Friday, April 17, 2015


   During my years in Rome and at Vatican II, I had the pleasure of meeting Hans Kung, the Swiss born theologian who, together with Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) were then young, progressive assistants to the German Council Fathers.

   A few years later, Kung came to Philadelphia to speak at the University of Pennsylvania. He graciously invited me to come to hear him speak and to join others at dinner with him. During his talk, with a smile and twinkling eyes, he recited a little ditty in Latin.  He explained that it originally applied to the ancient Roman Senate, but he now applied it to the Roman Curia.

                                                      Senatus numquam errat.
Etsi errat,
Errata numquam corrigit,
Nisi videator erravisse.

The Senate never errs.
And even if it does err,
It never corrects its errors,
Lest it be seen to have erred.

   I just read that the Vatican has unexpectedly closed its long running dispute with the Leadership Committee of Women Religious.  A few years ago, clearly with Pope Benedict XVI's approval, Cardinal William Levada, and later his successor, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accused the group of such things as promoting radical feminism, inviting unorthodox speakers, honoring Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, (whose outstanding book, Quest for the Living God, brings the understanding of God into today's everyday life), and most especially, paying too much attention to their work for social justice for the poor, sick and oppressed, while not stressing church doctrine regarding, e.g., same-sex marriage and abortion.  

   The nuns defended their sacred work in several ways, including riding around the country in a bus, to the great acclaim of the laity.  In their official defense, they defended themselves intelligently and vigorously, showing theological and spiritual maturity.  Cardinal Mueller, however, chastised them for showing regrettable attitude and behavior during the process, and being in open provocation to the Holy See.  No solution seemed in sight.

    And now, all of a sudden, everything is all right.  Clearly, Pope Francis intervened in this dispute.  The official report will be published next month.  According to the press, the Vatican will say that the nuns created a grave doctrinal crisis, and it will admonish them to ensure that their publications have a sound doctrinal foundation and that they take steps to safeguard the theological integrity of their programs. 
                                                                                                                                                                                       I sincerely hope that I'm wrong, but I would bet that the Vatican will not admit that it was wrong.  Not in any way.  Pope Francis may have intervened to end this sad nonsense, but I will bet he won't go far enough to have Cardinal Mueller, or even some lesser Vatican spokesperson, admit that the Vatican committed any error.  That will be a real shame.  If Francis misses this opportunity, he will further entrench the Roman Curia in their disastrous addiction to be right in every case.  And the church will lose more of what few shreds of credibility it still may have left.

   A major part of Francis' challenge is to reform the Curia's centuries old infrastructure of always being free from error--an error in itself that was disastrously reinforced by Vatican I's declaration of the pope's infallibility.  In the almost century and a half since Vatican I, the Curia has extended the aura of papal infallibility to cover itself.  As a result, the authority structure in the church has flip-flopped.  For example, the Curia should serve the bishops of the world.  Instead, the bishops serve the Curia.

   Completing Vatican I, Vatican II extended the infallibility of belief to all the members of the church taken together--laity, religious, clergy, hierarchy and pope--in its teaching on the "sense of the faithful."  But John Paul II and Benedict XVI never explained or implemented this important teaching.  So infallibility still resides in Rome alone.  In such a rigidly frozen power structure, the nuns and laity in general can never be right in their experienced belief, especially when their experienced belief arises from their Christ-like work in today's society.  
   Francis has a great opportunity to tell the truth about the humanity of the church and about its human errors.  He should have somebody at the Vatican show the nuns the basic human and spiritual respect they deserve, and humbly and truthfully, publicly apologize to them. But I fear the Curia will fight hard against admitting the obvious truth of their fallibility, a truth that has been buried under centuries of the leadership's distortion of power.