Looking Ahead to 2016: The Church

Yesterday, I looked at the coming new year in the world of politics. Today, let’s look at what 2016 might hold for the life of the Catholic Church. Tomorrow, we will examine the estuary where the two intersect.

Pope Francis’ year will be dominated by three events and one trip. First, we are all awaiting significant shakeups in the Curia. Plans are afoot to combine several offices into two super-dicastries, one dealing with Family, Laity and Life, and the other with Justice, Peace and Charity. Just as importantly, this reorganization invites the Holy Father to shuffle the personnel. It is no secret that the pope and much of the Curia are not exactly forming a mutual admiration society. He needs to change some personnel if he is going to be effective. And, of course, this pope is not afraid of surrounding himself with large personalities, so he would not be likely to appoint any shrinking violets. For example, if Pope Francis were to bring Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez to Rome, the cardinal’s rare combination of learning, international contacts, and dynamic personality would make him a force to be reckoned with.

Second, the pope is expected to hold a consistory to create new cardinals at some point during the year, although no one knows exactly when. The past two years, he has held consistories in February, but there are not many openings in the Sacred College at the moment, with 118 electors under the age of 80. Starting on Feb. 27, however, when Cardinal Roger Mahony hits 80, eleven electors will age out by the end of the year. Four more age out in the first months of 2017, so the pope could easily make twenty cardinals this year. The last two consistories have featured many surprises, for example, passing over traditional cardinalatial sees like Venice and Turin to select lesser known prelates in Italy, those associated more with the peripheries. As well, Pope Francis has yet to name a cardinal from the U.S. and it is time for America to have its first Latino cardinal: Look for Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez to get a red hat. +Gomez embodies the kind of gentle, pastoral leadership that we love about Pope Francis and, in addition, our inner cities, places like South–Central LA, are where the Church of the poor is most present. If the pope wants to pick a nontraditional see, Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory, another pastoral churchman, could get the nod. And Chicago, like Los Angeles, is a city where the periphery is in the inner city, and Archbishop Blase Cupich​ has also been a model of the kind of civic engagement, and pastoral leadership, the pope has called for repeatedly.

Third, at some point, the Holy Father will issue an apostolic exhortation based on the twin synods on the family. This could be decisive for the pope. There was a significant consensus on most of the issues at the synod, but nothing like the near unanimity that existed on the final documents at Vatican II. If he is going to chart a new course on any of the contentious issues, the pope and his team will need to really think through how they present those changes. The resistance to the pope is likely going to intensify but also dissipate this year with those who are comfortable being in opposition becoming more entrenched, but their ranks will thin as more and more bishops who might have been sitting on the fence so far decide that there is not much future in opposing a pope.

The key visit for Pope Francis will be to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland at the end of July. The Polish hierarchy was the most resistant to any changes at the synod, and the most churlish in voicing their resistance. A friend says that many in Krakow still think John Paul II is pope. But, young people from around the world will come to the beautiful city on the Vistula and, based on Francis’ previous trips, young people are especially devoted to him. When he went to Brazil for World Youth Day, he met with the hierarchy. Will he do the same in Poland and, if so, what will he say? How will the bishops from other countries play a role? And, the right-wing Polish government has been outspoken in its criticism of Pope Francis’ call to aid refugees from the Mideast. I am glad I am not planning this trip.

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Stateside, 2016 could be the Year of Pio’s Laghi’s revenge. The U.S. is set to get a new nuncio in January when Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano turns 75. The name on everyone’s lips for the post is Archbishop Celestino Migliore, currently the nuncio to Poland. (There are a few other names being mentioned, but most of the chatter is about +Migliore.) Back in the 1980s, +Migliore served at the U.S. nunciature under Archbishop, later Cardinal, Pio Laghi, who was known for sending dossiers to Rome that started with the needs of the diocese, not with a checklist of friends whom he wanted appointed. Some can argue with the appointments +Laghi made, to be sure, but at its best, the diplomatic corps of the Holy See provides both the Congregation for Bishops and the Holy Father with a real sense of the needs of a given diocese and candidates that fit that need or, as he used to put it, you need to find the right saint to fit in the niche. Of course, there are not often a lot of saints available, and always more niches than saints.

+Laghi was not the only one choosing bishops back then. He had a notorious showdown with an official at the Secretary of State, Msgr. Justin Rigali, who often tried to frustrate +Laghi’s choices. Something like half of what is wrong with the U.S. hierarchy can be traced to the crowd that lived at the Villa Stritch in the early 1990s and their titular leader was +Rigali. As head of the English desk at the Secretary of State, then President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy and, finally, Secretary at the Congregation for Bishops, +Rigali exercised a large influence over the selection of bishops in the U.S., which brought him into conflict with Laghi. Cardinal Rigali’s influence returned in this century when he served as a member of the Congregation for Bishops.

Cardinal Raymond Burke was a part of the Villa Stritch crowd and, later joining + Rigali on the Congregation for Bishops, helped elevate the others who had worked in Rome at that time. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo was also working in Rome at the time, and though not living at the Villa, Cardinal Timothy Dolan became rector of the nearby North American College in 1994. Archbishops Salvatore Cordileone, Allen Vigneron, Leonard Blair and John Nienstedt also were part of the Villa Stritch crowd, as were Bishops Fabian Bruskewitz and Thomas Olmsted. I have a soft spot for +Dolan, but taken as a group, well, this lineup does not exactly scream "effective pastoral leaders," certainly not in the pontificate of Francis.

