The Vatican in the news

Mike Morrell has his ear to the ground (or, at least, his eyes on his keywords) and has brought to my attention several interesting news tidbits concerning the Vatican this week.

First, we learn that Benedict XVI is interested in issuing a conciliatory statement about Martin Luther — while I wouldn’t go so far as to believe the pope intends to “rehabilitate” the man who unleashed the Reformation, I do think this is a hopeful sign for future ecumenical dialogue. I suppose it took having a German pope (indeed, Benedict is the first Teutonic pontiff since Luther was alive) for the Vatican to back down on its longstanding history of enmity toward the reformer. I guess now we’ll need a Swiss pope to say nice things about Calvin, or an English pope to suggest that Henry VIII may have just been misunderstood.

Another newsworthy development from the eternal city involves a new list of sins that are to be considered grave or mortal. Some of these “new” sins are really just variations on all the old sins (pedophilia is a blend of lust and anger; obscene wealth a variation of greed and gluttony), whereas others seems to represent both the best and worst inclinations of the religious mind: I’m heartened to see the church declare despoiling the environment a grave sin, but I think the condemnation of “carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments” is shot through with problems: such vague language will leave the onus of interpretation on the penitent and his or her confessor, which basically means some people will opt for a situation ethics approach while others will retreat behind a curtain of caution and fear — and neither of these strategies will do much to improve the dysfunctional relationship between science and religion in our world.

Meanwhile, Mike also alerted me to this rather amusing commentary on the new list of sins.

Finally, another even more disturbing bit of Vatican news that came to me not from Mike but from my spiritual director: at least one official in the Vatican is calling for a regulation prohibiting the distribution of the communion host into people’s hands. While non-Catholics may greet this news with a yawn, to me it symbolizes the current struggle within the church concerning the reforms of Vatican II. In the old days, communicants could only receive the consecrated host placed directly on their tongues, and the laity were not given the precious blood (the consecrated wine) at all. These practices can be seen as subtle markers of ecclesiastical hierarchy and power. There are movements afoot in the church to roll back other Vatican II reforms as well: movements to reinstate the use of Latin during the mass or to require the priest to recite the Eucharistic prayer with his back to the congregation. The second Vatican council (which took place in the early 1960s) represented a major effort to purge Catholicism of unhealthy practices that had grown up over the centuries largely as a result of power concentrated in the hands of only the ordained (priests, bishops, cardinals, the pope). While many Catholics feel that the council left its task uncompleted, other quite powerful forces in the church see Vatican II as more or less the great whore of modernity, and thus are doing all they can to roll back the reforms. Issuing conciliatory statements about Martin Luther is very much in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, whereas coming up with new laundry lists of sins or trying to micro-manage how the faithful receive communion represent throwbacks to the days when being a lay Catholic meant little more than praying, paying and obeying.

Fighting over issues like the use of Latin in the mass or requiring communicants to receive the host directly on their tongue is a lot like the controversies that erupt in the US every now and then over flag-burning or prayer in public schools. These issues may seem to be just trivial, but they always point to deeper political currents. Flag-burning is about free speech and prayer in public schools is about the separation of church and state. In a similar way, the question of regulating liturgical practices boils down to the far more serious question of how power functions within the church, an issue that has significant repercussions such as the refusal to ordain women or the matter of accountability for clergy misconduct. A laity that cannot even decide how it is to receive Christ in the Eucharist is a laity that has little “real” power as well.

These are perilous times for the Catholic Church; no matter what your faith identity may be, please keep her in your prayers.

Concerning Sheep, Goats, and the Unconditional Love of God
Concerning Contemplative Prayer and Spiritual Xenophobia
Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future
"That God's Love Might Live in Us" — A Few Lovely Words from Thomas Merton


  1. Perilous times for the Church indeed. I joined the Catholic Church largely because of Christian mysticism and its living tradition of keeping deeper aspects of Christianity alive that are virtually forgotten or unknown in most places. Eventually, I began to inquire about a possible vocation to the priesthood. Over several years, I discerned with several religious orders, and finally even the diocese. I realized that God was actually calling not to the priesthood, but to something else.

