Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thavis on the Vatican

I'm finishing up John Thavis' Vatican Diaries and I think I'll file it under "modified rapture."  Thavis is an accomplished story teller with years of Vatican-watching to draw on and he is able to show how much, here as perhaps everywhere else, grand policy is shaped by less-grand personality, the enthusiasms and aversions of ordinary people.  But he's also a beat reporter who will never burn a source even from his retirement perch in Minnesota, he's put together book which is unlikely to offend any but the most monstrous bitter-enders on any church issue.  Even those cast in a bad light will read in and cluck that he could have been a lot worse (well--possibly excepting the archbishop caught on a wire trying to make his moves on a young priest).  Indeed he largely gives the game away in the first chapter,--a wryly cheerful account of life in the press gaggle on a Papal outing--making the point, perhaps inadvertently, that the most seasoned reporter on the Vatican beat really doesn't get much more by way of inside dope than those of us half a world away at the business end of a TV connection.

One thing he does well is to bring together the fragments of narrative on a bunch of issues that the yokels hear about but don't follow closely day to day--stuff you probably know if you already if you are a faithful reader of Vatican-watcher's blog posts (I'm not--it really hadn't occurred to me that they exist until I read Thavis' book).

Another virtue is that it reminds you how much the Vatican is like the old joke that ends "from then on, it was a hell of a lot like Cincinnati."    Or perhaps Queens: people say the Vatican is like the Mafia and I think there is some truth there, but perhaps not in the sense ordinarily intended.  I don't think the Vatican has a regular modus vivendi of assassination (at least not lately;  cf here and here).  No: the real point is (I'm pretty sure I have written this before)--the real point is that the Mafia is an old,  sluggish, sclerotic behemoth, lurching from limited success to near failure.  So also the Vatican: the real wonder, sometimes, is that they find their way at all.

Which offers a framework for one topic on which Vithers is pretty good: his sketch of the troublesome outliers like the late Marcel Lefebvre, creator of the Order of Saint Pius X and perhaps the church's most visible dissident against Vatican II; or Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, father of illegitimate children  by at least two women, abusers of countless children, including his own.

Both these worthies are dead now.  But the real question is why they exercised such power for so long--how come nobody gave them the bum's rush long before they became a public embarrassment.

The answer--a moment's reflection ought to give you the hint--is that they were just way too good at what they did.  They created enthusiasm, they prompted vocations, they filled the pews and most of all, they raked in the money.  And even though the founders are dead, one has to assume that some of the old momentum persists.

And so the question has to be:  what happens now, with a new Pope bearing a whole new set of enthusiasms and, yes, new alliances.  I don't know, but I think I may sign up for Vithers' blog just to stay on the cusp.

Afterthought:  I wonder how many people, retiring from Rome, move to Minnesota?

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