Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cleaning up the Vatican

In many countries it is the custom to do spring cleaning. After a long winter, the windows are opened, and homes are cleaned from top to bottom. This is what Pope Francis started doing for the 1.2 billion-member church that he heads. Now he has finally turned to cleaning up the mess in the Vatican for which the word "Stygian" is not inappropriate.

After a year in the papal office, Francis has established himself as a cross between a rock star and Superman. In 2013 he had already made Time magazine's "Person of the Year." Modelling himself after his namesake, Saint Francis, he lives a simple life-style. He avoids the Apostolic Palace, which he claims could hold 300, and wears a simple white cassock rather than the red robes preferred by his predecessors.

Francis wowed the world by clearly siding with the poor in his first encyclical Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). He threw down the gauntlet to the wealthy of the world when he told them what their task is: "The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor." This reminder has hardly improved his popularity with the rich in the church, including some prelates who also happen to work in the Vatican.

These thoughts were prompted by a series of articles on the first year of Pope Francis and, in particular, a hard-hitting report aired on PBS . It can be viewed at It exposes in unflinching detail the sexual abuse scandal that reaches into the upper echelons of the Vatican. It also delves extensively into the allegations of money laundering on the part of the Vatican Bank. The Vatican is where Francis must begin cleaning house.

I saw the PBS program. Someone has commented: “It is unbelievable that this documentary was ever produced and shown on American television, much less by the government’s PBS network.” I agree.

The tentacles of the sexual abuse scandal reach from every parish, through every diocese and archdiocese, right into the corridors of the Vatican. That this scandal has been allowed to continue so long is astounding, until one realizes that the perpetrators were being defended by those in authority at every step, including the papacy. Thus the necessity of cleaning up the Vatican.

Marcial Maciel Degollado and Pope John-Paul II

The PBS program tells the story of Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest who founded the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Christ, an order which recruited young men for the priesthood. He was also a drug addict and pedophile who sexually abused dozens of young boys during a reign of terror that spanned decades and fathered multiple children out of wedlock. He even abused his own sons.

But Maciel, whose conduct was repeatedly brought to the attention of church leaders including the future Pope Benedict XVI, was never called to account for his sins. He was protected by former Pope John Paul II.

Maciel was never punished but merely encouraged by Benedict to live "a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry." Only this year was he formally denounced by the order he founded for "reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior."

The program also mentions a woman who was raped at the age of eight by a priest who threatened that her parents would "burn in hell" if she told anyone. This incident too like many others was covered up. 

Despite its multiple protestations of remorse over these scandals, the Vatican has done nothing but pay lip service to solving its child sex abuse problem. Sexual abuse, however, goes beyond the abuse of children. The PBS program shows footage of priests in the Vatican engaging in gay orgies at night and yet celebrating the sacraments the next morning.

That there are gay clergy in the Vatican is confirmed by other sources. A former commandant of the Swiss Guard that provides security at the Vatican has said that homosexual clerics formed a virtual "secret society" at the Vatican. A former Guard has charged that he had been propositioned by a Vatican official. Last year Francis himself acknowledged the existence of a gay lobby at the Vatican, but added, "We need to see what we can do about it."

The fact that some former popes did nothing about sexual abuse and even permitted it within the supposedly sanctified halls of the Vatican is frightening and underlines the urgency and necessity of cleaning it up. 

The financial corruption in the Vatican is also reprehensible. In contrast to the simple lifestyle of Pope Francis, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, who was arrested last year for attempting to bring €20 million into Italy illegally, now faces new criminal charges for money-laundering. Before he was suspended, Msgr. Scarano held a key office supervising Vatican financial accounts. His supervisors must have been either terribly negligent or he enjoyed protection.

Msgr. Nunzio Scarano

Scarano's arrest appears to confirm suspicions that the bank, which oversees about €7.1 billion in assets, "continues to be used as an offshore haven," according to knowledgeable sources.

The Vatican Bank may prove even more difficult to deal with than sexual abuse is. Francis has replaced several directors of the Bank, which is properly called The Institute for the Works of Religion (Italian: Istituto per le Opere di Religione – IOR).

