The Maltese farce

The saga of the Order of Malta gets stranger and stranger. Today, Edward Pentin reports that Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the Holy Father’s special delegate to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and substitute for general affairs in the Secretariat of State, has written to Fra’ Matthew Festing, erstwhile grand master, “asking” him not to come to Rome for the upcoming Council Complete of State, convened to elect Festing’s successor. Pentin provides a scan of the letter from Becciu to Festing. The request comes as a bit of a surprise, since it has been widely reported that the Holy Father has expressed no objection to Festing’s reelection, if the Order returns him to office. According to Becciu, “many have expressed their desire that [Festing] not come to Rome and participate in the voting sessions.” (It is not difficult to imagine who “many” is.)

Archbishop Becciu makes this request as an “act of obedience.” All of this underscores completely the fact that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is under the direct administration of the Holy See, which has definite ideas about how it is to be run going forward. This, of course, would not be so extraordinary but for two facts. First, the Order was once presumed sovereign under international law. Second, the Holy See appears to favor one clique definitively in the internal governance dispute, taking extraordinary step after extraordinary step after extraordinary step to ensure that the interests of Boeselager and the German Knights are advanced. One wonders whether these actions—probably unprecedented—will have effects beyond the question of the Order of Malta. For example, will high officials in the Curia start banning other allegedly divisive figures from coming to Rome? Will the Italian state object to the Holy See setting, even on a very limited basis, its immigration policy? 

One thing is clear: it pays—and pays and pays—to have friends in the Secretariat of State.

A very brief provocation

In keeping with our recent theme of ressourcement of an Aristotelian-Thomistic political vision, we have been sketching, mostly for ourselves, some theses. However, in preparing these (impossibly) rough drafts, we had occasion to review this passage of the Summa:

as stated above, a law is nothing else than a dictate of reason in the ruler by whom his subjects are governed. Now the virtue of any subordinate thing consists in its being well subordinated to that by which it is regulated: thus we see that the virtue of the irascible and concupiscible faculties consists in their being obedient to reason; and accordingly “the virtue of every subject consists in his being well subjected to his ruler,” as the Philosopher says (Polit. i). But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply, but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end.

(ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co.) (Emphasis supplied.) It seems to us that this passage contains, in germ, much of the framework for Aristotelian-Thomistic politics generally. (And, if not the passage, then the whole of q.92 a.1.) But this is a discussion for another time.

We have been taken with a more interesting notion: perhaps we should start taking St. Thomas at his word when assessing various political settlements.

St. Ambrose the Illiberal

At The Josias, Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., an old friend of Semiduplex, presents a letter from St. Ambrose of Milan to the Emperor Valentinian (Ep. XVII, written in 384), with a brief introduction from Pater Waldstein. Here’s the setup:

Epistle XVII, written in the Summer of the year 384 to the young emperor Valentinian, was occasioned by a controversy over the altar of the goddess Victoria in the Curia Julia, the Senate house in Rome. The altar, with its statue of the goddess, had been removed by Constantius II, restored by Julian the Apostate, and removed again by Gratian. Conservative, pagan aristocrats in the Senate asked the young emperor to restore the altar.

(Emphasis supplied.) And here’s why Pater Waldstein thinks the letter is important:

But St. Ambrose protests vigorously against the request. Christian senators, he argued, would be forced by the erection of the altar to take part in pagan worship. But more fundamentally, he lays down a principle that contains the germ of all subsequent Catholic integralism. The Christian emperor is a servant of God, and must promote the true religion.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink in original.) This is what St. Ambrose says (don’t worry, the English is coming right up):

Cum omnes homines, qui subditione Romana sunt, vobis militent imperatoribus, terrarum atque principibus, tum ipsi vos omnipotenti Deo et sacrae fidei militatis. Aliter enim salus tuta esse non poterit, nisi unusquisque Deum verum, hoc est, Deum christianorum, a quo cuncta reguntur, veraciter colat; ipse enim solus verus est Deus, qui intima mente veneretur: Dii enim gentium daemonia, sicut Scriptura dicit (Psal. XCV, 5).

