ROME – Despite his pessimism, Schopenhauer nevertheless was a pretty sharp cookie. Among his other contributions to Western thought and language, he apparently coined the phrase “buying time.” The relevant line from his 1851 Counsels and Maxims is, “To buy books would be a good thing if we also could buy the time to read them.”
Since then, “buying time” has become the preferred expression whenever a looming deadline or expiration date is extended, either by cunning or happenstance, granting a temporary reprieve to whoever’s under the gun.
In a nutshell, that’s the situation for Pope Francis and his Vatican team today: Facing a ticking clock on several fronts, the coronavirus has bought them some time. The question is how they’ll use it.
Here are at least five fronts where the question is especially urgent.
Severe restrictions imposed by the Italian government to combat the spread of the coronavirus originally were set to last until Friday, April 3, which is two days before Palm Sunday. Among other things, all public Masses in Italy have been suspended. (In case you’re wondering, the timing wasn’t coincidental. Despite it all, Italians still take Holy Week seriously.)
However, officials in China’s Wuhan province announced only Tuesday that they would begin lifting their own controls, a full 50 days after imposing them, because that’s how long it took for the infection rate to drop to a point where it was considered safe. If a similar arc unfolds here, it would push well beyond the April 12 date of Easter, meaning the Vatican and bishops in areas potentially facing similar measures need to be planning now for a Holy Week under lockdown.
For one thing, it would lend added importance to TV broadcasts of Pope Francis’s Holy Week liturgies – which almost certainly will still happen, though without crowds – because a good swath of the Catholic population in Italy and other affected areas may not otherwise have access to Mass and the sacraments. Ironically, the situation could produce the best ratings and online traffic numbers the Holy Week liturgies have ever drawn, which is all the more reason to take them seriously.
Four days ago, the Mexican bishops’ conference announced that a visit planned for March 20-27 by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Assistant Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis’s point man on the clerical abuse crisis, and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, had been postponed to an indefinite future date because of the coronavirus scare.
Scicluna and Bertomeu, who ran an investigation of abuse cases in Chile that led to an en masse offer to resign by all of Chile’s bishops, were headed to Mexico because of a perception that it would be the next bomb to go off in the Church’s scandals. Mexico was already the epicenter of a crisis surrounding the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado and his Legion of Christ, and the pope’s ambassador in the country said in announcing the investigation that at least four Mexican bishops have been accused of abuse cover-ups.
Right now nobody’s beating down the Vatican’s door to find out how it plans to handle the Mexican situation – in part, because restrictions on entry to St. Peter’s Square these days mean that most people can’t even reach the door. Sooner or later, however, the question will arise again.
The McCarrick Report
Speaking of things no one’s asking about right now, the Vatican still hasn’t issued its long-awaited report on who knew what, and when, about abuse and misconduct charges against ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick.
Before the coronavirus broke out, Vatican officials on background were telling reporters and others that the report is basically ready, that it’s being readied for translation and distribution, and that it should appear soon. Observers around the world, and especially in the United States, have pointed to the report as a crucial test of the Vatican’s commitment to transparency.
In a similar fashion, whether there are consequences for officials named in the report as having contributed to McCarrick’s long run in power despite concerns about possible abuse and misconduct is also seen as a test of accountability, something Pope Francis has extolled as key to a serious reform.
Given how much is at stake, this is probably a good time to be trying to make the report as bullet-proof as possible … because whenever it does finally appear, it’s likely the big guns will be out.
Another document expected to come out soon before the coronavirus put things on hold was Praedicate Evangelium, the working title of Pope Francis’s new apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia. It’s designed to institutionalize, and give legal shape, to his much-ballyhooed reform of the Vatican.
The stakes were already high, given perceptions in many quarters that at least to date, the reform has been more verbal than real. They became even higher over the past weekend, when the Vatican first announced the creation of a new HR office as a “step of great importance” in reform, and then, just over 24 hours later, made a second announcement indicating that the office is just an idea, not a fait accompli, and the pope will decide in his own good time.
The about-face left many insiders scratching their heads, wondering who’s running this railroad. It hasn’t had much of an external echo so far because of the distraction of the coronavirus, but that won’t last forever.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, was set to conduct its next evaluation of the Vatican towards the end of April.
The smart bet seemed to be it wouldn’t go especially well, following a recent scandal over a more than $200 million land deal in London carried out by the Secretariat of State, which, among other things, triggered the departure last November of the Vatican figure most respected in the international regulatory community, Swiss lawyer René Brülhart.
Should Moneyval conclude that the Vatican is backtracking on reform, it could inscribe the Vatican on “blacklists” of suspect actors, which could freeze it out of international markets or significantly inflate its transaction costs.
Almost certainly, the Moneyval evaluation will be delayed – but “delayed” is not the same thing as “canceled,” and eventually the Vatican will have to answer the questions its inspectors are almost certain to ask.
Now, therefore, would be a great time to figure out what those answers might be.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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