Vatican Time Warp
The newsmagazine launches a snide attack on the Pope.


George Weigel

As for what Time dubs “ecclesiastical autocracy,” while it is true that the Pope enjoys the fullness of executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the Church, his exercise of that authority is not only bound by the truths of Catholic faith; it is also circumscribed by the authority and prerogatives of local bishops. For, according to the teaching of Vatican II, bishops are not simply branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc. Rather, they are the heads of local churches with both the authority and the responsibility to govern them. Far more damage has been done to the Catholic Church in recent decades by irresponsible local bishops than by allegedly autocratic popes.

The Pope’s capacity for governance is also shaped by the quality of his closest associates, and by the accuracy and timeliness of the information he receives from the Roman Curia via the nuncios and apostolic delegates who represent the Holy See around the world. An example of how this fact of ecclesiastical life can impede a pope’s ability to respond to situations promptly comes from the American Long Lent of 2002. Because of grossly inadequate reporting from the apostolic nunciature in Washington between January and April 2002 — when the abuse firestorm was at its hottest — John Paul II was about three months behind the news curve in mid-April 2002; what appeared then (and is still often presented, as in the Time cover story) as papal uninterest in the U.S. crisis was in fact a significant time lag in the information flow.

The Holy See’s claims to sovereignty make the Church the equivalent of a nation-state. If he is to conduct his global mission freely, the Pope cannot be the subject of any other political sovereignty; that fact has been recognized in customary and statutory international law for centuries. But to suggest, with Time, that the Catholic Church is “hard-wired” with the conviction that “the Church must be a state” that wields “the clout of secular government” is, frankly, nonsense. The moral authority of the papacy in world affairs — think of John Paul II changing the course of 20th-century history in Poland in June 1979 — hardly derives from the Pope’s position as sovereign of the 108 acres of Vatican City State. Rather, that moral authority is a function of the truths popes articulate, truths that are based on the natural moral law that everyone can know by reason.

Pope John Paul II was an inept, even culpably inept, administrator. This charge, from one of Time’s “Vatican insiders,” has the feel of payback from those quarters in which there is still weeping and gnashing of teeth over the loss of the Italian papacy. To be sure, John Paul II was not a papal micromanager like Pope Paul VI. But is any serious commentator or scholar prepared to make the argument that the pontificate of Paul VI witnessed greater accomplishments, for the Church or the world, than the pontificate of John Paul II?

John Paul II knew that his strengths lay in the papal roles of teacher and sanctifier; and, as he had done while archbishop of Cracow, he found men in whom he reposed trust to handle the quotidian details of ecclesiastical governance. Some of those men were less than competent; and, contrary to Time’s “Vatican insiders” and their complaints about Roman centralization, John Paul II arguably had too much confidence in the capacity of national conferences of bishops to solve problems within their own countries. In the main, however, John Paul II ought to be judged a successful administrator, if by successful administrator one means a man who sets large goals and achieves them. The drift and malaise in which the Catholic Church found itself in the latter years of Paul VI were not replicated in the 26 years of John Paul II. That strongly suggests that the late pope did not leave behind, as Time put it, an “abysmal record as administrator of the Church,” and was in fact a far more effective leader than some “Vatican insiders” are prepared to concede.