Opinion

opinion | Garry Wills

Re-Jesusing the Catholic Church

doriano strologo for the boston globe

How can a church whose officialdom is worldly and corrupt present Jesus to the world? Pope Francis thinks it cannot. He once told people at the morning Mass in his small chapel, “To be believable, the Church has to be poor.” He has spoken of personal revulsion at seeing a priest drive an expensive car. When he spoke of money as “the devil’s dung” (he was quoting a church father, Saint Basil), some took this as an attack on Western capitalism. But it was a more general message, part of his apology in Bolivia for the church’s role in colonialism. And when Francis looks around the Vatican, he finds the same devil-stench. In one of his earlier interviews as pope, he said, “The Curia is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests.” He said to assembled Cardinals that some approach the Vatican as if it were a royal court, with all the marks of such courts — “intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism, and partiality.’’

That list of sins could be taken as a table of contents for the scandalous activities recorded in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s new book, “Merchants in the Temple,’’ a title taken from the Bible account of Jesus driving money lenders from the Temple court. Nuzzi is the journalist who received the “Vatileaks” from the papal butler, revealing the scheming and profiteering that occurred during Benedict XVI’s papacy. He demonstrates an equal access to secret documents and conversations in the papacy of Francis, which show a concerted resistance to papal efforts to make the Vatican bear at least some resemblance to Jesus, however remote.

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The official church is wealthy and poor because it always overspends itself. It lives on display, favoritism, and unaccountability. Its 14 personnel agencies create honorary posts for clients who will be subservient to their patrons. This is as true of the Vatican State Department as of the Vatican banks. We know of the scandalous and money-laundering Institute for the Works of Religions — commonly called the Vatican Bank. But another money manager is equally unaccountable — the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See.

In what is called Peter’s Pence, Catholics from around the world send money to be spent on the poor. But four-fifths of that money is spent on maintenance of the bloated Vatican itself. The official church owns large amounts of real estate inside and outside Italy, but these holdings drain as much wealth as they collect, because so many of them are given at low or no rent to prelates and their flunkies, who redecorate them to their refined tastes, using Vatican money to do it.

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Francis, who handled financial scandal in the diocese he took over in Buenos Aires, knew that he could not get control of the Vatican unless he had a true audit of where all the money was going. So he set up a special body to find this out – COSEA (Commission on Organization of the Economic Administration of the Holy See). This commission hired outside auditors, internationally recognized experts, to go over the money in all the papal departments (dicasteries). But faced with this demand for records from lay experts, the skilled ecclesiastical maneuverers in the departments reported sluggishly, incompletely, or not at all. COSEA’s frustrations over this may be why their members leaked tapes of their meetings to Nuzzi and others. Indeed two of them (a monsignor and a lay woman) were arrested in early November by Vatican gendarmes for leaking — though these leaks are on the pope’s side, unlike the earlier leaks.

Controversy about the official church has normally centered on doctrinal disputes, over things like contraception and abortion. These are seen as struggles for the mind of the church. Francis is more interested in the soul of the church. Does the church really speak from prelates’ posh apartments in Rome and from bishops’ palaces around the world? In our trips to Rome, my wife has given up entering Saint Peter’s, since she cannot find anything like Jesus in that riot of celebration of the great papal families, with monstrous large statues of past pontiffs in all their ecclesiastical regalia. Jesus did not wear expensive chasubles and jeweled mitres (or any ecclesiastical garments). What Francis is engaged in is less a matter of theological dispute than a re-Jesusing of the church. If he fails, we have failed Jesus.

Garry Wills, a professor of history at Northwestern University, is the author of “The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis.”
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