Americans may have lost their dominance in many sectors of the global economy in the early 21st century, but there’s one industry where we still unquestionably lead the pack: the manufacture of controversy.

American Catholics are no exception, and this week a fresh row broke out over Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas development arm of the US bishops. It turns out that CRS has a non-Catholic employee working in a technical post, nothing to do with faith or morals, who’s in a same-sex marriage.

Predictably, some folks are upset and are letting everyone know about it.

Whatever the merits of the fuss, here’s an observation you won’t find in most American debates: For Catholics in many other parts of the world, the whole thing seems a great example of a “luxury issue,” meaning the kind of argument that only affluent cultures and churches can afford to have.

In Kenya, for instance, Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui reported this week that Christian pastors are wrestling with whether to teach their people to recite a line from the Qur’an in Arabic, so the next time an Islamic terrorist shoves an AK-47 in their face they may be able to pass as a Muslim and stay alive.

The question arises in the wake of an April 2 attack on a university in Garissa, Kenya, near the Somali border, where gunmen separated Christian and Muslim students, killing the former while leaving the latter unscathed. All told, 150 people died and 80 were injured, and it’s hardly the only time something like this has happened.

“We are under threat as Christians, and our institutions are not defending us,” Muheria said on Monday during a trip to Rome.

Or take Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite archbishop of Aleppo in Syria. (The Greek Melkites, concentrated in Syria and Lebanon, are one of 22 Eastern churches that are fully part of the broader Catholic Church.)

Jeanbart currently is in the United States on a consciousness-raising mission, and Crux caught up with him at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn, New York. His trip is being sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization supporting persecuted Christians.

The cities of Aleppo and Homs in Syria have seen some of the most intense fighting during the civil conflict, which makes the 72-year-old Jeanbart, whose family has been in the country for generations, the bishop of a war zone.

Here’s the sort of thing Jeanbart is compelled to have on his mind: What happens if he or one of his priests is kidnapped?

Kidnapping Christian clergy has become a cottage industry among armed factions in Syria. In February 2013, the website “Ora Pro Siria,” operated by Italian missionaries, reported that the going price for a kidnapped priest at that stage was in the neighborhood of $200,000.

Jeanbart said that so far only one of his priests has been abducted, and there’s been no ransom demand. He knows there is a real possibility it could happen to him; two Orthodox bishops from Aleppo were taken in 2013 and are still missing.

I asked Jeanbart what he would want his Church to do if he were grabbed and the kidnappers demanded money to release him. Agonizing over the question, he said the raw truth is that he raises enough money around the world to keep his people afloat, funding food baskets, scholarships, and basic health services, that it would probably be a good investment on their part to pay.

In general, Jeanbart is obviously worried about the future of his flock.

“We are in grave danger; we may disappear soon,” he said. Any hope of moderate opposition in Syria has been hijacked by “radical Muslim factions calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.”

In terms of American foreign policy, he said that what the situation requires is less boots on the ground than the United States using its influence to pressure other nations in the region, especially Turkey, to cut off the transit points for arms and mercenaries to make their way into Syria. Accomplish that, he said, and Syria could do the rest itself.

Lest anyone think that situations such as those in Kenya and Syria are exceptions, let’s recall that two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today live outside the West, many in some fairly rough neighborhoods.

Even when those Catholics aren’t facing religious persecution or war, many of them are still stuck with the realities of grinding poverty, bad governance, and unstable social and political situations.

Not long ago, that two-thirds world watched with astonishment as American Catholics spent more than a decade debating the translation of terms in the Mass – for instance, whether people should say “And also with you” or “And with your spirit” when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

Many were stunned to learn that we apparently have so much time on our hands, and so little of life-and-death urgency to occupy it.

Ask prelates such as Muheria and Jeanbart today what they think about matters such as the CRS controversy, and you may eventually get an opinion. What you’re likely to get first, however, is irritation that more dramatic situations around the world, in which America is undeniably involved, don’t seem to arouse a similar passion.

Why it took so long on Bishop Finn

Now that the story of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph has reached its inevitable denouement with his resignation, the main post-mortem curiosity is why it took so long to get here.

The Vatican announced Finn’s resignation on Tuesday, a full 2 1/2 years after he became the lone American bishop to be criminally convicted (albeit on a misdemeanor charge) of failure to report an allegation of child abuse. For most people, the inexplicable part is why it required 28 months for a bishop disgraced in such an utterly complete way to lose his job.

I was in Rome when the news broke, and a colleague in the Vatican press corps suggested the headline should be: “Finn … ally!”

Probably the best way to explain the delay is that it illustrates the dilemma that ensues when the broad significance of a case and its individual details aren’t in perfect alignment.

Before coming to that, let’s tick off a few explanations that only cover part of the picture.

Some would attribute the slow fuse to the Vatican’s traditional inertia, and God knows there’s merit to that impression. On the other hand, the Vatican is capable of rapid response when it wants to be. The current financial reform under Australian Cardinal George Pell, for instance, is moving at lightning speed by the usual standards of the place.