Huic igitur Deo vero quisquis militat, et qui intimo colendum recipit affectu, non dissimulationem, non conniventiam, sed fidei studium et devotionis impendit. Postremo si non ista, consensum saltem aliquem non debet colendis idolis, et profanis ceremoniarum cultibus exhibere. Nemo enim Deum fallit, cui omnia etiam cordis occulta manifesta sunt.

(Emphasis supplied). Now, in English:

As all men who live under the Roman sway engage in military service under you, the Emperors and Princes of the world, so too do you yourselves owe service to Almighty God and our holy faith. For salvation is not sure unless everyone worship in truth the true God, that is the God of the Christians, under Whose sway are all things; for He alone is the true God, Who is to be worshipped from the bottom of the heart; for the gods of the heathen, as Scripture says, are devils.

Now everyone is a soldier of this true God, and he who receives and worships Him in his inmost spirit, does not bring to His service dissimulation, or pretence, but earnest faith and devotion. And if, in fine, he does not attain to this, at least he ought not to give any countenance to the worship of idols and to profane ceremonies. For no one deceives God, to whom all things, even the hidden things of the heart, are manifest.

(Emphasis supplied.) You ought to read the whole thing at The Josias when you get a free minute or two. This is the basic idea of integralism—or, as we prefer to call it for a variety of reasons, illiberal Catholicism—just as Pater Waldstein claims. Everyone, even the state, has duties to God, which include promoting the true religion and ruling in accordance with the common good and right reason. This has immediate consequences for the right ordering of the state, too, as Pater Waldstein states in his “three sentences on integralism,” including the subordination of the state to the Church.

As soon as we saw this, we were immediately reminded of something Leo XIII said in Immortale Dei, which we discussed recently in the context of the American federal Constitution. You will, dear reader, forgive us, we hope, if we repeat ourselves a little bit to make our point. Leo says:

[T]he State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion -it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavour should be directed. Since, then, upon this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man with God.

(Emphasis supplied.) There are strong resonances, as one might expect, between what St. Ambrose wrote to Valentinian and what Leo XIII teaches here. We see readily that there is no difference between an ordinary man or woman and a man or woman invested with civil power. All men owe service to God and the true faith, as St. Ambrose says, and societies are not exempt from this duty, Leo reminds us. This is, as Pater Waldstein suggests, the basic insight of integralism or illiberal Catholicism.

This is, however, a controversial concept under liberalism, even among Catholics devoted to the liberal order. And it seems to us that St. Ambrose’s comments provide another good opportunity to discuss the principle that it is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a good liberal. As the liberal moment in the West appears to be in as much jeopardy as it has been at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union (if not before then), it is perhaps a good time for Catholics to take this opportunity to reexamine liberalism in the light of the doctrine of the Church, which, as Paul VI has noted, has special competence to pronounce upon natural reason. But we will see in a moment that St. Ambrose’s letter, invested with both great antiquity and great authority, is extremely useful for an illiberal Catholic arguing with his liberal friends.

The basic idea of liberalism is that everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness. There is a proceduralist dimension to liberalism—that is, liberalism insists on allegedly neutral rules for discourse of various kinds—but that is ultimately in service of the idea that everyone ought to be free to achieve his or her idea of happiness. But, with St. Ambrose and Leo’s teaching in mind, we see that this is a betrayal of the state’s duties in two dimensions. First, the liberal state betrays its duty to God and the true faith by failing to profess absolutely all that we know about God, both through natural reason and through revelation, and by pretending, as Leo says, that all religions are essentially the same or that religion is of no interest to the state. Second, the liberal state betrays its duty to its citizens by failing to make it as easy as possible for them to obtain the highest good, God, through virtue and religion.

