Another own goal by Cardinal Muller

Moving the deckchairs. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Answering questions that no one is asking. Trying to keep out the tide instead of learning how to swim. And, of course, fiddling while Rome burns. All the usual put-downs were taken out and recycled mercilessly. And no wonder.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and its ‘Prefect’ Cardinal Gerhard Muller – the man who silenced Fr Tony Flannery – issued an official document on cremation, introducing a new set of rules and stamping with hob-nail boots on the sensitivities and fragilities of the bereaved and not so recently bereaved?
It isn’t just that the rules don’t make sense at almost any level, apart from the arcane reasoning of the CDF, but that the whole debacle, almost anyone can see, is not only excruciatingly embarrassing for the Catholic Church but will damage its reputation, annoy many of its loyal adherents and frustrate priests left to deal with unreasonable and inoperable regulations.
How is it that Vatican departments, and not least the CDF, get it so exactly wrong so often?
That said, the ‘cremation regulations’ are instructive for this reason. They show up very clearly the civil war going on in Rome between a Church closed to the world being defended by Cardinals Muller and others and a Church sponsored by Pope Francis which is open to the culture of the day. Or, to quote the cliche above, between a Church where we try to keep out the tide of the modern world and a Church that learns how to swim in it.
This is the key to understanding the Vatican’s definition of what is a ‘sacred’ or ‘holy place’. Ashes, it says, cannot be kept in the family home but rather should be kept in ‘a holy place’. Remarkably for all Pope Francis has said about family the CDF believes that the home doesn’t fall into that category. As if the family home would not respect the ashes of their loved ones.
It’s a key as well to understanding the gap between the Vatican’s practice of issuing detailed regulations governing almost every aspect of people’s lives and the Vatican Council’s (and Pope Francis’s) focus on encouraging Catholics to take responsibility for their own decisions. The difference, it can be said, between a Church that treats its members as children and a Church that respects its members as adults, between a Vatican-dominated Church that tells people what is and is not ‘allowed’ and a pope who encourages us to use our own consciences.
The CDF directive carries Pope Francis’ signature but clearly, in the context of everything he’s said since he was elected pope, not the weight of his mind. It’s all part of the skirmishing taking place between the Vatican and Pope Francis, where battles for supremacy may be won and lost but what matters ultimately is who wins the war. Confronting cremation regulations may be deemed of lesser importance that confronting, say, Cardinal Sarah who tried to get priests to face east when saying Mass from November 27 next.
Pope Francis, who has spent his life close to people in parishes, may have judged that the CDF regulations on cremation will be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. This often happens with what appear to be important announcements by Vatican departments which, after the dust has settled, everyone conspires to ignore.
I’m old enough to remember a misogynistic Vatican cardinal who before his retirement issued a decree that only men could read at Mass! As the respected theologian, the late Seán Ó Ríordáin, explained afterwards it was a running joke in Rome that the Irish bishops were the only ones who took that bizarre directive seriously.
Predictably, when the recent cremation directive was issued the Catholic Communications Office (CCO) in Dublin told the Irish Times that the directive was ‘not a set of discretionary guidelines’. What else would they say? A friend of mine is wont to say that if a Vatican department announced that there were nine persons in the one God (instead of three) that the CCO would immediately inform Irish Catholics about this engaging theological breakthrough and a hapless bishop would be rolled out to justify it. Bishop Michael Harty of Killaloe, a wise owl, once lamented that ‘Irish bishops had forgotten how to say No to Rome’.
The difficulty priests (and to some degree bishops) have with this directive is that even if they wanted to implement it and police it, people in parishes won’t accept it. While it’s possible to write it clearly on a page and hold a press conference about it, the bottom line is you can’t implement it.
Take a fairly obvious and ongoing example. Someone dies abroad. The body is cremated, for possibly a number of reasons. The ashes are brought home. Usually a Mass is said and the ashes may be deposited in a grave or some may be shaken over a special place of memory, at the request of the deceased or their family. It may be too that the family would like to have the ashes retained in their own home for a time as an aid to coming to terms with the death of their loved one or to be able to come to a considered judgement on what to do.
Is the priest expected to inform the family that (i) they shouldn’t keep the ashes in their homes or (ii) they shouldn’t scatter the ashes or (iii) they should place the ashes in a columbarium in a cemetery?
More fundamentally, is it any of the priest’s business?
Incidentally, I first saw a report of the CDF’s directives on a moving bar at the bottom of the TV screen when the main news item was about dispersing the immigrants from ‘the Jungle’ near Calais. A fleet of buses was lined up for that purpose. It struck me that Pope Francis would be delighted and the whole Catholic Church relieved if a fleet of buses could be organised to move a significant percentage of those in Vatican departments for dispersal back to parishes in their own dioceses.
It would give them something useful to do.

  • ‘A Touch of the Heart’, a book I wrote in memory of my mother after her death in 1999, has been reprinted in paperback and is available widely @ €8.95.
    Brendan Hoban


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  1. To the laity, the various directions, guidelines and opinions, coming from the Vatican, especially the CDF, can cause confusion. For example, the need for the priest to face East when saying Mass, how to be respectful to the ashes of those cremated and so on.
    A recent Sunday Mass leaflet contained a relevant reflection, the main points of which were:-
    People are exasperated when they feel that the Church is over pre-occupied with tiny details of meaning and arguing for the sake of arguing.
    Language, performance of the Liturgy or the way the teaching of the Church is presented are not part of the deposit of faith.
    In what is essential, there must be unity; in what is doubtful, there must be freedom; in everything, there must be charity.
    Again thanks to Fr.Brendan for his usual breath of fresh air.

  2. I have just read this tonight, Brendan, and what an excellent and honest analysis of the situation it is. You put your finger on it exactly when you said that “the difference, it can be said, is between a Church that treats its members as children and a Church that respects its members as adults,..”  In Fr. Donald Cozzens book –which I think was his most recent– “Notes from the Underground. The spiritual journal of a secular priest” the underlying theme is a plea that we would all be treated as adults in our Catholic Church.  It was written before 13/03/ 2013. It will be interesting to see what the tone of his next offering is. 
    And, also, you are so spot on when you say –“More fundamentally, is it any of the priest’s business?” That, of course, can apply to many other situations too.
    In today’s Tablet a letter writer, in response to last week’s editorial on Clerical Sex Abuse, writes that it ” reads like a throwback to the days of my religious childhood, when we were taught to think of the Catholic Church as all-knowing and all-sufficient, with nothing to learn from out-siders or indeed from non-clerics…” This mentality is, I think, covered by Pope Francis’ favourite word to describe a major ailment –perhaps “the” major ailment — that blights our Church, namely, narcissism which ,of course, is found in abundance and not just in Rome.

  3. Donald Trump’s memorable expression comes to mind – It’s time to drain the Vatican swamp.

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