More Roman, less catholic?

More Roman, less catholic? January 12, 2012

That was the Swiss-based news service Ecumenical News International‘s assessment of Pope Benedict’s latest selection of 22 new cardinals, the majority of whom are European, with Italy having the largest single representation.  (ENI’s full article does not appear to be available, but the full story can be found here.)

Much as I prefer to differentiate myself from our church’s liberal reactionaries who love to hate the Big Bad Hierarchy’s every move, this worries me a bit.  My concerns are twofold, having to do firstly with the tension between Romanitas and catholicity that we Roman Catholics live in by definition, and secondly with perceptions (however debatable their accuracy may be) of how the RC Church is or isn’t balancing this tension between its R and its C.

It’s a paradox that has been much on my mind, especially as the “Roman” part of it was perhaps the biggest hurdle in my meandering journey into the Catholic Church.  “I want to be Catholic,” I thought many times, “but could I live with being Roman?”  I even wondered at times whether “Roman Catholic” was an oxymoron: if Catholic means universal, does the privileged place given to Romanness contradict the more broadly global nature of the church implied by catholicity?  Ironically perhaps, it was only after I had joined this paradox of a church that I came to the uneasy conclusion that its catholicity does indeed have room for some degree of Romanitas (as long, I hasten to add, as it isn’t universalized in ways that marginalize other cultural expressions), and for those with an affinity for it beyond my comfort zone – precisely because catholicity is too big for anyone’s comfort zone.

But enough about me; let’s talk about our Pope.  His ecclesiology has seemed at times to be disturbingly Eurocentric, which makes the underrepresentation of non-European cardinals somewhat more disconcerting than it already is in itself, giving some credence to the suggestion that his choices demonstrate a lack of concern for reflecting the catholicity of the worldwide Catholic communion.  On the other hand, his perspectives on various other matters are more nuanced than many give him credit for; in view of this, the implication that he is deliberately stacking the deck toward a staunchly conservative successor sounds rather oversimplified.  But even if such accusations are exaggerated, it doesn’t help that his selection lends itself to being construed that way.  Or would such a construal be inevitable in any case?

All motives aside, the real concern regarding the makeup of the conclave is what this will indeed mean for the future of the church.  One thought I find myself wishing I could shake: If our next Pope takes the name Pius XIII, we’ll know we’re in for trouble.

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  • If the next pope would take after Pius XI, rather than Pius XII, I’d say that we’ll need him.

    I, too, wish to see a pope from the Third World, simply because that’s where I believe the future of world orthodox Christianity lies–and also because I want to see the tide in favour of Protestant evangelism stemmed, because it runs AGAINST the improvements in social and economic justice that I wish to see fostered where I live.

    On the other hand, you have to accept–as I do–that almost any Third World cardinal made into a pope is going to be more theologically and socially “conservative” than almost any European cardinal. I’ll take the theological and social conservatism in return for the economic and political liberalism and independence–especially, independence against the exploitive, “crony capitalistic” agendas of nations like the United State–which I’m more than sure that a Third World pope would evince.

    • Julia Smucker

      I think these observations further the point I was trying to make about the oversimplification of the assumption that Pope Benedict’s favoring of European cardinals means he’s trying to ensure they will elect a conservative. I find it a bit troubling for other reasons, but you’re right to point out additional complicating factors.

      Oh, and let me clarify that with the Pius comment I wasn’t just thinking of Pius XII, but of the string of Piuses dropping the ball on the promulgation of Catholic Social Teaching that was set rolling by Leo XIII and picked back up again by John XXIII and every pope since. But I guess one never knows.

  • Do we really want an “international” papacy? The pope, after all, is considered Peter’s successor precisely because he is the leader of the local church in Rome. In the aftermath of Vatican II, two different possibilities for broadening the catholicity of the Church were possible: (1) implementation of real collegiality, with increased authority for regional synods of bishops and a much-diminished role for the curia, or (2) a revived but internationalized version of ultramontanism, including a powerful curia with an appearance more like that of the multinational Council fathers. The Council, of course, supported the first option; what we have experienced so far more closely resembles the second.

    • Ugh. Forget national bishop’s conferences and regional synods and all that. I’m all for de-centralizing and devolving responsibility, but it should devolve to each bishop, each local church. This weird “mid-level” of episcopal “democracy” is not how the Church works, and ends up making each bishop a sort of “representative” in a “Congress” rather than what he’s supposed to be more like (say, the Governor in each State).

  • I am not sure that tension is the best way to talk about the Romanitas of Roman Catholicism. I suspect the more fundamental worry here is the so-called “scandal of particularity.” It is tempting to imagine that something, to be universally valid, is only universal to the extent that it is free from the particularities of time, place, experience, culture, etc. The attractive idea is a kind of free-floating truth which then can embed itself in anyone, anywhere, anywhen.