    I really haven’t participated much in the Church since Ratz became pope. It was feeling increasingly unfriendly to me then, and I knew it would get worse.

    But my hat is off to you and the millions of others who shine the light of her highest ideals and teachings, above the confusing tempest of political-religious storms and controversy within her.

    Yes, my prayers are with her. And you.

  2. Change always has to come from within and with love.

    I’ve been a Catholic all my life…the daughter of a convert. In my family, disagreement wtih the Church seems to be as much a part of being Catholic as attending Mass. I love the Church, I love it’s history, it’s ritual, the depth of the teachings, the saints, the diversity of it’s congregants…I could go on and on.

    But like any loved one, the Church has some deep flaws as well. And like any growing relationship, conflict is an intrinsic part of the intimacy.

    I read about the new list of grave sins and was actually glad to see the Vatican saying, “Hey people! Quit straining out the gnats (individual immorality) and swallowing the camels (systemic immorality).” An entire Christian community has been built around condemning personal failings while encouraging and actively participating in systemic injustice (i.e. prosperity gospel).

    As for the communion in the mouth only, I understand your concerns. However, from a practical perspective alone, I’m not sure how they could feasibly pull that one off again. In the past, it was given that way in order that it was never touched by anything other than “ordained hands.” But we had a lot more priests and deacons back then. Now with the laity playing such a huge role in every Eucharistic celebration, I can’t see the point in going back to reception by mouth only.

    Oh, and there was a time when we did receive the precious blood even before we were able to receive communion in our hands. The priest would dip the host in the chalice right before placing it on the tongue.

    My mom always says, “The Church is ancient. It reacts slowly and many things take years to work themselves out. But it always does work things out. With our “outside culture” going through rapidly accelerating changes, it doesn’t surprise me that there is a contraction within many spiritual communities as members try to find some kind of solid grounding. Taking a cue from my mom, there are two things I feel certain of: it will all work itself out and it will take some time.

  3. Just a P.S.

    I didn’t even see the blog entry from yesterday with the quote from the Gospel of Matthew about straining out the gnats and swallowing the camels before I wrote my comment above.

    I would call it a coincidence. Except I don’t believe in them. :-)

  4. Well said Carl,
    My take on this is that the ‘old school’ are nowhere near as strong numerically as they would like people to think. Their bark is louder than their bight ( and their bite! ),

  5. The Vatican is in desparate need of a solid media control. THe vatican did not, repeat did not release a new list of sins. The amount of disinformation in the age will only get worse as the speed and ease with which information increases.

    IMO you should never & I mean never take the London times as an authority on religious topics. When a second-tier Vatican official gives a newspaper interview, he is not proclaiming new Church doctrines.

    The Telegraph coverage was so poor that one might conclude that a “sin,” in the Catholic understanding, is nothing more than a violation of rules set down by a group of men in Rome. If these rules are entirely arbitrary, then Vatican officials can change them at will; some sins will cease to exist and other “new sins” will replace them.

    The traditional lists of sins hasn’t change one bit. The only thing that has changes is that mankind is able to perform them in more creative ways. Example is drug trafficing on a global scale wasn’t possible back in the 7th century, but individuals still sold harmful drugs, just not on the scale it is today.

    Archbishop Girotti said that the modern world does not understand the nature of sin. Apparently his attempt to educate not only didn’t succeed it was a complete failure.

    I disagree with your premise on receiving in the hand. The point is that one is feed by the church and the symbolism is that we are a community. We are in need of being feed and independant and feed ourselves. We are are need of grace and we receive we do not take.

    There’s nothing evil or sinful in receiving in the hand, but in these times I think the former is in great need to be reinforced.

  6. Well, my friend, it’s pretty clear where you stand. :-)

    I appreciate you sharing your perspective and of course it’s good for readers of this blog to see a different opinion. But with all due respect, you’ve said nothing to change my views.

    Just to be clear: I have not seen or heard anyone (including myself) accuse the Vatican of “proclaiming new Church doctrines.” As for the receive vs. take issue, a straw man argument if there ever were one, I stand by my analysis that what is at stake here goes far beyond the question of how the host is given to the faithful.

