Posted Feburary 1, 2011
Inductions on money, religious freedom, and polarization
By John L Allen Jr
The National Catholic Reporter
Any logician worth his or her salt will confirm that deduction, moving from the
general to the specific, is a much stronger form of argument than induction,
which works the other way around. The problem with drawing broad conclusions
from specific cases is that a counter-example may be lurking just around the
Even so, I’m going to try my hand at some induction this week, teasing out broad
implications from three specific storylines percolating around the Catholic
As a preview of coming attractions, here are the conclusions to which I’ll
•The Catholic church may be entering a season of major reform regarding money
•Religious freedom is destined to be the towering diplomatic and political
priority of the Vatican and the global church in the 21st century.
•Against all odds, there’s hope for overcoming polarization in American Catholic
life -- and it stems from an area where those divisions seem especially
pronounced, Catholic healthcare.
With that, as the great logician Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot.
* * *
The city of Maribor in northern Slovenia is usually a fairly quiet place, known
mostly as a popular Alpine ski resort. Yet today the Archdiocese of Maribor
faces what one popular Italian media outlet has described, perhaps a bit
breathlessly, as “one of the most devastating financial disasters in the history
of the church.”
In a nutshell, the Italian weekly L’Espresso reported on Jan. 21 that after
decades of risky investments, the Maribor archdiocese is now in hock to the tune
of more than $1 billion, and that a network of banks, real estate firms, and
media companies owned by the archdiocese is on the brink of collapse,
potentially wiping out the savings of thousands of small investors.
Earlier this week, the Maribor archdiocese released a detailed statement, the
gist of which is that things aren’t quite that bad. The companies cited in the
article, it said, are actually independent, even if the archdiocese and two
smaller Slovenian dioceses own a controlling stake. As of the end of 2010, it
said, the total debt of the archdiocese itself was just $24 million, and it pays
its bills on time.
That said, the statement acknowledged a “moral responsibility” to protect
investors in companies owned by the church, and said the archdiocese has pledged
some of its property to try to stem the bleeding, including a prized 13th
century cloister and a workshop for musical organs. The statement also said the
archdiocese has already overhauled its financial practices to make them “more in
service to its gospel mission.”
For the rest of us, here’s the interesting part of the story.
The financial woes in Maribor have developed over decades, but the Vatican
apparently got wind of them only recently. In November 2009 Pope Benedict XVI
appointed a new coadjutor bishop to clean house, and in 2010 the Vatican
dispatched a financial expert to study the books. The obvious question is why it
took the Vatican so long to get up to speed.
The answer, according to the L’Espresso report, is that the archbishop’s
financial adviser pulled an end-run around rules requiring Vatican approval for
debt above a certain threshold. Businessman Mirko Krasovec reportedly said that
he didn’t consult Rome because he thought the requirement only applied to
individual loans, not to cumulative debt, and that they applied only to the
archdiocese itself, not to companies owned by it or affiliated with it.
L’Espresso offered this bit of speculation: In the wake of the Maribor meltdown,
the Vatican may consider “more stringent controls on bishops and priests who
fancy themselves latter-day J.P. Morgans.”
Ecclesiologists, of course, might wince at that idea. There’s a solid argument
to be made, rooted in the principle of subsidiarity, for the Vatican to defer to
local bishops on administrative questions which are not matters of faith or
morals, even if bishops sometimes abuse that latitude.
Yet L’Espresso may be right that the Vatican will consider more exacting
financial controls, for three reasons.
First, in a 21st century world, the notion of a purely local scandal is an
anachronism. No matter how isolated a corner of the planet, if a problem breaks
out in the Catholic church, it metastasizes on the Internet and quickly becomes
a “Vatican story,” if only through the lens of “Why hasn’t Rome done something?”
Second, the Vatican is reeling from its own financial headaches, including
accusations of corruption at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples
under its former prefect, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, and an investigation of the
Vatican Bank for alleged violations of anti-money laundering statutes. Partly in
response, Pope Benedict recently created a new financial watchdog agency in the
Vatican. The climate is primed, in other words, for a comprehensive review of
Third, the sexual abuse crisis has already created a sense that Rome needs to
take a more direct hand in overseeing local bishops, to remedy a perceived lack
of accountability. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extend that vigilance to
Yet even if the Vatican doesn’t act, the Maribor episode likely will accelerate
momentum at other levels of the church towards “good government.” It will make
bishops and other church leaders more wary about trusting financial Svengalis,
and it hands reformers another card to play in making the case for best
practices, such as outside audits and professional investment strategies.