    The Incarnation, I think, indeed the whole of salvation history from the election of Abraham through the story of the people of Israel, through Jesus and the Church, is a history of particularities. We do not get to know God better by abstracting what was particular of the experience of Israel, or of the first-century Mediterranean, or for that matter of the very concrete, particular life of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee and (briefly) Jerusalem. God apparently speaks his Word once for all to his saints not in universalized ways, but through very particular people and places, and we appropriate these not by bypassing their particularity, but by letting the full and robust specificity of that moment enter into the equally robust particularity of our own, which God has prepared so to receive it.

    This means that, e.g. the eastern Mediterranean, Hellenic and Hellenized culture which stamps the early Church and the Fathers is an intended and enduring feature of the life of the Church. It also means that Rome is not merely where the Vicar of Christ happens to be, but where God in his providence means for us to encounter the charism of Peter in its particularity. What we will see as the permanent and abiding contributions of west Africa or east Asia remain to be seen, but they will undoubtedly be there.

    I seem to recall that Karl Rahner himself worried over the desires for a non-Italian pope. His worry here was that people would see the office not in light of its charism and history, but as a kind of platform for regional factionalism and group politics. I feel something of the same re: the selection of cardinals. While the pope would be wise to have about him men who are deeply in touch with the full wisdom of the Church, and so should strongly consider men from across the world, he also needs men who can work together well and efficiently, and that might be even less well accomplished by a representative approach than by what is, even now, shall we say less than a model of efficiency and collegiality.

    • elizabeth00

      I’m playing in the sandpit with this one, but maybe Simon’s relation to Peter is analogous to Rome’s relation to the world?

  • Julia Smucker

    An international papacy, no; an international conclave of cardinals, yes. My use of the word “tension” was meant to include the particularity that you, Dominic, are talking about: the church should hold in creative tension the paradox of particularity and universality, without dichotomizing the two. I personally would hope that we can be a global (catholic) church first and Church of Rome second, but maybe it would be better to talk about a reciprocal counterbalance.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Dominic has given an almost aspirational answer to this quandary. Let me give a much simpler one. I do not think there has ever, in all of history, been one leader who managed to keep his position for a duration that did not have the following de facto strategy. He must be at all times surrounded by people he can trust. That means, simply, people who are beholden to him personally and professionally, and who are grateful and fully aware of the debt they owe the leader. The leader may have many other virtues, and may even be “lovable”. But if he cannot count on some rock-solid substratum of debt and loyalty, history shows he will not last long.

    This raises a much larger cultural issue. For most of human history this matter of indebtedness and mutuality was much more frankly acknowledged than it is today. If you don’t mind me saying so, your posting here shows the effects of forgetting about it. For the Pope’s actions are completely legible as a form of this phenomenon. Many powerful clerics from around the world have very substantial personal followings on their own. If they were given the top honor, much of the reason in that substratum realm would be construed as being because of that personal power, not debt. Whereas a lot of these Italian Cardinals will owe their position entirely to the Pope essentially — and they will know it!! That gives a special kind of loyalty.

    The particularities of time and place relating to the Incarnation, that Dominic references are mostly strongly applicable in the ways outlined here. Leaders are only human. They must know and feel secure in a wealth of well-understood and appreciated mutual debt. This is just the way human society works. For reasons that are a mystery to the cultural historian, it is only fairly recently that this basic reality has been swept under the carpet, so to speak. For, in fact, it potentially enlivens and reinforces creativity, since it takes away a lot of fear and even, more darkly, paranoia. I hazard the guess that the modern forgetfulness of it has to do with “multi-culturalism”. I hesitate to bolster in any way one of the bugaboos of many reactionaries, but multi-culturalism had the somewhat unintended consequence of making people forget that we are all speaking FROM our own culture, not to it by way of analysis, critique or even appreciation of “other cultures”. In other words, we are all in a constant state of debt to our culture, and this state makes the many individual debts of our personal life, both large and small, rather easy to admit and even enjoy on the horizon of our massive cultural debt.

    Whatever one might think of the present Pope, it is clear that he is a man that loves European culture, and that he understands this whole matter of debt, both cultural and personal. That makes his decisions utterly explicable under this aegis. Lastly, I will add that this cultural sense of the man, Ratzinger, is the only way I can personally appreciate him.