He has also appointed a new team to oversee finances and clean up the Vatican bank. He brought in outside consultants to advise on accounting, management and communications. And he established an eight-man Council of Cardinals to act as his personal advisers. But will this be enough?

If reform of the Vatican Bank proves impossible, Francis may have to scrap it. He is already on record as saying that St Peter "did not have a bank account." Scarano is not the only prelate who has allegedly dipped his hand into the Vatican purse.

If Francis manages to clean up the Vatican, there are many more issues that will demand his attention. Just to list some of them: marriage, women in the church, homosexuality, ecumenism, and inter-faith relations. Those who expect him to introduce major changes in all these areas will probably be disappointed. For example, Francis is not going to ordain women priests, but he may appoint women to important positions within the Vatican. Not every Vatican position requires ordination. Perhaps very few do. Clericalism should also be added to the list.

But for the time being Francis will first have to deal with the the major issues in the Vatican. Until he does so successfully, the Roman Catholic Church will not regain the large number of people who have left it for many years already, especially because of the sexual abuse scandal. The crisis in the priesthood will not end either.

My prayer is that Francis will be successful in cleaning house, and that God will protect him from the attacks of the many enemies he has made both within and outside of the Vatican. There are still many theories about Pope John-Paul I, whose papacy lasted only 33 days, met his death. These are all theories; none have been proven. But the Roman Catholic Church and indeed the whole world must be concerned for Pope Francis.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Divided Ukraine, divided churches

The crisis in Ukraine has laid bare the fault lines in Ukraine for all the world to see. But these fault lines are not only political and ethnic or linguistic but also religious. If war is to be averted, which is the prayer of nearly everyone, then some of the fault lines must be bridged over. This includes the religious ones.

It is remarkable that after the ouster of President Yanukovich and the seizure of Crimea by President Putin, ostensibly to protect Russian citizens living there, that many Ukrainians of diverse political stripes are now united as they have not been before. They protested together for months in Independence Square, but they disagreed on many matters regarding the future of Ukraine. Now, while threatened by Russia, they are one, at least for the moment. Depending on what Russia does, however, that moment may not last very long.

First a brief survey of the major churches in Ukraine, and the history that led up to the current situation. I will refrain from calling them denominations,since both the Catholic and Orthodox churches regard themselves as predating the various schisms that have led to all the denominations that exist today. Similarly, both reject the idea of branches, since they regard themselves as the trunk from which other churches have sprung through schism. In fact, other churches are often seen not fully churches but are viewed as sects.

The beginnings of Christianity in what is today Ukraine is attributed to St. Andrew, but there is no proof for this. There is a tradition, however, that Pope Clement I was exiled to Crimea in 102. A representative from the northern Black Sea region may have been present at both Nicaea I in 325 and Constantinople I in 381.

Christianity had established itself firmly by 900 when a church was built in Kyiv. After the baptism of Vladimir the Great in 988, Kyivan Rus' became a Christian state. This event marked the birth of Russia and its long association with Eastern Orthodoxy. With the breakup of Kyivan Rus' the long and bitter rivalry between Catholics and Orthodox was accelerated and has contributed to the current situation in Ukraine. However, this history is too convoluted to describe fully now, and thus I will highlight only a few features.

The Russian Revolution and formation of the Soviet Union later also contributed to a situation where there are three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine, three Catholic churches, and a large number of Protestant churches, largely Baptist and Pentecostal, but these remain a small minority. Decades of state-endorsed atheism almost terminated some churches;:many churches were closed and numerous clergy executed.

Pechersk Lavra, seat of UOC(MP)
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), abbreviated UOC(MP), claims to be the largest group. It is found throughout Ukraine, but is concentrated especially in Russian-speaking areas. It operates as an autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate and regards other Ukrainian Orthodox churches as schismatic. It considers itself as the true descendant of the Orthodox Church of Kyiv and Rus' and thus traces itself back to the time that Vladimir was baptized in 988. It is the only Ukrainian church that has full canonical status in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), abbreviated UOC(KP), is the result of a schism from the UOC(MP) in 1992, led by Metropolitan Filaret (now Patriarch of Kyiv), who led a group of bishops out of the UOC(MP), and wanted to form a Ukrainian autocephalous church. Filaret, who is very active in both church and state politics, wants to form a single Ukrainian national church. The UOC(KP) is not canonically recognized.

