11 September 2014


Even critics of Pope Francis can hardly deny that he has placed openness at the forefront of his pontificate. The Catholic Church now has policies with regard to clerical sexual abuse which prioritise transparency first, transparency second, transparency third. Gone, happily, are the days of the cover-ups; of accepting the claims of well-heeled psychiatric quacks to be able to cure paedophilia; the policy of giving a delinquent priest a good telling-off and then sending him off to a new parish; of bullying victims to make them hold their tongues. No longer is 'the Church's reputation' regarded as the most important thing to be 'safeguarded'. (Not, of course, that the Catholic Church was anything remotely like uniquely guilty. The recent history of the Anglican diocese of Chichester has been exposed to public view .... and what a nasty can of worms has been opened up. And gracious me ... the words 'BBC' and 'celebrity' now attract the same aura of suspicion that the word 'priest' acquired a decade ago. And recently we learned that for decades the English liberal professions ignored the evidence for the activities of Pakistani Moslem paedophile gangs because Guardian Readers, passionate to hear any alleged dirt about Catholic priests, did not want to be told nasty things about people with brown skins.)

Pope Francis has also got a grip upon the problem of secrecy in the Church's apparently previously dodgy financial structures. Cardinal Pell guarantees that all will be open and above board. And so he should and so it should be. In the modern world, if you try to hide your seedy secrets, it makes things all the worse when eventually the Truth gets out. Mafia contacts ... dead bankers dangling from bridges ... Masons hiding in the wings ... such would not be a culture which had much potential to enhance the Church's reputation. Three cheers for Cardinal Pell, and six cheers for the Holy Father himself.

One of the major cultural changes, both in the Church and the World, during the last decade, has been this loss, by monolithic and armoured institutions, of the power to defend their secrets against the intrusions of inquisitive media. Military and diplomatic secrets are no longer pilfered by being encoded in microdots and left in safe drops by characters out of John le Carre; modern Information Technology gives power to whistle-blowers to unload secrets by the million upon the hungry media, contained in some jolly little memory stick. It may be amusing for an American President to know what the German Chancellor sings to herself in her bath, but, unless he is stupid, he knows that sooner rather than later the snooping done for him by his spooks will get itself into the headlines and him into trouble (good zeugma, yes?). Then, the more he puffs and blows to persuade Mr Putin or whoever to extradite the whistle-blower, the stupider he will look. And while, previously, Establishment persons and their narratives had little trouble hogging the media, the recent English scandal about the treatment of the family of the little boy with the brain tumour has demonstrated that perfectly ordinary people can now get their side of a story up and running. Dodgy days for the Great and the Good.

Frankly, as a naive and, you are probably anxious to tell me, simplistic product of the 1960s (ordained to the Sacred Priesthood in the very Year of Revolutions itself, 1968), I rather welcome this atmosphere of openness and transparency. Quite apart from anything else, it is quite fun to have it made so demonstrably clear that the Great and the Good are generally so much less than great and almost invariably only rather selectively good.

Whatever else he achieves, Pope Francis has already done the Church a permanently good turn by embracing - and enforcing - openness. He has already ensured that his will go down in history as a significant Pontificate; the moment when the Church's Senior Management genuinely realised what the landscape of the Third Millennium is really like.

Viva il Papa!!
Footnote: The Congregation for Religious, in its handling of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, both the Brethren and the Sisters, would do well to take the Holy Father's policies about openness on board.


Stephen said...

Well, let's hope that The Congregation for the Religious will, even if it hopes and acts to keep secret, be forced to adopt the same level of transparency as everyone else.

For if not, then this Pontificate will risk being seen as capricious and cynical in its promotion of such openess. Should not the same rules must apply to all?

Jacobi said...

Vatican finances are intriguing. I presume expenditure continues to rise. The forthcoming Symposium on the Family will be another such large, and quite unnecessary item.
This is possible only because of the investments acquired by the seedy perhaps now dead bankers, et al. I hope Cardinal Pell will be able to match them in the future. After all, the traditional means of support, “Peter’s Pence” must be declining rapidly as church attendance continues to plummet.

Since as Benedict observed, we may have to accept a smaller Church, with fewer priests and churches in the future, income requirement will fall. But many redundant churches can then be sold off for property development etc., so perhaps the good Cardinals job won’t be so demanding after all.

Regarding clerical abuse it now seems clear that although continuing to be a nice soft target for press and TV, the Church is by far the least bad, particularly when compared with secular institutions in the UK.