….etc.)

  3. larrydunbar Says:

    “Wasn’t it the point of the Church that expertise in mundane affairs was not relevant to administration of the world?”

    Sounds logical to me, but I might assume that “mundane affairs” included, from a historical perspective, homosexuality.

    How does losing command of the most powerful Christian army in history rank? If this did happen, it would tell me it is time to hang it up, if I were Pope.

    I mean reformation? How about no virgin birth, Christ is born a man then becomes a God, the promised land is in New Jersey, and by now, the way Mormons are baptizing people, there are probably only 10 Tribes, but then who could count such a thing? I am not Catholic, but that really is some reformation that would be pretty hard to swallow (no pun intended).

    I mean, from what I hear here locally, all the Christian churches in my area, I am supposing Catholic and all the rest, were telling everyone to vote Romney. In fact, Romney won my county, and I don’t think he could have if the churches were not behind him.

    So if you put Conservative instead of “right wise men” I think you have the way the Catholic Church is going. I think TPMB is correct (but for different reasons) on betting on a African or Latin American for the next pope. At least that is what makes up the Conservative element in the Catholic Church locally. They will probably “reform” it back to the Middle Ages, ha! 

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Larry, I think there’s an odd conundrum arising between the question, “What does the Church need to do to save itself?” and the question, “What does the Church need to do to save everyone else?”
    Now of course you might quibble over whether it’s the Church’s business to be saving others — maybe, you’ll say, individuals should be the responsible parties in their own salvation — but then, if this is so, why is the Church in business at all?
    I am not a Catholic either, nor a Protestant, nor a Mormon.  I would guess, as a quick swipe at the problem, that the major culprit in today’s Church foibles is not homosexuality or even the Church’s stand on it – per se — but rather, bureaucracy.  Marriage was viewed as a negative because lustful thoughts distracted from “the mission,” even for the average person; but, for the average person, it was preferrable to having lustful thoughts that were so powerful they might lead to promiscuity or general abandonment to lust in their everyday lives.  Priests, on the other hand, should have much more to do, particularly works relevant to God’s word:  praying, preaching, and so forth.  Once upon a time, those activities could fill a priest’s time — Let’s say, that early in the church’s history, there was much work to do; being distracted by lustful thoughts might impede that work.  But then the Church became bureaucratic, or began forming private communes (monasteries), and members ended up with too much time on their hands.  And lots of repetitive, boring work.  A distraction would be just fine, some would think…. Not only that, an expansive hierarchy demanded having many members who could sit around pushing papers about in very mundane efforts, not very involved in daily interaction with a populace needing to be guided.  Some of the guides themselves became lost.
    I would note that celebacy can provide the very same benefits to non-Catholics, non-theists, atheists and so forth.  In any case, there is a case to be made for some individuals to refrain from embroiling themselves in romantic liaisons — either because they have too much work to be done that will suffer from such distraction, or because it would be unfair to string along a partner when your main focus must always be on something else.
    Anywho.  The subject interests me.  Since I’m not a prophet, I won’t bother trying to predict exactly which direction the Catholic Church will take over the next few decades.

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