But, of course, these are, as one might say, features not bugs as far as liberalism is concerned. As we just said, liberalism’s fundamental argument is that everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness, by applying reason in a procedurally neutral space. Each man or woman chooses among options what is most pleasing to him or her through the application of reason. Now, he or she ought to make the right choice, but nothing forces that choice. This is fundamentally corrosive to society, as we have discussed recently. This is a point that liberal Catholics, devoted as they are to the current political order, fail to grapple with when they tout liberalism as some sort of solution. Consider what Leo says in Libertas praestantissimum:

What naturalists or rationalists aim at in philosophy, that the supporters of liberalism, carrying out the principles laid down by naturalism, are attempting in the domain of morality and politics. The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man’s individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.

Moreover, besides this, a doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State. For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption. With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny. The empire of God over man and civil society once repudiated, it follows that religion, as a public institution, can have no claim to exist, and that everything that belongs to religion will be treated with complete indifference. Furthermore, with ambitious designs on sovereignty, tumult and sedition will be common amongst the people; and when duty and conscience cease to appeal to them, there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check. Of this we have almost daily evidence in the conflict with socialists and members of other seditious societies, who labor unceasingly to bring about revolution. It is for those, then, who are capable of forming a just estimate of things to decide whether such doctrines promote that true liberty which alone is worthy of man, or rather, pervert and destroy it.

(Emphasis supplied.) It is, of course, traditional for liberal Catholics to inject a little Modernism or Americanism into this discourse, and attempt to avoid Leo’s teachings in Immortale Dei and Libertas by claiming that Leo was writing for a specific time and place or, worse, was merely offering prudential, non-dogmatic reflections on questions of the age. In other words, as society has progressed, Leo’s arguments are less applicable. Liberalism isn’t so corrosive to society. In fact, they say, liberalism is the best—the only—way to order a just society.

This is where Pater Waldstein and The Josias have done us a great service by presenting the letter of St. Ambrose. One can see that the argument of liberal Catholics is squarely contrary to the tradition of the Church. Indeed, we can see that the germ of the idea is present in the Patristic era. With that in mind, it is much harder to say that Leo’s critique of liberalism was limited to a specific time or place. Indeed, it is fairly easy to say that it represents perennial Catholic teaching, and an ambitious integralist might say that it forms part of the deposit of faith. At any rate, it presents the illiberal Catholic with a wonderful rhetorical trap. “Oh, well, Leo was just writing for an age of looming anarchy and revolution. In these times, of course, liberalism is perfectly tolerable,” one’s liberal Catholic interlocutor might say. “Perhaps, but if that’s so, why did St. Ambrose say essentially the same thing in AD 384? Isn’t that rather ‘always, everywhere, and by everyone’?”

Try it, and watch the subject change as if by magic!

Women’s ordination and Anglican orders

As we mentioned yesterday, the Holy Father has poured a measure of cold water on the hopes of the progressives in the Church who wish to see women ordained to the priesthood. Responding to a question during one of his famous in-flight press conferences, the Holy Father stated that St. John Paul’s Ordinatio sacerdotalis is the final word on the question. This has provoked the all-too-predictable outrage from progressives. Read the comments here, for a taste.  Generally, despite the Church’s clarification that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is infallible, even if it is not an ex cathedra exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium (though one might argue that it is such an exercise), the progressives argue, for a variety of reasons, that John Paul got it wrong. Now, this is based in a faulty understanding of the Church and the deposit of faith; progressives (and some conservatives) see the Church as a political entity with the choice to define its doctrine.

With this ecclesial vision firmly in mind, the progressives’ argument proceeds as it often does; that is, on grounds of fairness and inclusion. So far, they hold, the Church has chosen to define its doctrine to “unfairly” “exclude” women from the priesthood. If this sounds like the recent argument over admitting bigamists to Holy Communion, it’s because the progressives don’t have a very deep bench, in terms of arguments. But, of course, we know better, dear reader. The Church is not a political entity and the Church does not get a choice in its doctrine. The Church must obey the apostolic mandate—indeed, a mandate arguably founded in divine law—to hand on what it received, and to do so faithfully, neither adding to nor subtracting from the deposit of faith. This is why the universal ordinary magisterium is so important, especially when it is specifically confirmed by a pope, who is the visible sign of the unity of the Church.