  7. “I have not seen or heard anyone (including myself) accuse the Vatican of “proclaiming new Church doctrines.”

    Correct. Sorry I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I thought I made it clear that it’s the media that is proclaiming this. I was simply infering this because of your link to the Daily Telegraph & a link supplied by “Mike”. My point was simply that the church needs a better media communications to dispell intentional or unintentional misunderstandings.

    On the receiving in the hand if I may, would you desire a restriction to receive only in the hand or the option to do either. My position is for either with a preference to receive on the tongue. I don’t believe that is a strw man arguement, but to each his own.

  8. I think the option for either the hand or tongue makes the most sense.

    BTW, thank you for your respectful tone. I find that I learn a lot from those who disagree with me … civilly.

  9. Thanks. I find that there is much agreement and disagreement with you on several points.

    I agree with you that the Catholic church in Europe & North AMerica is in a serious crisis. I wouldn’t quite call it perilous, except perhaps in some sections of the middle east, China and Vietnam.

    In the states there tends to be groups that discribe themselves in political terms (which is a major beef with me) Liberal, conservative or moderate. These terms don’t fit well with religion.

    You seem to mention the idea of power a bit and I get the impression you use in as in authoritarian which I would agree is bad, but when utilized properly its authoritative.

    Latin is the universal language of the church, in time & space. THe difficulity in the last papal election brought this to light in that many Cardinals were unable to communicate with each other directly becuase of language barriers. At least if a minimum of latin were used both in the seminaries and in daily usage the church would gain a lot. The venacular is also necessary for the laity in worship.

  10. just a piece of info. about receiving in the hand vs. on the tongue which may or may not be of interest.
    By sheer coincidence, a week or two before that story broke, I had asked our priest what percentage of the congregation received in the hand. He said ‘ about two thirds ‘.
    I imagine that is a fairly typical figure for this part of the world ( U.K. ).

  11. Q of F – I think we’re on the same page re. Latin. I think in today’s world where travel throughout the world is increasingly available to the middle classes, having a universal language for the mass and the magisterium makes good sense. But I do think it ought to be a language that can be widely embraced and learned.

    A few more thoughts about the reception issue: I do agree that everyone should “receive” the host and precious blood from a minister, whether ordained or extraordinary. And I do think the price to be paid for the option of receiving the host in our hands is continual education and reinforcement over what is the right/reverent way to do this.

    As for your power comment: I think I’ll address that in a future entry for the blog. Not to be arguing with you, but rather to reflect on how so much of my attitude toward ecclesiastical authority (and authority in general) stems from my very pessimistic views regarding power.

  12. Bar a question for you reference you priest.

    Of the 2/3 that receive in the hand, would this be simply a personal preference or because they were instructed to do it that way as a child? If the latter I would think that 2/3′s is low.

  13. Carl,

    Agreed on the latin.

    My issue on the receiving on the hand is broader then what I stated before. I think Vat II did an excellent job in trying to draw the laity back into “active” participation. I am hesitant to use that term since it is load with good and bad concepts, depending on who uses them.
    The problem not with the council itself but its aftermath is that the lines btwn clerics and laity have been blurred. The clerics have been semi-laitized and the laity have be turned into clerics. This applies as well to sacred spaces within the church and architectural design. The council did an excellent job in explaining the role of bishop with other bishops in the world and with the pope. But the council didn’t touched on the role of the local priest and I think that perspective has been lost.

    Look forward to your comments.

  14. judith collier says:

    I was a communion minister for a few years.I loved feeding the flock even though some of the women parishoners,I just knew,thought I was overstepping the boundarys. This was back in the early eighties. I felt sorry for these women not knowing who they were in Christ.It was a false humility taught by the church.I always wanted to be a priest, how dare I think such thoughts? And communion in the hand or in the mouth, all I can follow is,”do this in remembrance of me”. judy

  15. zoecarnate says:
  16. I don’t think the ‘language barrier’ is a problem in this day and age with simultaneous translation available.
    Latin is dead. Let it lie.

  17. Wow, the rosary thing is interesting. Jesus always finds a way to hang out in places we don’t expect (with prostitutes, tax collectors and now, gangs).

    “The doctor is in.”

Leave a Comment