Church of terminal tone deafness
If you've been thinking the Bergoglian Vatican has been a bit quiet lately, today's your day for some excitement. The Congregation for Clergy has released an Instruction: “The pastoral conversion of the parish community at the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church” ... and it only gets better from there.
Imagine the kind of mind that would think, in the middle of 2020, that this was a good way to start:
"The ecclesiological reflection of the Second Vatican Council, together with the considerable social and cultural changes of recent decades, has resulted in various Particular Churches having to reorganize the manner in which the pastoral care of Parish communities are assigned. This has made it possible to initiate new experiences..."
You don’t say! Yep! We’ve certainly had quite a lot of new experiences, especially recently!
I'll see if I can do an approximate, on-the-fly translation:
In the last 50 years, the Catholic Church has flowed merrily along with the secular world down the sewage pipe of Modernity. We are now in such a calamitous state that the institutions of the Catholic Church are barely capable of even pretending to continue to function. We are therefore dedicated to finding new ways to carry on toward our all-but-inevitable total collapse, without ever admitting that the Big Giant Trouble is in fact something we ourselves are responsible for.
"Far from being deterred by our impending doom, and following the divine precept: 'Never let a crisis go to waste,' we are pleased to announce the next round of 'new experiences' that we know you're going to love..."
Some pertinent quotes the mainstream media are certainly going to love:
The Parish no longer being the primary gathering and social centre, as in former days, it is thus necessary to find new forms of accompaniment and closeness."
"The current Parish model no longer adequately corresponds to the many expectations of the faithful."
"The Parish in a contemporary context, the aforesaid missionary conversion, which naturally leads to a reform of structures, concerns the Parish in particular, namely that community gathered around the Table of the Word and the Eucharist."
And the money quote that is going to get all the attention:
Where there is a lack of priests and deacons, the diocesan Bishop can delegate lay persons to assist at marriages."
What is it actually about?
In one sense – perhaps the sense intended – it’s an attempt to reign in some of the abuses the Catholic world has been seeing recently, with bishops ordering “amalgamations” of parishes – often significantly reducing availability of the Sacraments – and replacing pastors with lay “pastoral administrators” or mixed clerical and lay “pastoral teams”. But as always with the Vatican bureaucracy, it fails completely at addressing the actual problem: why is parish life dying out, and what can we do about that?
And of course, the impenetrable language it uses – that special brand of brain-clogging, soul-deadening NuChurch Bergoglian buzzword gobbledygook – will give anyone incautious enough to actually read the thing without special breathing apparatus a potentially deadly case of hypoxia.
Which is why I consulted a professional. A friend, who gave me permission to say he works for “a Vatican Secretariat,” told me that it’s not entirely a bad document, at least in its probable intentions. But he adds that its impenetrable language is not just an annoyance for journalists but a genuine part of the problem.
“At its core this is an attempt by the Congregation for Clergy to get bishops to follow existing rules and preserve the traditional structures of the parish, including the genuine communities they foster. They’re trying to protect pastors from arbitrary unilateral parish closures and especially amalgamations. It’s about parishes being the focus of what the Church does.”
Once you get past the thickets of verbiage, the purpose of the thing is to tell the ordinaries, “You can’t just suppress pastors by bundling parishes into amalgamations and putting these in the charge of (usually lay) parish administrators.” He says it is probably a response to a recent rash of German attempts to drastically reduce the number of independent parishes. In a couple of notable recent cases, ancient dioceses have proposed to amalgamate or suppress up to a thousand parishes down to a couple of dozen.
This way bishops are handling the priest shortage, which is a genuine problem, creates a toxic weed patch of potential abuses. First, it places the church in the hands of unconsecrated persons, hired in a secular way as employees, who can’t help but think of the Church not as the mystical body of Christ, or even as a coherent community of believers, but merely as a corporate employer.
My friend continued, “The document says you have to have some regard to canon law which envisions a more ancient parish model that includes a pastor for each parish, not merely a corporate-style administrator. You can’t simply exercise your power as bishop to eliminate the nature of parishes or the role of priests as the head of a parish.”
“This has been the model for bishops for some time, especially in Germany, France and the Low Countries [Belgium, the Netherlands]. But it’s happening more widely throughout the West because there is a genuine priest shortage that is already extreme or on its way to extreme.” Bishops have been consolidating parishes, or just suppressing and closing them, breaking up communities and simply relieving priests of their duties. In many places one or two priests are left in charge of numerous churches, run ragged to provide sacramental services and leaving administrative tasks to lay employees.
Sometimes the priest ends up reduced to a sort of sacramental delivery driver, a kind of employee in his own parish, subordinate to an administrative committee, meaning lay people are now supervising the clergy. Moreover, this new model of lay-committee-led parishes leaves laypeople at the mercy of bishops, who have few canonical restraints on how to treat lay employees and often little regard for secular labour laws.
