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Saturday, May 28, 2011

John Allen: Benedict's 'Quiet Revolution'

By John L. Allen, Jr.

A funny thing has happened as the story of a recent Vatican crackdown on a legendary monastery in Rome has made its way into the English-language press. I mean that literally -- the story has been turned into a joke, thereby obscuring its real significance.

For those with eyes to see, the suppression of the Cistercian abbey at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, one of the traditional seven major pilgrimage sites in Rome, rates far more than placement in a "news of the weird" column. Instead, it's the latest chapter in what might be called a "Quiet Revolution" under Pope Benedict XVI, referring to a reform in clerical culture beginning in Rome and radiating beyond.


The essence of it is this: it's the end of the "by their fruits, you shall know them" logic that once translated into a free pass, or at least a strong benefit of the doubt, for superstar clerics and high-profile groups charged with misconduct. Once upon a time, the working assumption in officialdom often was that if someone is doing great good for the church, then allegations of sexual or financial impropriety against them were likely bogus, and taking them too seriously risked encouraging the enemies of the faith.

Without great fanfare, Benedict XVI has made it clear that today a new rule applies. No matter how accomplished a person or institution may be, if they're also involved in what the pontiff once memorably called the "filth" in the church, they're not beyond reach.

That's the deep significance of the Vatican's recent action vis-à-vis the Cistercians at the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem, though you certainly wouldn't get the point from most English-language coverage. A BBC headline on Thursday was typical: "Pope shuts down lap-dancing monastery," it said, playing off the fact that an ex-nightclub performer turned Catholic nun, Anna Nobili, once performed something called "the holy dance" in front of an audience at the basilica that included Vatican dignitaries.

In reality, however, the basilica was hardly a running joke.

First of all, the Cistercians have been at the basilica for almost five centuries, since 1561, and at one stage the Abbot of Holy Cross was also the Abbot General of the entire order. Given Benedict XVI's keen sense of tradition, as well as his reverence for the monastic life, it would take more than a dancing nun to trigger the suppression of the entire abbey.

Further, until quite recently the basilica was actually seen as a major success story. The consensus was that a renaissance was unfolding under Cistercian Abbot Simone Maria Fioraso, an ecclesiastical mover and shaker if ever there was one. Vocations were growing, and the basilica had become a crossroads for Italian nobility, political VIPs and pop culture icons.

In the autumn of 2008, Fioraso scored his greatest PR coup. He organized a six-day reading of the entire text of the Bible, called "The Bible Day and Night," carried live on Italian state TV. The marathon was kicked off by Benedict XVI, and concluded by the Vatican's Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. A slew of other Vatican potentates took part, along with celebrities such as actor Roberto Benigni and the former president of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. (American Cardinals William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Daniel DiNardo of Houston also participated. DiNardo was in town for a Synod on the Bible, which was the occasion for the Bible-reading festival.)

It's tough to overestimate what a media sensation the event constituted in Italy. Headlines proclaimed, "Holy Cross in Jerusalem becomes a superstar."

Yet around the same time, rumors began to swirl that something wasn't quite right. Some critics charged that Fioraso seemed more interested in cozying up to social elites than in the traditional disciplines of the monastic life, while others raised questions about money management, especially given that the monks ran a successful boutique and hotel, apparently without clear accounting of the revenue flows. More darkly, there were rumors of "inappropriate relationships" carried on by some of the monks, understood to be code for some sort of sexual misconduct.

All that might once have been dismissed as envy or defamation, especially given Fioraso's reputation as a rising star, but not this time. The Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life launched an Apostolic Visitation, which ended in the dramatic decision to suppress the abbey entirely and to send its roughly 30 monks packing. The decree was signed by Brazilian Archbishop João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and by American Archbishop Joseph Tobin, his secretary. It was approved by Benedict XVI.

As is its practice, the Vatican hasn't provided a public explanation; in typically euphemistic argot, officials say only there were "numerous allegations of conduct incompatible with the vowed life." The gist is that there were real problems at the abbey, in terms of both financial accountability and personal morality.

As one official put it, "It was not a good scene."

The suppression is part of a pattern under Benedict XVI, which began with crackdowns against high-profile clerics such as Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. More recently, in September 2008 Benedict laicized a well-known priest in Florence, Lelio Cantini, whose Queen of Peace parish was regarded as among the more dynamic in the country. Earlier this year, Benedict permanently removed Fernando Karadima from ministry, a legendary priest in Chile known as a spiritual guide to a large swath of the clergy and episcopacy.

All those cases, and others like them one could mention, pivoted on charges of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Also part of the picture are Benedict's policy moves to expedite procedures for weeding abusers out of the priesthood, including a recent set of revisions to canon law, as well as his decision earlier this year to create a new financial watchdog authority with the power to ride herd over once-untouchable entities such as the Vatican Bank or Propaganda Fide. The overall impression is that this is a pope weary of scandal, doing what he can to clean house.

Critics, of course, will object that this quiet revolution remains incomplete until it reaches into the episcopacy -- that is, until the bishops who presided over the sexual abuse crisis, or various financial scandals, or other forms of "filth" in the church, are themselves brought to account.

Whatever one makes of that objection, the fact remains that even an incomplete revolution is still a revolution. And that's no joke.

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