Appointments have improved since Pope Francis removed Cardinals Rigali and Burke from the Congregation for Bishops and replaced them with Cardinal Donald Wuerl. But, if +Wuerl has a nuncio with whom he can work, rather than one he has to work around, the appointments could be even better. Additionally, Cardinal William Levada will age off the Congregation in June. +Levada, like +Wuerl, has been a moderating influence on the selection of bishops for many years. There is no guarantee the pope will name another American to the Congregation, but if he does, I would expect it to be Archbishop Blase Cupich, who worked at the nunciature with both +Laghi and +Migliore in the 80s. Whether he is named to the Congregation or not, +Cupich and +Wuerl could become the kingmakers for the next five to ten years, a duo whose influence would match that once exercised by Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Edward Hoban, with this difference: +Spellman and +Hoban couldn’t stand each other.

The USCCB is likely, in the near term, to remain a "Francis free zone." I will address the conference in greater detail tomorrow when I examine the intersection of politics and religion in the year ahead. But, certainly, one of the issues that should concern the new nuncio is that the U.S. bishops’ conference consistently provides evidence that it is either clueless about or opposed to Francis’ emphases on dialogue, the poor, and being less judgmental. Compare the text of "Faithful Citizenship" with the pope’s address to Congress. Or, ask yourself  why one of the newest members of the conference, Bishop Robert Barron, decided to send out an old article condemning dialogue when Pope Francis called for dialogue not only during his visit to the U.S. but some two dozen times in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

My favorite example of the disconnect between the conference and the pope remains Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’s first presidential address, when he failed to mention immigration but did manage to mention the theology of the body. Huh? In a staff–driven text like a presidential address, was there no one at the table to say, “Wait a minute? Do we have our priorities right?” St. Pope John Paul’s theology of the body never made it into an encyclical even during his own pontificate, and Benedict XVI never mentioned the words. But, someone at the conference has a fetish for theology of the body, and it so warrants a mention while immigration reform does not?

Whatever the conference does or doesn’t do, the people in the pews love this pope and many of the people who stopped populating the pews also love him. There is an opportunity for the bishops to swallow their reservations and utilize this moment to encourage people to get more involved in the life of the Church, to come back if they drifted away. This applies, in spades, to the need for the Church at all levels to ramp up its outreach to our Latino youth. The demographic future is here, not tomorrow, but now. Our parishes and schools, our dioceses and universities, our charities and our catechetical programs, all need to reorient their efforts to take account of the fact that six in ten Catholics under the age of 18 are Latino. That is the first, second and third priority for the Church, not fighting for religious freedom, not fighting against the death penalty, important though those things are. Yes, we can multitask, but I do not perceive the sense of urgency about the changing demographics of the Church that this moment requires.

Finally, the leaders of our Church have learned to lean heavily on the generosity of very rich people, and God bless them for their philanthropy. But, when boards at Catholic universities or Catholic charities consist disproportionately of the very wealthy, the leaders of those institutions must be wary. The Church is not a business. A Catholic school is not a business. Most of all, we live at a time when the first, fatal flaw of much modern thinking is that the world can be best viewed through economic analysis. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when addressing efforts to organize workers at Catholic universities. In order to keep costs low, administrators rely on poorly paid adjunct professors. But, those same administrators do not call the electric company and say, look, we need to keep costs low for our students so you must lower your rates. No, they target the one part of their budget, people, that is not a commodity and treat it as a commodity. This is precisely what is wrong with the economy overall, the idolatry of the market, bleeding into the very heart of our Catholic institutions and robbing them of their identity.

When some of those wealthy benefactors insist on an ideological agenda that is at odds with Catholic teaching, we should be especially concerned. Groups like the Acton Institute and the Napa Institute routinely attract bishops to their events, or send their minions to give addresses at Catholic venues, even while they undermine the teaching of the Church. I am all for dialogue and debate, especially at our universities, but let’s be clear here: Giving a platform to a group like Acton, which preaches a different Gospel indeed and has specifically led the opposition to Laudato Si’ is no different from giving a platform to a group like Catholics for Choice, the pro–abortion group that also opposes Church teaching. Some Catholics try and hide their admiration for libertarian thought, and denounce the atheism of Ayn Rand, but the problem with Rand was not just her atheism, it was her entire intellectual approach. I was delighted to see Cardinal Sean O’Malley remind Catholics in his Christmas message that the excessive individualism she peddled is "poison." At the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies we are still in the planning stages of our third iteration of the "Erroneous Autonomy" conferences which have been such a success the past two years, and we will be focusing on the ways libertarianism is opposed to Catholic social teaching.

Whatever else happens in 2016, and there are always things we do not anticipate, you will be able to read about it here at Distinctly Catholic. Tomorrow, I will look at the always fascinating ways politics and religion intersect, and what we can expect in that estuary in the coming year.


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