Others cite the Vatican’s reluctance to see bishops quit under fire, and there’s merit to that theory as well, although the principle clearly isn’t absolute. Rome accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and other prelates under analogous circumstances, many higher up the food chain than a simple diocesan bishop.

Some wonder if the fact that Finn got caught up in the transition between Benedict XVI and Francis played a role, and again, in part, it probably did. On the other hand, Francis found time to remove American Cardinal Raymond Burke from two different positions before dealing with Finn.

Some believe Finn survived for so long because of a basic flaw in the Catholic system, which is that only the pope can discipline a bishop, and with more than 5,000 bishops in the Church, it’s more than any pontiff can handle.

That’s true as far as it goes, and it’s one of the challenges regarding accountability for bishops that experts are working on right now. It doesn’t really explain Finn, however, because even in light of a pope’s workload, 2 1/2 years is excessive.

So, what gives?

Based on hours of conversations with people in the system, both in Rome and in the States, stretching over the last 2 1/2 years, I believe the core reason is the dissonance between the general and the specific regarding Finn’s situation.

Broadly speaking, the Finn case was as clear-cut as you’ll ever find.

First, there’s simply no getting around his criminal conviction for delaying several months before reporting the discovery of pornographic images of children on a computer belonging to one of his priests, Shawn Ratigan.

The guilty verdict was delivered by Judge John M. Torrence in Jackson County Circuit Court on Sept. 6, 2012, following a bench trial that took a little over an hour. (For the record, Finn was acquitted on a second, similar charge, with Torrence citing a lack of sufficient evidence.)

Catholicism cannot insist that it’s committed to full collaboration with the criminal justice system, and then impose no consequences when that system reaches a finding of guilt.

Second, there’s also the fact that Finn’s alleged failure doesn’t date to decades ago, as has often been the case during the abuse scandals, but to 2012. That’s 10 years after the US bishops made “zero tolerance” the law of the land during their tumultuous meeting in Dallas.

As a result, there was no way to leave Finn in place without appearing to undercut the claim that the Catholic Church today is fully committed to strong anti-abuse protocols.

Either one of those points would have been enough to make keeping Finn around unsustainable; together, they made it unthinkable.

At the level of detail, however, Finn’s conduct arguably was not as objectionable as that of other bishops and Catholic superiors caught up in other abuse scandals, most of whom never received similar punishment.

For one thing, the underlying crime by Ratigan, who was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison and who was expelled from the priesthood in January 2014, did not involve direct physical abuse. Rather, the offense was taking and preserving lewd pictures of girls aged 3 to 12.

While still despicable and criminal, that behavior could strike many people as not of the same moral gravity as Boston’s John Geoghan, who was accused of molesting more than 130 boys over a 30-year career, or Milwaukee’s Lawrence Murphy, accused of abusing up to 200 deaf boys from the 1950s through the mid-1970s.

Bishops and other superiors who failed to act aggressively in those cases were arguably guilty of even worse omissions or negligence.

Second, Finn’s delay in making a report was less protracted than in several other cases that have come to light during the arc of the scandals, and some believe there were extenuating circumstances.

After first learning of images found on Ratigan’s computer, a diocesan official in Kansas City contacted a lawyer and a friend who was a police officer, both of whom said they did not constitute child pornography and thus there was no crime to report.

Some friends of Finn have suggested that the real breakdown was committed by other diocesan officials, who failed to follow up on that initial advice, and that Finn went to trial and accepted his guilty verdict to insulate them from legal risk.

In 2014, Pope Francis tapped Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada, to carry out an investigation of Finn’s situation. Known as a fair-minded Jesuit, Prendergast filed a report with the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops that was never released, but a source with knowledge of its contents told Crux it offered a mixed assessment and did not directly recommend removing the bishop.

The context of Finn’s failure, detailed above, may help explain how Prendergast arrived at that conclusion, given that his mandate was not to decide what was in the best interests of the Catholic Church as it addresses the legacy of abuse, but rather to examine the merits of the specific complaints against Finn.

In other words, the instinct among some in the system may have been that if somebody needed to become a poster boy for the Church’s failures, Finn was the wrong candidate – not because he wasn’t guilty as charged, perhaps, but because the underlying charge isn’t as horrifying as other well-known cases.

Just to be clear, this is an explanation rather than an excuse. None of it exonerates Finn, because even a faint suggestion of child abuse ought to be enough to justify turning everything over to the police immediately. Similarly, none of it amounts to a case for allowing him to remain in office.

As a footnote, Vatican reaction to the Finn case also demonstrates how the wheels have turned in the Church. Though it may have taken some time to stage his exit, no one in the Vatican came to Finn’s defense. That’s a sharp contrast to the situation back in 2001, when Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux in France was likewise criminally convicted of failure to report an allegation of child abuse. He received a thumbs-up letter from Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, at the time the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, complimenting Pican for refusing to turn in one of his priests. And Pican continued to serve as the bishop of Bayeux until the normal retirement age of 75.

A climate change showdown

Speaking of manufacturing controversy, one way you know a gathering is a big deal is when activist groups start putting on rival counter-events. By that standard, a summit on climate change jointly organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the United Nations, set for Rome next Tuesday and titled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity,” is already a hit.

