PMS 10: Transparency Will Solve All of Rome’s Ills (UPDATED)
We haven’t had a Papal Malarkey Syndrome update in a couple of weeks, because the stuff was starting to get repetitive (there are only so many ways you can say, “the next Pope should be a liberal Democrat”). But three days before the conclave begins in Rome, Lisa Miller of the Washington Post comes through:
Recent events prompt a stating of the obvious. The Roman Catholic Church is not now, nor has it ever been, a democracy. It values neither free speech nor freedom of the press. Its leaders are not elected officials, so they do not sweat opinion polls. Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals do not represent the interests of their members, and members, if dissatisfied with their leadership, cannot vote those leaders out. The next pope, the Vatican press office continually reminds us, will be selected not by the 115 cardinals who will soon be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, but by God.
But in the 21st century, this blatant disregard of democratic principles rankles.
Says the four-year-old as she stamps her foot and screams, “I don’t care that parents make the rules! I want what I want, and I want it NOW!”
Even the cardinals from the United States showed uncharacteristic irritation when their daily news conferences in Rome were canceled last week. Italian newspapers had published leaked accounts of the closed-door meetings at which the voting cardinals are gathering pre-conclave and painted the leadership of the church as divided, rancorous and political. No one accused the Americans of leaking outright, but the news conferences abruptly stopped, and the U.S. cardinals weren’t happy. “In true old-style Catholic school teacher fashion, someone talks and everybody stays after school,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Associated Press.
For the record, George Weigel in a terrific piece at National Review Online indicated that the source of the leaks most likely was the translators, who have leaked Vatican stuff in the past. Weigel also does a terrific job of skewering the whole curial set-up, which is trying to communicate the gospel to a 21st century audience using a 19th century mindset.
When their news conferences were shut down, the USCCB issued a news release: “The U.S. Cardinals are committed to transparency.” Others in the College of Cardinals, the statement seemed to be saying, not so much.
I will agree with her on this: transparency, in general, is a good thing for Christians and Christian institutions to practice. It reduces the suspicion that one has something to hide and promotes honesty. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything should be broadcast. There’s a good reason why the internal discussions of the U.S. Supreme Court aren’t on C-SPAN, for instance, and there’s a good reason why the world at large–and the press, in particular–aren’t allowed inside papal conclaves. Think of it as the sociological equivalent of the observer effect in quantum physics. Allowing the world to watch the proceedings would, of necessity, change them, just as allowing cameras into the House of Representatives offered every grandstanding imbecile an opportunity for his fifteen minutes of fame.
Institutions as wide-ranging as Google and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia have made transparency a core value.
Well, that settles it then. If Google is transparent, the Roman Catholic Church can be no less.
A group called Transparency International ranks countries on the basis of the perceived corruption in their governments. (The United States is 19th, after the United Kingdom but before Chile.)
It is certainly true that corruption thrives where there is no transparency. The converse is not true, however: transparency does not guarantee integrity. In any case, a national government is somewhat different from a church (though again, I have no quarrel with transparency in general as a principle of ecclesiastical governance–it’s the specifics that need to be dealt with). Oh, and that ranking for the U.S. government? It probably needs to be a lot lower, really.
How is it in a world such as this, the men at the Vatican’s highest levels continue to close ranks and insist not only on their own authority but also on their own moral privilege? How is it that the church can continue to be faced with evidence that it abused children and insist that it protects the weak and the vulnerable?
Actually, “the church” has abused no one. Individual priests–and a tiny minority at–have done so, and have had help from a small minority of bishops. Of course the Catholic Church seeks to protect the weak and vulnerable, which is why it has compensated thousands of victims and disciplined clergy. One can argue that it hasn’t done enough, or hasn’t caught all the miscreants, or has refused in too many cases to cooperate with civil authorities in the punishment of crimes. But to jump from proven cases of abuse to “the church can’t claim it protects children” is like claiming that because the Washington Post has published incorrect information, and still has not issued public corrections of some of those falsehoods, means that Washington Post doesn’t publish anything that’s true.
A rereading of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book “The Righteous Mind” (just out in paperback) is illuminating here. Groups of like-minded people reinforce their own beliefs. And worse. They convince themselves that those beliefs are moral, even righteous. Individuals “lie, cheat and cut corners quite often when we think we can get away with it,” he writes, “and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post hoc reasoning so thoroughly that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.”
I’m sorry, but when I read that, I didn’t think of the Catholic Church. I thought of the liberal academy, media, and mainline church leadership in the United States: so disdainful of anyone who doesn’t measure up ideologically, so dismissive of others’ views, so unwilling to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong. Miller’s use of Haidt in this context suggests projection on a massive scale. It brings to mind another bit of pre-Watergate wisdom: “[H]ow can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)
UPDATE: A far less serious PMS was on exhibit Friday morning in Washington. Read Jeff Walton’s full report, which starts out this way:
When Roman Catholic Cardinals select a new pope early next week, they should select a pontiff who embraces legalized abortion, ordination of women to the priesthood and affirmation of homosexual and transgender persons, according to a coalition of liberal Catholic dissident groups.
You mean they didn’t ask for Heineken and pizza to replace wine and bread at Communion? Someone must have overlooked something.
UPDATE: If you want to see what Google means by “transparency,” check this out.
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