To make an already complex situation even worse, the Ukainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) had been established in 1921 after Ukraine gained temporary independence. The ordination of the bishops for this new church was highly irregular. It has undergone several "resurrections," most recently in 1990 when the church received state recognition and Ukraine regained its independence the next year. It is the smallest Orthodox group and was briefly united with the UOC(KP), but now finds itself closer to the UOC(MP).

Where further unity discussion will go is uncertain. There are not theological barriers to union of the Orthodox churches, since they share the same theology, which makes it possible for them to be in communion with each other. The differences between Orthodox churches are ethnic and historical or political, and reveal themselves in terms of jurisdiction.

To muddy the waters further, many Orthodox people are unaware of the jurisdiction to which the church they attend belongs. That often does not seem to matter to them. The theology is the same and the liturgy is largely the same, except in some small details.

One barrier to union of the Orthodox churches is certainly the mutual accusations of collaboration with the Communists during the Soviet era. In addition, there is today fierce competition for limited resources, whether human, financial, or buildings.

St. Nicholas Cathedral, seat of Ukrainian Catholic Church

The Catholic churches date back many centuries when Ukraine was under Lithuanian and Polish political control and cultural influence. Under the Union of Brest in 1596 parts of the Ukrainian church came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. Today it is known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is sometimes labelled "Uniate," but they strenuously object to this term. It is the third largest church in Ukraine.

There is also a Ukrainian Catholic Church (UCC), which uses Latin-rites, but it is considerably smaller that some of the other churches, although it is slightly larger that the UAOC. A large number of assorted small Protestant and Independent churches complete the list of Ukrainian churches.

Aside from the huge barrier that ethnicity and language have created in Ukraine, the legacy of collaboration with the Communists cannot be easily overcome. In Russia, Baptists and Pentecostals both did extensive house cleaning by removing the most prominent collaborators and KGB-agents. Unfortunately the Russian Orthodox Church never di, nor is it likely to do so as long as a former-KGB agent is President of Russia.

Such house cleaning has not happened in Ukraine to the best of my knowledge. It is urgently needed, but highly unlikely. Lent would be an appropriate time for such confessions, but the wounds run too deep for forgiveness to be accepted much less offered.

Yet the current crisis in Ukraine offers a unique opportunity for some of the churches to unite. Especially if largely Russian-speaking Crimea becomes part of Russia again, as seems likely now. Some other parts of Ukraine may also come closer to Russia or even be absorbed by their eastern neighbor, but that is more difficult, As a result, Ukraine may yet become a stronger, more united country.

Russia has driven the political opposition in Ukraine closer together. That is necessary if Ukraine is ever to have a strong, effective government that is widely accepted: one that has the support not only of Ukrainians but also of the international community which will have to provide much-needed economic support.

One important step toward achieving that unity is if the churches, especially the Orthodox, would signal their own unification. The protesters in Independence Square did not represent any churches publicly, but the clergy who were also present could not hide their commitment since they wore their robes.

If the Ukrainian churches do achieve a grater unity in the near future as a result of this crisis, it will have come at an enormous cost: the loss of parts of Ukraine. Yet with some of the Russian-speaking parts gone, there is a hope for greater unity in the Ukrainian heartland.

Whether the churches can play a leading role in promoting greater Ukrainian unity or whether church unity will follow is anybody's guess. At the end of the day, both church and state may remain as divided as they were before. But that would be a pity. The loss of life in Kyiv and other cities would have been in vain.

Before his death on the cross, Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers. I am sure that his prayer was also intended for the divided churches in Ukraine.

Let us pray for that unity as well. Let us also pray that the crisis in Ukraine may end peacefully.