But it’s a dead letter before it even gets read by a bishop
The document is a work of Italian bureaucrats with a fief to protect, namely the rights of clergy. To this kind of mind, the most important thing is to have “done something”. A document has been produced. Work has been accomplished. The question of whether that something is in any way effective is a matter of absolutely no importance. But like nearly anything from the Vatican in recent decades that might have been useful if handled better, this latest from the Congregation for Clergy, has shot itself in the leg before it gets out of the gate.
First, and perhaps from their perspective least important; the mainstream media are going to latch like remoras onto the references to laity, particularly women, being allowed formally to conduct priestless services, and even preside at marriages and baptisms. No secular journalist will, of course, stop to ask if this situation existed before this document was released, or if indeed it has been the case in canon law all along. The headlines just write themselves: “Catholic Church faces priestless future! Laywomen to conduct marriages!” The impossible opacity of the text itself, with the meat and bones in the middle rendered in parching of canonical legalese, will ensure no editorial staff will think twice.
But more importantly, its precepts are not going to make it to any bishop’s to-do list. Since the 1970s the most important rule about any instructional document from Rome is that enforcement is, at best, selective. To the bureaucratic minds that wrote it, the most important thing is that a document has been written. Job done. Enforcement – in other words, effectiveness – isn’t their problem. And every bishop in the world knows he can ignore it.
To understand why it was written one has to know that the Congregation for Clergy is always pushing back against bishops – who like to be far away from Rome so they can do whatever they like in their own dioceses. The total lack of enforcement of canon law in the last few decades have left priests caught in the middle between huge often hostile powers all around, with very little back up. Priests, especially pastors of parishes, if you swear you won’t tell anyone, will often admit that their lives are a delicate, and extremely stressful, balancing act between keeping the bishop happy (or at least at bay) and also keeping the parish busybodies – who like to complain to bishops – happy. Every priest knows the axiom, “Never, ever, ever go to the chancery.”
Buzzwordiness as defensive camouflage
The problem the Congregation has is that it must not only carry out its main task of protecting the rights of clergy, usually against their own bishops, but now must slide their work past the Bergoglian clique. This means everything must be marbled through with the signals of the Bergoglian agenda. And this has ramped up the normal Vaticanspeak to the level of totally impenetrable brambles of buzzwordiness and trending papal neologisms.
The strategy might not have exactly the desired effect outside the Vatican curial bubbleverse. As our friend Fr. Paul MacDonald, a fellow Remnant columnist and parish priest in Ontario, wrote to me: “I’m up to number 41. I have not read such dreary, depressing, revolting and simultaneously infuriating drivel in my life. The following words never occur: truth, heaven, hell, purgatory, eternity.” It’s notable, perhaps, that in a document of 16,413 words (including footnotes) the holy name of Jesus is mentioned 8 times, which is actually pretty good for the modern Vatican.
My friend in Rome reiterates that it is “an attempt to roll back the trend of blurring the line between the role of the clergy and the role of laity. On the whole, the document is something faithful Catholics should get behind.”
Can you all please stop helping? Thanks.
But its failing is the same as ever; the Vatican simply refusing to notice that the ship is sinking and that it’s their fault. “It flatly refuses to address the actual question,” he continues. “Why are parishes dying across the Catholic world? It acknowledges that it’s happening, but refuses to address it. Which on the face of it is bizarre.”
“It’s not exactly rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s saying that while we deal with the inexplicable sinking of the ship we can’t have the captain doing the job of the engineers or passengers. It doesn’t address the main concern that the ship has hit an iceberg and we have to do something about that.”
My friend, who has worked in the Vatican for almost a decade, describes the Vatican bureaucratic mind as “existentially incapable of ever saying anything clearly, simply and forthrightly.”
“They simply cannot speak in normal, comprehensible language.” And their inability to think outside their curial bubbles leaves them baffled as to why their efforts are ineffectual, why bishops feel free to ignore them, clergy don’t trust them and laity don’t respect them.
But at the same time, he says, whether consciously or not, the impenetrability of the verbiage is in fact a defensive strategy. “If they were to speak plainly it would force them to acknowledge the existence of the fundamental problem, and their own complicity in it. It offers a wasteland of ambiguous platitudes before it gets to the unreadably dry bones of legislation, details of bureaucratic arrangements of parishes.
“It’s the language of an insipid bureaucracy helplessly caught in its own tangles, that is incapable of forthrightly addressing anything real. Another sign that the Church seems utterly incapable of actually talking to people, having any sort of conversation, that doesn’t immediately fall into Orwellian churchspeak that is at best incomprehensible. So the real positive aspects of a document like this get buried in the infuriating verbiage.”
 In Germany this has been going on a long time with the Catholic Church, thanks to the Church Tax, being the nation’s second largest employer.