Not only are there plenty of politics in the Catholic Church, but for those with eyes to see, there’s often a political dimension to a great deal of ecclesiastical life which, on the surface, might seem fairly neutral and benign.
Take, for instance, the Vatican’s “baby bishops’” school, an intense eight-day training program offered by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops to newly appointed Catholic prelates from around the world since 2001.
At one level, offering such a course may just seem good business management. Why wouldn’t you want new bishops to be exposed, for instance, to best practices in financial management and the fight against clerical sexual abuse, two chronic sources of headaches?
For once, perhaps, the Church can defuse a few bombs before they go off.
It may also seem like a basic service by the Vatican to local churches – and since, in theory, that’s the primary role the Vatican is supposed to play, why not?
Both of those things may be fully true, but as St. Thomas Aquinas famously put it, grace builds on nature rather than cancelling it out — meaning that other, perfectly valid explanations don’t preclude the idea of there also being a political dimension to the choice to hold such a course.
Consider what had been happening among the bishops of the world in the decade prior to 2001.
In the United States, fallout from three contentious Vatican interventions in the 1980s and early 1990s – the Hunthausen affair in Seattle, the firing of Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America, and a cool Vatican reception of a draft pastoral letter on women – left many American Catholics, including not a few bishops, calling on the country’s episcopal conference to be more defiant and assertive in its relationship with Rome.
The same “us v. them” mentality bubbled through the liturgy wars of the 1990s, pivoting on how to render liturgical texts into English, which many American bishops understandably felt they knew better than Roman bureaucrats.
In Asia, a controversial Synod for Asia in 1998 triggered wide complaints among Asian bishops about Roman incomprehension of their cultural realities, beginning with the Japanese bishops formally rejecting the prepared working documents for the summit and crafting their own.
“Since the questions were composed in the context of Western Christianity, they are not suitable,” the Japanese bishops wrote. “One feels that the holding of the synod is like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices.”
In Europe, three German bishops, including the future Cardinal Walter Kasper, publicly floated the idea of pushing past Roman rules in 1993 and opening the door to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Taken together, those developments and others left some Vatican officials worrying that things might be on the brink of spinning apart, encouraging what the famed Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once memorably described as an antirömische Affekt, meaning an “anti-Roman attitude”, among the world’s bishops.
In that context, the idea of bringing new bishops to Rome so they don’t start their careers thinking of the Vatican as the problem struck many officials as a politically astute move.
The course has been going on for 15 years now, however, and it’s fair to ask whether a friendlier attitude towards the Vatican has been its primary fallout.
It probably has had some impact in that regard, because being able to put faces and names on previously anonymous roles generally introduces a degree of human sympathy into the equation.
On the other hand, I’ve been talking to bishops who’ve been through the training for the last decade and a half, and what they say afterwards, almost to a man, suggests a prorömische Affekt isn’t the fundamental thing they absorb.
Instead, it’s a far more deeply global way of understanding the Church – bundled, for Americans, with the sometimes jarring realization that American interests, priorities and categories don’t always apply in other parts of the world.
Anyone who’s ever been to any Vatican meeting usually comes away saying the best parts came over the coffee breaks and the meals, and baby bishop school is no exception. New bishops will tell you the experiences that left the deepest impact were getting to know fellow prelates from other parts of the world, especially places they’d never been and, perhaps, never even heard of.
Needless to say, that’s a key insight about Catholicism in the early 21st century, in which two-thirds of the Church’s 1.2 billion people live outside the West, scattered across every nook and cranny of the planet.
Here’s how Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron explained it to me in a recent interview for “The Crux of the Matter,” our radio show on the Catholic Channel Sirius XM 129.
“You’ve got this truly international responsibility,” he said, of what he learned about what it means to be a bishop. “More important than my status as an American is my status as a Catholic, and as a Catholic bishop somehow connected to all the bishops of the world. That has impacted me, I think, and changed my consciousness.”
In thinking about the politics of baby bishops’ school, in other words, it’s entirely fair to wonder if a perceived rift between Rome and local bishops is one reason that Vatican mandarins may have been attracted to the idea 15 years ago.
In assessing the primary political impact, however, it can probably be expressed in a very different phrase: “It’s the universality, stupid!”