Why I Don’t Write About the Vatican

As a theology professor, I sometimes get calls to comment about “developments” at the Vatican. “Can you comment on Pope Francis shifting this cardinal here or changing that cardinal there?”  “What does this mean for the Church?”  “How will this affect Catholics?”  I have to tell them: “I’m sorry, I don’t do Vatican politics.” 

For one thing, I don’t know whether people realize this or not, but they generally don’t cover Vatican politics in graduate courses in theology. Oddly enough, “Shifting Cardinals Around at the Vatican” was not one of the courses at any of the graduate programs I attended. Nor was “Dealing with Dicasteries,” or “Cleaning House at the Vatican Bank.” For some reason, the universities generally preferred to focus on Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Scriptures, the Church, Salvation, the Virtues, Grace, the Sacraments – stuff like that.

So I’m no more qualified to comment on the latest dust-up at the Vatican than anyone else. And when I hear other people comment on such matters, they usually don’t know what they’re talking about either. You can count the number of reliable Vatican commentators on the fingers of one hand – even if you’ve lost a few fingers.

I’ve found that many people parrot the notion that we need “reform at the Vatican” even though they haven’t the slightest idea what the people at the Vatican do. They’ve just heard people say “we need reform at the Vatican” enough times that they repeat it. My supposition is that of course we need reform. When have we ever not needed reform – constant reform, renewal, repentance for faults and rededication to the primary goals of the institution – in any human community?  It comes with being fallen creatures.

There are undoubtedly times when the Vatican is better and others when it’s worse. I prefer better to worse, but even when it’s “better,” it’s still always made up of wretched sinners in need of the forgiveness, redemption, and sanctification offered by Jesus Christ.

It’s not that I don’t care about what happens at the Vatican; it’s just that there’s nothing I can do about it. And I know all I need to know to pray for the Pope and the members of the curia. So I do. They don’t really need my advice.

        Most Vatican gossip: monkey see, monkey do

Am I benignly convinced that they will always make the right choices? A quick glance at any period of Church history suggests a big fat “no.” But then again, a glance at the whole course of Church history suggests (to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear) that the Holy Spirit still guards the Church and guides Her through the mists of history. Given the screw-ups who have often been running the show (like the guy who denied that he even knew Christ, who became its first pope and the rock upon which it was built), if the Holy Spirit hadn’t been protecting the Church all these years, how could it have survived?

I sometimes worry when I see a person with immature faith venturing to glance “behind the scenes” in the Church. When a person becomes a Eucharistic minister, for example, handling the hosts can lead to a certain “de-mystification” of the Eucharist. A person unready for this may be tempted to start thinking: “this really is just a lousy piece of bread. I mean, they mail the hosts in a plastic bag, for heaven’s sake.”  Angels don’t deliver them mystically to the back door of the Church.

No, in fact they don’t. And before consecration, it really is just a piece of bread. The problem is, there are some people who just aren’t mature enough in their faith to realize that God can take the cheapest bit of stuff and make something truly wondrous out of it.

So, too, there are people who probably aren’t mature enough in their faith to be thinking about the latest confusing mess at the Vatican because they won’t be able to see how God can take even this mess – scattering of the disciplines, denials of Christ, crucifixion of the Savior – and make it a vessel of grace. If seeing how the food is prepared ruins your appetite, then stay out of the kitchen.

By the same token, when the pope publishes an actual encyclical or apostolic exhortation, read it. Try to understand it and live it. This is what the Vatican does that people should take a real interest in.

Sadly, it’s not so clear to me that they do. “Complaint” and “worry” blogs get a lot of traffic. Articles explaining Catholic teaching more deeply aren’t “trending” — or so I’ve been told. Didn’t St. Paul warn us to “Set your minds on the things that are above”? Is Paul’s wisdom reflected in the things we read?

I know that many people are “into” Vatican politics. But I prefer for the faithful largely to ignore it if possible. The faithful have more important things to worry about than the latest little “intrigue” at the Vatican – things like, oh, I don’t know: feeding the poor, going to Mass, taking care of their elderly parents, raising their children, making their local schools better, neighborhood renewal, voting for responsible politicians, making a good confession, being faithful spouses. The list of things more important to think about as a Catholic – things we can (and should) actually do something about – just goes on and on and on.

So please pray constantly for the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops. Pray that they’ll have the wisdom and love to respond faithfully to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Then let the Holy Father and the bishops do the jobs they have the special charism from the Spirit to do. Let the pope worry about the Vatican bureaucracy. That’s one of his – less interesting and more tedious – jobs. We among the laity have other fish to fry – especially as we approach the end of Lent.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.