Each Catholic culture brews a controversy made to order

Catholic experience is a constant interplay between the universal and the local, a few basic constants refracted and lived out in a myriad of different milieu.

News Analysis

ROME – Catholicism is a vast, riotously diverse global institution, counting 1.3 billion members scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet. As a result, Catholic experience is a constant interplay between the universal and the local, a few basic constants refracted and lived out in a stunning myriad of different milieu.

One of those constants, given that religion stirs people’s deepest passions, is that someone in the Catholic Church is always upset about something. Novelist John Sandford, author of the Lucas Davenport series of detective novels, once had his hero explain the difference between Catholicism and Pentecostal-style Christianity this way: “Holy rollers scream about Jesus. Catholics scream about their bishop.”

However, precisely what upsets different Catholics at any given time often reflects features of their local cultures. Three tempests swirling around the Church over the past week illustrate the point.

  • In Italy, some Catholics have objected to an announcement by the Archbishop of Potenza in the southern region of Basilicata that as soon as restoration work is complete on the city’s Church of the Most Holy Trinity, it will reopen as a functioning parish. The church has been closed since 2010, when the remains of a teenage girl who had disappeared in 1993 were discovered in its loft, raising still-unanswered questions about how the body of one of Italy’s best-known missing children had gone undetected in such a spot for almost two decades.
  • In Germany and Austria, Catholic organizations and even several bishops have voiced critical reactions to a recent declaration from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith insisting upon the impossibility of offering blessings to same-sex unions. Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the elected president of the German bishops’ conference, described the content of the Vatican document as “points of view” that will be taken into consideration, but not necessarily heeded, during the Germany church’s ongoing synodal discussions.
  • In the United States, some Catholics have applauded while others have expressed outrage after Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who chairs the US bishops’ pro-life committee, said in media interviews that US President Joe Biden “should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic” and refrain from taking communion because of his pro-choice policies. A petition calling for Naumann to be removed as chair of the pro-life committee quickly garnered 22,000 signatures.

Of course, it’s not only Italians who would be scandalized by perceptions that church personnel may have been negligent, if not complicit, in covering up the murder of a child, just as it’s not only German-speaking cultures where a debate in Catholic circles about the Vatican declaration on same-sex unions is underway. Nonetheless, the fact that these reactions seem most intense in particular settings is revealing.

In general, Italians tend not to get as upset as Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures about debates over Catholic doctrine and discipline, which reflects a basic cultural difference concerning law. In Anglo-Saxon and Germanic settings, law tends to be seen as a lowest common denominator of civic morality, so if something’s a law, it has to be followed and enforced exactly as written. In Mediterranean cultures, law is seen as something of an ideal, with a realistic understanding that most people, most of the time, will fall short, and so there needs to plenty of room for interpretation and application to concrete circumstances.

Hence most Italian Catholics would look at the recent Vatican decree and conclude there’s no need to react until they figure out what Don Guido plans to do about it in their local parish – and, most likely, Don Guido will treat it with formal praise while quietly continuing to do whatever he thinks is the best pastoral choice.

On the other hand, Italians do get upset about perceptions of hypocrisy and clerical arrogance. Thus when the brother of the 16-year girl who disappeared in 1993, and whose body apparently lay undetected in the local church for years while an agonizing nationwide search unfolded, recently demanded that Archbishop Salvatore Grigorio first come clean about everything the church knows, and then reconcile with the family and the community, before reopening the church where the remains were found, that position resonated deeply.

Among other things, it tapped into a classic Italian fascination with what are known here as gialli, meaning unresolved mysteries presumed to conceal dark truths.

Meanwhile, Germany was the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, where disputes over doctrine and law long have been part of the fabric of ecclesiastical experience, and where Catholicism inevitably is influenced by the surrounding Protestant ethos of much of the country. Where Italians may greet Vatican decrees with a shrug, Germans are more likely to become outraged, to organize, and to speak up.

This week, a group of roughly 350 Austrian priests known as the Pfarrer-Initiative released a statement asserting that its members would not abide by the Vatican decree. In Italy it wouldn’t occur naturally to most parish priests to make such statements, since they’d figure exercising discretion about which decrees to ignore is just part of the job, and it’s a lot easier if you don’t call attention to yourself while you’re doing it.

Finally we come to the United States, where it’s telling that this week’s Catholic brouhaha once again has a partisan political edge.

Over the years, I’ve often heard Catholics from other places say they regard their American coreligionists as denominationally Catholic but culturally Calvinist, implying sharply dualistic tendency to think in terms of absolute good v. absolute evil, the elect and the reprobate. Nowhere is that tendency sharper than in politics, as the ongoing upheaval related to former President Donald Trump illustrates.

Had Naumann simply repeated core Church teaching on abortion, it’s unlikely beyond a small circle of the usual suspects even would have noticed. By tying those points to Biden, however, he guaranteed that it would go viral, triggering absolutely predictable reactions from the politically polarized camps into which American Catholicism has chosen to organize itself.

Naturally, the fact that these three controversies reflect the cultures in which they’re set doesn’t, by itself, provide a roadmap for resolving them. However, perhaps Catholics in each setting could at least consider that since the Church is universal, perhaps there’s perspective from another culture which could be helpful in thinking through the challenges in their own.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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