Another force pushing the church in that direction is the rise of the global
south in Catholicism. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the struggle
against corruption in politics and business is a defining social justice
priority, and it will be difficult to make that case if the church is not
perceived to have clean hands itself.
It’s a root sociological principle that scandal breeds reform, and in that
sense, the Maribor story is likely to have relevance well beyond the Alps.
* * *
On Jan. 21, the Supreme Court of India delivered its long-awaited verdict
upholding a life sentence for a radical Hindu activist in the murder of Graham
Staines, an Australian Evangelical missionary burned to death along with his two
young sons in 1999. The Supreme Court rejected the death penalty for activist
Dara Singh, which under Indian law applies only in the “rarest of rare” cases.
The verdict was welcomed by the Catholic bishops of India, both because someone
was held accountable for anti-Christian violence stemming from Hindu radicalism,
and because the death penalty was not applied.
Yet the bishops were also critical of the reasoning in the Supreme Court ruling,
which seemed to suggest that the intent behind the crime somehow lessened its
gravity. That intent, according to the justices, was “to teach a lesson to
Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to
The ruling repeatedly expresses disapproval of missionary activity, especially
among members of the tribal groups, meaning the roughly 85 million indigenous
persons in India who occupy the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. They
account for a disproportionate share of recent converts to Christianity,
including the Catholic church, whose membership is heavily drawn from the
“Dalit” underclass. Hindu radicals accuse Christians of coercing, even forcing,
Tribals and Dalits into conversion, a suggestion which the Supreme Court ruling
could be read to support.
The fear, in other words, is that the ruling may do as much to stoke
anti-Christian hysteria as to retard it.
“I am deeply concerned about the implications of this judgment,” said Cardinal
Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, speaking on behalf of the Indian bishops.
“Religious freedom is a human right,” Gracias said, “just as it’s a human right
for a person to present his own beliefs to others, and it is a human right for
every person to freely accept a religious practice and beliefs.”
In terms of broad implications, here’s the take-away.
As the 21st century rolls on, the leadership tone in Catholicism will
increasingly be set by guys such as Gracias, who live in neighborhoods where the
battle for religious freedom isn’t about an alleged “war on Christmas” or the
latest exhibit in an art gallery. It’s a matter of life and death, as recent
events in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria, as well as India, eloquently illustrate.
As leaders from those parts of the world exercise greater influence on the
Vatican and on global Catholic consciousness, religious freedom will be set in
stone as the church’s top diplomatic and geopolitical priority.
In English-speaking Catholicism, India in particular will be a force. By
mid-century there will be 25 million Catholics in India, more than the Catholic
populations of England, Ireland and Canada combined. Since English is the
primary language of Indian theological and public policy debate, Indian
Catholics will exercise a gravitational pull in Anglophone Catholic circles.
The pride of place assigned to religious freedom may frustrate some Catholic
social justice activists, who would like to see a greater share of time and
treasure invested in anti-poverty crusades, campaigns against war and the arms
trade, environmental struggles, and so on. Those issues won’t disappear, but as
long as Catholics have to fear for their lives precisely in those parts of the
world where the church is experiencing its most dramatic growth, defending
religious freedom will remain at the top of the to-do list.
* * *
As a footnote on India, senior officials from the Vatican’s Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, led by American Cardinal William Levada, traveled to
Bangalore for an unusual colloquium involving the Indian bishops and a
cross-section of 26 Indian Catholic theologians Jan. 16-22.
Indians have pioneered some of the most daring theology in the Catholic world
over recent decades in the area of religious pluralism, meaning the relationship
between Christianity and other religions. Though the colloquium took place
behind closed doors, reports from the UCAN news service suggest there was a
lively exchange, pivoting on the tension between respecting the core doctrines
of the faith (especially Christ as the lone and unique Saviour of the world) and
the cultural context in which those doctrines have to be proclaimed.
The fact that the Vatican’s doctrinal brain trust flew halfway around the world
to have that conversation is another way of saying, “India matters.”
