With many intricate illustrations, John Henry Newman argued that the highest teaching office of the Church, cathedrated in Rome, is by paradox negative in the most positive sense. The Pope does not invent truths: he defines them against challenges. This is the essence of conservatism, not in a political sense, but in a pastoral ecology. To preserve the Gospel from artificial pollution makes the papacy the “greenest” institution in civilization.
This role of the shepherd enjoins a certain reserve of speech. Over-exposure makes the Living Word sound banal. This is hard to explain to a generation of iPod people — including many in the dicasteries of Rome itself, who are driven to offer advice on matters outside their competence. Consider the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice, the germ of which appeared in the heady optimist of the 1960s. In recent years, it has offered unsolicited guidance on matters proper to the laity in public positions.
When Renato Raffaele Cardinal Martino was its President in 2003, he commented on the arrest of Saddam Hussein: “I feel pity at seeing this destroyed man, treated like a cow having his teeth checked.” Before that, he had been among those extending an extravagant welcome in Rome to Tariq Assiz, Hussein’s deputy foreign minister — who also received a peace award in Assisi, thus raising that honor to the distinction President Obama conferred upon the Nobel Peace Prize. This sort of clerical meddling traps one in contradictions. Cardinal Martino opposed the death sentence for Saddam Hussein: “For me, punishing a crime with another crime — which is what killing for vindication is — would mean that we are still at the opinion of demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Thus he ignored his own Council’s source document, The Compendium of Social Doctrine, which “preferred” bloodless means of deterrence and punishment, while not turning a prudential opinion into a dogma making capital punishment an intrinsic evil. He also neglected these words of Pius XII:
Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather, public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.
If that counsel about the authority of the state in the order of natural law can be contradicted, so can any other precept of the natural law, including the Church’s teaching on contraception. The same office-holders in the Curia who criticized the carefully measured treatment of Hussein, and who, in 2010, pleaded that Mr. Assiz should not be executed, were silent about the beating, dragging, sodomizing and shooting without trial of Colonel Khaddafi, by chaps praising Allah.
Cardinal Martino also expressed the hope that the United States, the world’s most generous contributor to African medical and social programs, should “open its eyes” to problems on that continent. He was not beneath calling Gaza “a big concentration camp.”
Presidency of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants, expanded Cardinal Martino’s ability to give advice. Speaking from Vatican City, enclosed in ancient walls and protected by Swiss guards, Cardinal Renato called the proposal of the United States government to build a fence on its Mexican border an “inhuman program.”
He issued a position paper on civil aviation, having been a frequent passenger in airplanes, followed by guidelines for circus and carnival people. If for nothing else, his application of the authority of Holy Orders to the crises of our age will be remembered for his proclamation in 2007 of “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road/Street.” Though not as lapidary as the cadences of Virgil on travel, this document will long stand as the litmus test for Italians teaching the world how to drive.
Cardinal Martino personally introduced this document at a Vatican press conference to a group of reporters who got there by a various means, thus illustrating His Eminence’s primary thesis that, from the earliest times of human history, people have been moving from one place to another. The inference was that this happened as the result of each person having legs. With later inventions such as the wheel, this became more complicated, as the Cardinal pointed out to the automobile drivers in his audience. As for himself, the Cardinal usually has a chauffeur, to whom we assume he has spoken often. In his instructions to the laity, Cardinal Martino said, “Driving means coexisting.” Dull of heart and mean of spirit would be anyone who took issue with that. The document went on to say optimistically, “Road and rail transport are a good thing as well as being indispensable requirements of contemporary life.” Then came the punch line: “Road users should not drive too fast and should calculate a wide margin of time which is theoretically and psychologically necessary to brake.”
The People of God then were told what they should do if they have the misfortune to crash into each other: “Bring motorists and their victims together at the appropriate time so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.” In these several years since the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants spent so much of the laity’s money to develop all these insights, few have taken up Cardinal Martino’s suggestion that they arrange “periodic celebration of liturgies at major road hubs, motoring restaurants and lorry parks.”
On the national level, in the 1980s U.S. bishops caught the itch to instruct the laity on lay matters by issuing a pastoral letter on war and peace in 1983: “The Challenge of Peace.” Had its precepts been heeded by President Reagan, the Berlin Wall might still be standing and the lines in front of Lenin’s Tomb would be longer. In 1986, the same bishops issued another pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” which was dissected by competent lay economists and expectorated by the encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” Of all the bishops, the one selected to chair the writing of that paper on financial accountability was Rembert Weakland, whose perception of the market place had the perspicacity and dispassion of a debutante at a bullfight.
So now the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Peace and Justiice has published a treatise on world finance, for the benefit of financiers. The present economy needs help, but from whom? Cardinal Martino’s successor is Peter Kodwow Appaih Cardinal Turkson, an impressive man with a doctorate from the Biblicum in Sacred Scripture. His advice on world banking is as welcome as the views of the Chairman of Credit Suisse on the authorship of Deutero-Isaiah. The Council looks to centralized banking as a cure when it is the disease. And it perceives the United Nations as a reliable agency to oversee a world central bank which inevitably would transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. The document actually begins well, as all motor accidents do (ask Cardinal Martino). In redaction of the Bard of Avon, “All’s bad that ends badly.”
This one ends very badly. It also hurts the credibility of the Holy Church, imputing to her a naiveté which, in a cynical world, is more dangerous than malice. In a reduced and less literate way, these prescriptions cobbled together by committees resemble Woodrow Wilson’s vision for restructuring the world: Georges Clemenceau said that it would work only if people were not human. The faithful may excuse these clerical lapses by pointing out that they are not the voice of the infallible magisterium. Obviously, if they were lapses, they could not be infallible. But a President of the United States is responsible for the members of his Cabinet. The Decree Christus Dominus of Vatican II said “In exercising supreme, full, and immediate power in the universal Church, the Roman pontiff makes use of the department of the Roman Curia which, therefore, perform their duties in his name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors.”
In recent years the Church has apologized for social offenses committed in her name. That puts the lie to Erich Segal’s mantra, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If clerical bureaucrats practiced the virtue of silence more, they would have less need to apologize. There is another facile aphorism of the same fading generation: “Love makes the world go ‘round.” Sentimental clericalism does not make the world go ‘round. It does help it to spin out of control.