Expected to feature remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Cardinal Peter Turkson on behalf of the Vatican, the event will bring together scientists and world religious leaders aiming to build a global movement toward curbing climate change. It comes ahead of a much-anticipated encyclical letter on the environment Pope Francis is expected to release over the summer.

On Friday, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which has been described as “the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism,” announced that it’s sending a team of scientists to Rome to stage their own rump events, the aim of which is to persuade the pope that he’s being used.

In a classic turn of phrase, they described the initiative as a “prebuttal” to the Vatican summit. They’ll hold public events both Monday and Tuesday at Rome’s Hotel Columbus and Palazzo Cesi, both just about a block away from St. Peter’s Square.

“The Holy Father is being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust,” said Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in a statement released Friday.

“Humans are not causing a climate crisis on God’s green earth – in fact, they are fulfilling their Biblical duty to protect and use it for the benefit of humanity,” Bast said. “Though Pope Francis’s heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate.”

It remains to be seen how much success the Heartland Institute will have, especially given that their premise seems open to question. They appear to assume it’s the United Nations pushing Pope Francis on climate change, when in fact it seems almost the other way around.

In January during a flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, reporters asked the pontiff if he believes that climate change is the result of human activity. He replied that he thinks it’s “mostly” man-made.

“I don’t know if it (human activity) is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he said. “We have, in a sense, taken over nature.”

He also said that he wanted his encyclical on the environment to be out in June or July so it could influence a looming UN summit on climate change in Paris in early December. He complained that the last round of talks in Peru were disappointing, and said he hopes the Paris gathering will produce “more courageous” choices.

The face-value implication is that Francis thinks the UN hasn’t been sufficiently bold and is using his moral authority to encourage it to do more.

In other words, if one party is pushing the other in this relationship, it would seem to be the pope trying to cajole the UN into action. Rather than trying to persuade Francis not to listen to Ki-moon, in other words, perhaps the Heartland Institute should be trying to convince Ki-moon not to listen to Francis.

A shift in tactics for the old guard?

Australian Cardinal George Pell and the financial reform he’s spearheading on the pope’s behalf clearly have rattled some cages among the Vatican’s old guard.

Up to this point, the primary resistance strategies have been two-fold: Leaking embarrassing information about Pell to the Italian press, and trying to undercut new financial structures created by Pope Francis through a series of amendments to their statutes. In other words, the idea has been to cut reform off at the knees.

So far it hasn’t really worked. Pell has survived a few nasty exposés, both about his record on the sexual abuse crisis in Australia and his spending patterns since arriving in Rome, and a recent effort to convince Pope Francis to trim the powers of the new Council for the Economy and Secretariat for the Economy basically failed.

A flurry of articles in the Italian press in recent days suggests the old guard now may be shifting tactics, trying to get ahead of reform rather than standing in its way.

The Italian business journal Il Sole 24 Ore recently reported that an idea is making the rounds to create a new “Vatican Asset Management” office that would combine oversight of the real estate holdings and investment portfolios of various Vatican departments – including the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Government of the Vatican City State, and the Institute for the Works of Religion (the so-called “Vatican bank”) – but with the proviso that ownership would remain in the hands of the individual departments and the new administration would respect their “pastoral diversity”.

According to the Il Sole report, which has also been picked up by veteran Vatican writer Andrea Tornielli of “Vatican Insider,” the proposal has been prepared with the aid of Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Tellingly, it was Coccopalmerio who recently proposed a slew of adjustments to the statutes of the Council for the Economy and the Secretariat for the Economy, the overall gist of which would have been to trim their sails. For the most part, the pope upheld Pell and his team instead.

In truth, the idea of a consolidated Vatican asset management office is not new. It was among the recommendations made more than a year ago by the Pontifical Commission of Reference for the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structures of the Holy See, known by its Italian acronym COSEA, which was set up by Pope Francis shortly after his election to study reform options.

The recommendation for an asset management office was based on three points:

  • To ensure professional management and supervision of assets
  • To achieve economy of scale by pooling resources
  • To obtain a better return on investments

Since it’s tough to argue with those objectives, some form of an asset management office is probably inevitable. It also makes sense, given that Pope Francis recently decided that management of real estate will remain with APSA, but many of its other functions have been transferred to Pell’s office, so APSA is in need of a new lease on life.

The drama isn’t whether such an office will be created at some point down the line, but who will control it. In that light, this week’s spate of reports could be read as an early bid by some old guard figures to stake their claim.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out, perhaps especially with regard to the real estate holdings. At the moment, the Vatican is estimated to have about $3.2 billion in assets between its real estate holdings and its investments. (That doesn’t include the roughly $10 billion controlled by the Vatican bank, which is mostly not Vatican money but rather belongs to religious orders, dioceses, and so on.)

However, many experts believe the $3.2 billion estimate is far too low because much of the Vatican’s real estate is significantly under-valued, given that it hasn’t been commercially appraised for a long time. Some say the real market value may be four times higher than the current estimate, some as much as 10.

If that turns out to be the case, the total assets owned by the Vatican could be in the $10 billion to $20 billion range, and the question of who’s going to control it suddenly gets a lot more interesting.