    • I definitely do NOT get a sense that this pope loves LATIN European culture at all. To me, he seems a man thoroughly of NORTHERN European culture.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Well, that is an interesting point. But for example. The Pope has always said that Mozart is his favorite composer. Now there’s something I really like about him! Austria — both Salzburg and Vienna — is hardly “Northern” Europe, even though I am aware that recently they lumped it for currency purposes in with the Netherlands and finland, and of course Germany. Also, a more Bavarian vibe — a la his time in Munich — is really hardly northern Europe. My Ph. D.ed grandmother in Dusseldorf always made fun of the German spoken in Bavaria, and extolled hochdeutsch, which of course Ratzinger speaks as an educated man. Thus, it is NOT, my grandmother Erna Bierig would somewhat schoolmarmishly say — “Dee Zuneeee” but “Die Zunneh”. But I bet if Ratzinger really relaxes with a few beers he say “Zuneee”.

        But the more basic point is simpler. Remember he still head of a tiny nation, or state, or country, or whatever they call it. This tiny place has its particularities of a very political nature. Chief amongst these is that the townies run the show — still! — and thus he must keep that network loyal. Whether he does it completely consciously or not, this is a reality all leaders must face. Thus the culture being preserved is not even so much “italian” as “Papal Statish”. In this way Ratzinger is definitely a Souther “boy”.

  • Julia, I would like to know how you believe the universal Catholic Church (including all the other traditional rites which are in union with Rome) depends on the College of Cardinals for selection of a candidate to be the successor of Peter the Apostle.

    And does the City of Rome need to be the centre of Catholic Christianity for all time? And why?

    My problem with all of this is the bureaucracy and the concentration of power, which as we all know, leads inevitably to corruption and abuse of power.

    It goes without saying that institutions resist change. Yet the New Testament and the entire canon of Scripture shows that change, growth and natural organic transformative development is a universal aspect and quality of being, and that change (can we say the process of evolution) flows from God, the source of all that exists.

    How then do we adhere to the meaning and message of the teachings of scripture, particularly the New Testament Gospel, when the Catholic institution is bound by such historic accretions and developments of medieval feudalism which are so blatantly obvious in the College of Cardinals?

    Surely now in the Twenty First Century we are capable of having such discussions without simply returning to a practice of conclave which was introduced some time in the Middle Ages.

    “Ecclesia semper reformanda”. We can have more Catholic without the same “Romanita”.

    • Julia Smucker

      The conclave of cardinals elects the pope. That’s not an idea I was proposing; it’s just a part of how the Catholic Church functions. I was not intending any value judgment, whether positive or negative, on the conclave per se; I was merely evaluating recent action within the structure that we have. The era in which this particular feature of this structure was introduced has no intrinsic bearing on its merit. As C.S. Lewis would admonish, don’t use a clock to make an argument.

      In response to the dichotomy between institution and evolution, I would simply describe the Catholic Church as an institution that evolves – another ecclesiological paradox, and the two sides of it need each other. “Change, growth and natural organic transformative development” is pretty much how I would characterize the best understanding of Tradition. I would even suggest that your language of “historic accretions and developments”, although you are using it dismissively, betrays an awareness on some level of Tradition as something that does develop.

      As for your question on the centrality of Rome, that’s what I was asking in the first place. Indeed, I have asked that question many times, even suggesting more appropriate geographical centers – Nazareth, for instance (Jerusalem has enough troubles already). As I’ve already indicated, I am Catholic first of all and will add “Roman” only when pressed – or, as above, to make a point about my uneasiness with Romanitas. So I don’t see how I could possibly be construed as defending that.

    • If the lay “people of God” want to affect the outcome of the next papal conclave, I think they very well can: “occupy wall street” tactics are in order–demonstrations in the Piazza San Pietro and outright public DEMANDS that the Church become more transparent and that women be somehow more empowered, short of giving them the sacerdotal role.

  • “We must change, in order to remain the same.” –Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      “Er macht gute Miene zum boesen Spiel.”

  • Julian Barkin

    That’s why we should pray the next pope is not European. I’m rooting for the home team here in Canada, hoping the next pope will be Ouellet or Collins. Though I’d be fine with Burke too.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    He’ll still be the bishop of Rome.

  • Peter Paul, I recently LIVED in Dusseldorf!

    (and found it to be, despite the elegance, an extremely provincial, and, often, quite xenophobic place–Berlin and even Cologne are much nicer, less insular cities. Dusseldorf is a locus of unmitigated snobbery and German nationalism, which includes the most ferocious hatred of Turks that you can imagine).

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      That fits with everything I remember. It is the richest city in the country, and yet NOT the most cultured by far. I miss the great breads and rolls. I miss my grandparents to who were a great inspiration to me. BTW, I don’t know if this is still true, but at one point it had the highest percentage of Japanese of any world city outside of Japan. Haven’t been there in 15+ years.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Re: Burke as the next pope. Well, he already has a lot of nice dresses in his wardrobe and he luvvvvvvvvs the long cappa magna.