But if the progressives are right and the magisterium is just a political choice, what other choices have the popes gotten wrong? Consider Leo XIII’s Apostolicae curae, for example, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void.” The question of the validity of Anglican orders was hotly litigated until Leo settled the question. But some have noted that, ultimately, the decision to issue Apostolicae curae was based upon the “politicking” of Herbert Cardinal Vaughan, then the archbishop of Westminster, an opponent of early ecumenical efforts between Catholics and Anglicans. This, then, ought to be in the progressives’ wheelhouse. Indeed, the argument that Leo issued Apostolicae curae for purely political reasons is stronger than the argument that John Paul issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis for political reasons. Thus, by the progressives’ standards, it is no less likely that Leo XIII got it wrong when he said that Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void” than it is when John Paul II said that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament.

A brief aside. Though we hope that our faint humor—very faint, most likely—is obvious enough, we emphasize here that we are joking. Certainly men and women of good will can disagree about the circumstances that led to Apostolicae curae, or whether subsequent developments in the Church of England have affected the applicability of the bull. On with the joke.

Progressives may decide, therefore, that Leo XIII did get it wrong and that Anglican orders are valid. There are, then, any number of churches or ecclesial communities or whatever that have preserved apostolic succession and the sacraments. Certainly, the Catholic Church has done so, but the Orthodox and the Anglicans have, too. And one might argue that anyone in communion with the Anglicans has, but we needn’t go that far down the path. So, we can return to their original problem, which is that the Catholic Church teaches that women may not be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament as a matter of divine law. They think St. John Paul II got it wrong when he confirmed the universal ordinary magisterium by a definitive act. But another ecclesial community, the Church of England (and many other Anglican groups), holds that women may be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament. Indeed, the Anglicans ordain women not merely to the presbyterate but also to the episcopate. And, remember, we have already decided that the Anglicans have valid orders and apostolic succession because we have already decided that Leo XIII whiffed his big decision, too.

The question, then, is why do the progressives stay formally in communion with Rome? Once you decide that the magisterial acts of this or that pope are subject to review and contradiction—indeed, once you decide that they are merely political acts of the head of a political organization—you can read yourself into all sorts of interesting ideas. The entire world opens up before you, almost as if you are standing on the pinnacle of the Temple or on a high mountain, to take two places entirely at random. The foregoing exercise is entirely reasonable from their standpoint. You can read yourself into ultramontane Anglo-Catholicism that includes the ordination of women, if you want. So why stay in the Church of Rome? Is it simply because they are a disaffected wing of a political party, waiting for more propitious circumstances at the next party conference? Certainly that is how many progressives have acted since well before the Council, and why so many of them clamor for a new council that will, at long last, make the Church as vibrant as the Presbyterians or the liberal Lutherans. But could it be something deeper, a sense that, despite dreary progressive theology and drearier progressive politics, there is something True at the heart of the Church, which cannot be cast aside so lightly as all that?


Abhinc unum annum

Dear Reader:

Today marks the first anniversary of Semiduplex. While we said that we did not have a program when we launched this blog—and, indeed, we did not—events soon ran ahead of us. If you’ll recall, the Ordinary General Session of the Synod of Bishops convened a few weeks after Semiduplex went live. Who could forget? And that experience has really set the tone for Semiduplex since then.

We anticipated writing that we were going to try to adopt a more eclectic focus, returning to our initial plan to have no plan. Certainly, we wish we had written more about music and books over the past year. On the other hand, developments in the Church, ranging from Amoris laetitia to the decidedly underwhelming reforms of the Curia, have called for some comment. And to a certain extent, that is probably as it should be. It seems perhaps a little frivolous to avoid talking about these developments in favor of lighter things. That having been said, we plan on trying to include more of these lighter things in the future, if only to break up the monotony.

We have occasionally written on political matters and the liturgy, and some of our most popular posts have been on those subjects. We plan on writing more on these topics too, especially on political questions, but the presidential election has reached a point where we are no longer especially interested in commenting upon it. That said, we have the sense—others do, too—that we are at the end of an era politically. American-style liberalism has never looked weaker or less attractive than it does now, and more than ever people are turning to the Church and its teachings for clear guidance on navigating an increasingly complex political environment. Traditionally, the Feast of Christ the King was on the last Sunday in October, which seems more than usually significant this year. At any rate, we think we ought to start discussing these questions a little more regularly.

