“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?




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  1. Dear Marian,



  2. Dear Marian,

    This is helpful! I am thankful for Pope Francis every day, and pray for his good health and yes, longevity. I grew up as a social-justice-oriented “Northern” Baptist, with Catholic neighbors to play with, but didn’t learn about Catholicism until I started to go to an 8 a.m. Saturday morning mass at our neighborhood Catholic church, St. Agnes in Dayton. .Be well. I look forward to the next post from you. -Ellen Duell



  3. Thanks for answering my question. I read your response very carefully and think it is balanced and obviously well thought. My feelings ..thoughts…are not as even and think my prism is what has been going on here and in some big city diocese… really bother me. Your comments help me gain a healthier perspective yet so much more could be done right now. Thank you, K


    • Dear Katharine,
      Thanks so much for inspiring me to write this post.

      I agree that much more must be done, and quickly. Yet I think that these broad-side attacks, with roots back to the Reformation, make even good people in the Vatican, like Pope Francis, defensive. Surely we can correct
      the real failures without trading in scurrilous stereotypes.

      Hope to meet you at a WOC event sometime.


  4. Thank you for this piece on the Frontline program, Marion, because you gave specific examples to back up what I also sensed, that the first part of it especially was “over the top.” I appreciated the historical background too. BTW, the Huffington Pose link came on but there was no sound with with.


  5. Dear Marian,

    Well, I’m back. I shared your post with my Pax Christi, VOTF, CORPUS and other friends. Since these are well informed friends as well, I feel compelled to share these emails. In fact, I find them convincing enough, especially the first and third, to reverse my own initial response.

    “Hmmm! Not so sure I agree with her. Remember, the title was “Secrets” of the Vatican. All the other good works are not a secret. The things they spoke of were things they surely would not like being spoken of.”

    “I find the comment about Evangelicals interesting. I remember well the discussion provoked (intentionally) by the director of the CPE training I took many years ago. He was talking about the responsibility and dangers of clergy (or counselors) of any denomination overstepping their authority/power in an unequal relationship, especially with someone of the opposite sex, and I remember how disturbed he seemed when he acknowledged that such situations were all-too-frequent among ALL denominations.”

    “I’ve been dealing with this issue for years now. What I saw in the program is not exaggerated or anti-Catholic. It is all too well documented — and many from inside the clerical system know it is true, sadly.”

    Yes, as my friend said – it is sad to be sure! But I do take some hope from the last quarter of the film which didn’t strike me as “pope mania.”

    However, Marian – thanks for bringing up this topic. It makes for a good debate.


    • Elaine:
      Thanks so much for sharing my posts. It means a lot. And I have no doubt that your colleague disagrees with me. A lot of liberal/reform Catholics dislike my position that our obsession with clergy sex abuse, etc, strengthens anti-Catholicism. During a talk to a VOTF group when my last book, “Tracing the Sign of the Cross” had just come out, a man in the audience jumped up and started screaming at me.

      But you need to realize, “Secrets of the Vatican” was a film for the public, not Catholics, in what is still a distinctly Protestant country. (Though we can be grateful that the most virulently anti-Catholic among US Protestants probably never watch PBS!) And the title, “Secrets of the Vatican” does, in fact, echo the title of that terrible 19th century book, “Awful Disclosures (i.e. secrets) of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery” in which the nuns and priests met in underground tunnels dug between between convents and rectories, had sex, then baptized and murdered the infants they produced. (Seriously.)

      The film is, in fact, a representation of the Vatican. Many who watch it will coming away thinking that all this is the essence of what the Vatican, and thus the Catholic Church, is. They don’t make nuanced distinctions. And Frontline is not going to do a follow-up called,”Vatican Good Works” any time soon. My husband, an American Baptist minister, felt that the film was scandalously sensationalized.

      Everybody’s got a right to his or her opinion, but liberal Catholics have for too long reinforced negative notions of the Catholic church, millions of whose members are doing the work of the Gospel, by welcoming representations of it like “Secrets of the Vatican”.


      • Dear Marian,

        It’s not surprising that our positions differ since we are all influenced by our past experiences. I can understand how you feel since it’s clear your studies, e.g. of the Awful Disclosures . . . horrified you, and rightly so.
        I, on the other hand see things from my late priest-husband, Francis’ point of view. A member of CORPUS, he was also a member of both VOTF and the more outspoken SNAP.
        His experience, you see, was influenced by what happened to him (a one-time incidence of sexual abuse by his mentor, the monsignor.) In writing my second book since Francis’ death – Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – A Love Story (coming out this month, as you know, Marion!) this is a subject I deliberately left out. But this was a front page story in the Maine Sunday Telegram in 2005: “Ex-Priest Breaks Code of Silence.” The local Church, to “her” credit, paid for the two years of counseling sessions that brought him healing after this repressed memory came to light during this early exposé period. (The diocese recognized that the monsignor had “power” over him as his financial “benefactor.”) I give thanks his wound could be healed before he died! You can find the story here:



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