It’s also worth noting that Maltese Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Promoter of
Justice in the CDF and in effect the Vatican’s chief prosecutor on sex abuse
cases, was part of Levada’s delegation. That’s significant because India has
been a focal point for frustrations about disparate policies on sex abuse around
the Catholic world, including perceptions that foreign-born priests facing
accusations in the United States or Europe can simply return home and evade
Last April, the case of Fr. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul stirred headlines.
Jeyapaul had served in the Crookston diocese in Minnesota during 2004-05, and
was later accused of sexually assaulting two minor girls. In the meantime
Jeyapaul had returned to his home diocese in southern India, where he continued
serving as a priest in a bureaucratic capacity even after his bishop had been
informed of the charges. The bishop imposed “precautionary measures” but not
removal from ministry, which is the policy in the States.
It will be interesting to track whether Scicluna’s visit leads to greater
coordination of sex abuse cases among the Indian bishops and the nations to
which their clergy are being dispatched these days.
* * *
Finally, I filed a story this week for the print edition of NCR updating the
relationship between the U.S. bishops and the Catholic Health Association,
representing more than 1200 Catholic hospitals, health systems, and other
healthcare facilities in America.
The story does not focus on the strains in that relationship, which would be a
sort of “dog bites man” reporting. Everybody knows what the tensions are:
fallout over the national debate over healthcare reform, and the more recent
case in Phoenix in which Bishop Thomas Olmsted revoked the Catholic status of a
member hospital over accusations that it performed an indirect abortion. While
the CHA has accepted Olmsted’s authority to do that, it clearly doesn’t share
Instead, I concentrated on the more surprising dimension of the story: To wit,
despite all the headaches, the two sides are still talking. In fact, I quoted
four leading American bishops, including the past and current presidents of the
bishops’ conference, to the effect that their ties with the CHA remain
fundamentally strong, and that good conversations are taking place.
The two key players in that dialogue now are Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New
York, president of the bishops’ conference, and Daughters of Charity Sr. Carol
Keehan, president of the CHA.
Here’s why the story is relevant beyond its immediate implications for Catholic
It’s a notorious fact of life that American Catholicism is often a house divided
against itself. Though it’s hardly the only one, a primary fault line these days
runs between the evangelical wing of the church and its reform-minded, social
justice-oriented camp. What makes the CHA story beguiling is that in many ways,
Dolan and Keehan are apt symbols for that larger contrast.
Dolan is a quintessential evangelical Catholic, a self-described “John Paul II’
bishop -- robustly orthodox, far more interested in taking the church’s message
to the streets than in tinkering with its internal structures, and proud of the
way the American bishops have made the pro-life cause their defining social
concern. Dolan’s election to the presidency of the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops marks, as writer George Weigel argues in a recent First Things
essay, “the End of the Bernardin Era” -- a reference to the late Cardinal Joseph
Bernardin of Chicago and his center-left leadership.
Keehan, of course, is an American woman religious representing one of the
primary carriers of the church’s social mission. She’s unapologetically
pro-life, but sees that commitment as part of a continuum of concerns about
human life and dignity -- a core element of the Bernardin vision.
Yet neither Dolan nor Keehan are in any sense extremists, and both insist that
what unites them is more fundamental than their differences.
Keehan is willing to pay the price of admission for any serious effort to engage
officialdom, which is a clear acknowledgment, as Olmsted put it in his letter to
the Phoenix hospital, that “there cannot be a tie” in the Catholic system;
ultimately, it’s up to the bishop to decide. Dolan, for his part, clearly
understands that for episcopal authority to be credible, it has to be exercised
with restraint and only after wide consultation.
(In a recent interview, Dolan said he’s well aware that for many people these
days, in the wake of the sex abuse crisis, listening to the bishops speak about
morality is like “Nixon giving a talk on clean government.” He said bishops have
to defend “the unique normative value” of their magisterium, but they have to do
it with “graciousness” and even “a sense of contrition” for past failures.)
My point is this: If Dolan and Keehan, and the bishops and Catholic healthcare
providers they represent, can stick together, it would provide a powerful lesson
for the rest of the church that our internal tensions do not have to be fatal.
There are, naturally, plenty of people who would love to see Dolan and Keehan at
one another’s throats, and those are usually the loudest voices in the room.
Perhaps it’s time for the quiet middle in the church to let them know that
sanity has a constituency too.