Turning from content to reaction, we have been surprised at the popularity (or infamy) of some of our posts. We have been linked by much bigger operations, and we have had some thousands of visitors and many thousands of page views. Of course, we are still small potatoes, even within the world of traditionally minded Catholics, and we don’t anticipate that that will change. (However, we are always tremendously gratified to see that we’ve had a visitor with a Vatican City IP address. Tell your friends about us! Leave us up on public computers in Santa Marta!) We have been linked to by other blogs, mentioned on Twitter, and even have gotten some emails from readers. Not fan mail, alas, but it’s a new year. Earlier, we indicated that we might liberalize our content policy, but then we never got around to doing it. That people have linked to us or mentioned us on Twitter indicates to us that our initial instinct is correct: people don’t need our combox to comment on us. So, for now, we’re going to stick with the current commenting regime.

A post like this is terribly self indulgent. We will, therefore, refrain from trying your patience any more than necessary and say, simply, that we are deeply grateful that you have chosen to spend a little time with us on matters that we both take very seriously. We hope that we have repaid your time with something that is, at the very least, interesting. Or, if not interesting, at least infuriating. After all, as a famous woman said, isn’t it better to be angry than bored? (Probably not spiritually, we must admit.) We close by saying that we hope, very much, that this upcoming year is much less eventful than the past one.

Yours very truly,


New “mega-dicastery” for laity, family, and life formally established

Today, the Holy Father has handed down the Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Sedula Mater, formally establishing the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. He has also appointed the Bishop of Dallas, Kevin Joseph Farrell, as the first prefect of the new dicastery. Recall that the statutes of the Dicastery were approved ad experimentum in June, and scheduled to come into force in September. In an interesting twist, the statutes anticipate that the secretary of the Dicastery may be a layperson, and three lay undersecretaries (for the laity, family, and life divisions). (Art. 2 § 1.) Indeed, much about the new dicastery is interesting in comparison to the ordinary structure of a Roman congregation under Pastor Bonus. (Though Pastor Bonus, art. 3 § 1, plainly anticipates that particular law might create a unique dicastery.)

All of this is interesting, to be sure, but we are especially interested in the fact that the Holy Father approved the statutes before he created the Dicastery. Certainly, since the Dicastery is ultimately the product of a merger, for the moment, of the Pontifical Council for Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family, with, we suppose, the anticipated involvement of the Pontifical Council for Life, perhaps it was easier to put the cart before the horse this time, but still the optics are passing strange.

A short fantasy in the hermeneutic of conspiracy

What follows is pure, groundless speculation. The merest fantasy in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. So, it’s worth at most what you paid for it. But the question we pose has been on our mind for some time. 

As the whole world knows, on July 5, Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, gave a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London calling for, among other things, a return to ad orientem (versus apsidem) worship. This drew a quick, pointed correction from the Holy See Press Office, no doubt distracting them from the festive-if-bittersweet preparations for Fr. Federico Lombardi’s imminent retirement. Father John Hunwicke suggests that Vincent Cardinal Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and a long-time supporter of the Holy Father’s cause (even before the Conclave, if some are to be believed), was perhaps the prime mover in obtaining an unusual rebuke of a Curial cardinal. All this is, of course, well known among Catholics of all liturgical stripes now.

We were struck, however, by the unusual nature of the very public rebuke to Cardinal Sarah. Certainly he is likely seen by many as a potential leader for next time, in opposition to some candidates more simpatico to the Holy Father’s program, such as Cardinal Tagle. But that was not exactly it. Consider all the things that have not drawn rebukes. Cardinal Müller has criticized at length the liberal interpretation of Amoris laetitia at length. Cardinal Burke called it non-magisterial. And Archbishop Gänswein gave an extraordinary talk that, for a time, called into question just what Benedict thought he was doing when he abdicated. Yet, to our knowledge, none of these comments drew quick, decisive rebukes from official quarters (to say nothing of the rebukes from the Pope’s friends, including dear Father Spadaro). Curious.

