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April 22, 2008

"Mr. Inside" Out

Roy Meachum

For a little shy of 25 years, Josef Ratzinger furnished John Paul II a strong base. While the ebullient Polish prelate toured the outside world, kissing earth and babies by the score, the man who would become Benedict XVI tended to inside chores.


As Americans saw for themselves this past week: "Mr. Inside" is now gloriously out, complete with red shoes and the Popemobile to call his own.


Benedict blessed this country in a curious way; he allowed as how we were less secular than our European cousins. In any event, the Vatican now looks at the Third World to provide communicants and clergy, especially Latin America.


A funny thing happened, however, on the way to the Vatican curia red-lining church members that tend to be blue-eyed and blond. A Sunday New York Times story reported some two million once-faithful once-Catholics, speaking Spanish and Portuguese, turned evangelistic.


Instead of richly attired ministers and shockingly rich churches, as in their former homelands, immigrants have shucked the church they grew up in.


They now prefer, in many cases, casually dressed men and – incredibly – also women. Pompous sermons have been replaced by personal dialogue. The shifted congregants would rather sing right along instead of mumble responses to cues they never understood in the first place.


None of this bodes well for a healthy Roman Catholic Church under this Vicar of Christ, a title taken long ago by an unknown dead pope. Membership in Christianity's oldest and largest daughter looks doomed to wither.


Yet of all who have worn the ring of St. Peter, Josef Ratzinger is the best prepared for shrinkage; he has stated he prefers fewer numbers as long as those remaining are truly "faithful." In this limited sense, the word means obedient and faithful to the pope and his minions, especially the curia.


The bureaucracy inside the Vatican really runs the church. During John Paul II's long tenure, Josef Ratzinger was the chief bureaucrat. Under Paul VI, the power was shared by Alfredo Ottaviani and Amlet Ciccognani, both cardinals and both archconservatives.


The "most faithful daughter of the church" is a title passed around among countries, excluding the United States and Italy; Romans regard the Vatican and the pope himself as little more than stops on tourists' tour.


While the curia regarded Americans with suspicion from the start – too many English, Scots and Puritanical sects – the money from churches on this side of the Atlantic could not be ignored. As traditional European sources sagged, the U.S. leapt in.


But a mark of the low regard held by the Vatican was how Benedict handled the clergy sex scandal last week. He brought up the subject on four different occasions. Seemingly the papal advisors advised he should not pussy-foot around.


On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to discern what new remedy he has in mind. More glaring was the manner in which he treated the billions wasted here as a peculiarly American problem. He made absolutely no mention of Ireland, Australia and European scandals; in Austria the charges cost a cardinal his red hat.


At one point he swept the crisis under the rug of "society," as if there were something so wrong about this country that we were to blame. He kept a long-pole's distance from his culpable role and the curia's.


In rare instances were priests or bishops held liable for what went on; only a single ordinary was sacked, according to my imperfect mind. That was in addition of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, of course.


We have had a string of "mea culpas" from everyone except the church executives who successfully covered up, moving abusers into new parishes without warning anyone. There's a battalion, at least, of priests, monsignors and auxiliary bishops charged that covered rather than penalize.


The first rule of bureaucracy is survival, and that means holding onto the job and the power. There was always the danger that priest abusers might finger the men who covered for them. Logically, readers can see how the blame up the ranks vanished in a mist.


While swapping a cardinal's red for papal white, Josef Ratzinger certainly wanted details tidied up; he was, after all, reaching for the ecclesiastical golden ring. He got his way: nothing linked the slightest breath of the scandal to his Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Until the last century it was officially the Office of the Inquisition.


While the dust settles from his Washington and New York triumphs, I'm not alone in failing to understand why Benedict XVI was dispatched to these shores empty-handed. I suspect the curia was up to their old tricks.


As America's gold dwindles, the Vatican's bureaucracy grows less and less inclined to pay attention to the United States and the local Catholics.


Che piccata! What a sin!


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