But something else was happening at about this time: the Holy Father was handing down his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data on the competences of the Vatican financial organs, I bene temporali. As is now customary for Vatican documents of significant importance, I bene temporali is available in only Italian and Portuguese; however, the Holy See Press Office has provided a capsule summary:

The document published today responds to the need to define further the relationship between the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See and the Secretariat for the Economy. The fundamental principle at the base of the reforms in this area, and in particular at the base of this Motu Proprio, is that of ensuring the clear and unequivocal distinction between control and vigilance, on the one hand, and administration of assets, on the other. Therefore, the Motu Proprio specifies the competencies pertaining to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See and better delineates the Secretariat for the Economy’s fundamental role of control and vigilance.

(Emphasis supplied.) In short, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA, in Vatican lingo) recovered significant responsibility for the day-to-day financial administration of the Holy See, I beni temporali § 3, from George Cardinal Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy.

Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen was blunt about what this means:

There are many ways of analyzing the fault lines in the Vatican, but perhaps the most time-honored (if also often exaggerated) is the tension between an Italian old guard and pretty much everybody else. By conventional political logic, anyway, Saturday saw the Italians notch a fairly big win.

It could turn out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory – because by taking back control over a range of financial powers, the old guard has also reclaimed the blame the next time something goes wrong.

On Saturday, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, meaning a legal edict, delineating the division of responsibility between the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Secretariat of the Economy (SPE). The former is headed by Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, the latter by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

In effect, the motu proprio restores several important functions to APSA that had been given to Pell’s department in 2014. One local news agency bottom-lined the result this way in its headline: “The Italians win!”

(Emphasis supplied.) The Vatican line is more or less that the Holy Father has delineated clearly oversight and management by this action and he has solved the problem of letting the financial watchdog also have control over administration.

And perhaps the Vatican line would be believable, if Pell’s oversight functions hadn’t been undercut recently by Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, when the Secretariat of State, apparently with the Holy Father’s permission, suspended an audit that Cardinal Pell had ordered. In other words, over the last few months, the independent authority of the Secretariat for the Economy and Cardinal Pell have been undermined significantly, always in favor of the Vatican old guard—generally Italian—that had been in charge prior to 2013. And we know what the finances at the Vatican looked like at about the same time.

In other words, reform of the Curia and the Vatican’s finances, one of the Holy Father’s signature initiatives—indeed, the St. Gallen group notwithstanding, one of the major reasons why he was elected in 2013, has apparently gone exactly nowhere. Certainly new organs have been established, but in the name of separation of powers, the new organs have been stripped of actual control, leaving them with policy and “oversight.” But, as we have seen from the audit kerfuffle, it is unclear that the Secretariat for the Economy will be permitted to exercise complete, independent discretion in pursuing its oversight functions. Certainly the Secretariat of State has shown a willingness to intervene in favor of, well, more traditional Vatican concerns. In other words, after three years and numerous provisions and amendments and restructuring, things have not changed much. Were the Holy Father a secular politician, one might call this part of his platform “not a success.”

And this brings us back to the kerfuffle over Cardinal Sarah’s speech. If we were to adopt the hermeneutic of conspiracy, we would wonder whether the timing of the rebuke of Cardinal Sarah’s speech had something to do with I bene temporali. What would be the best way to ensure that everyone focused on a relatively trivial matter, rather than the serious issue that the Holy Father’s reform of the Curia, including the Vatican’s finances, has not made huge progress, even now, three years after his election? Once upon a time, we were going to get a rewritten Pastor Bonus. Now, we’ll be lucky to get anything. Certainly, keeping the motu proprio locked in those hugely widely spoken languages, Italian and Portuguese, would help. But you would want to change the news cycle, wouldn’t you? And what drives page views—left and right—better than liturgy stuff?

As we say, this is rank speculation, mere fantasy, and a feverish indulgence in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. Sometimes it is helpful to clear the cobwebs with such thinking.