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Theologian of the Papal Household

His study has a view of a small courtyard where the papal guillotine once stood, and where a pillar likely used for the flogging of heretics and criminals can still be seen. The corridor leading from his office is lined with Roman tombstones, and the Swiss Guard are omnipresent with full regalia and halberds. Once known as the Master of the Sacred Palace, the Theologian of the Papal Household has four large paintings in his room each depicting miniature portraits of his nearly 100 predecessors (all Dominicans), starting with St. Dominic himself.

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, Theologian of the Papal Household

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP was appointed in December of 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI, and is just beginning his fifth of a five-year term of office. A Polish Dominican born and raised in London, he describes himself as a true “prisoner of the Vatican”, albeit in a gilded cage. Outspoken, jovial, and unafraid to tell it how it is, Fr. Giertych shared with the lay centre residents his thoughts on Thomas, on theology and philosophy, the vocation of the laity, the challenge of contemporary religious life, contemporary challenges arising from the “crisis of 1968” (not Vatican II, note) including relativism, and the practical life of a Vatican officer.

One might be inclined to ask, “Why does the pope need a theologian?” especially a pope like Benedict, the first theologian to be elected pope in a couple centuries. Traditionally, there were three duties ascribed to the office: Offering theological instruction to the papal court (back when most of the court were not monsignori with doctorates in theology, philosophy, or canon law), reviewing any theological books published in Rome, and vetting the papal addresses (especially important at a time when most popes were politicians, warriors, or, worse, nobility).

Now, this means reviewing the drafts of papal allocutions drafted by the staff of Vatican speech writers, though he is neither the first nor the last word on the matter. And, Fr. Wojtech points out, his role is to examine theological content and look for phrases that could be misunderstood, especially by mass media – not to judge the prudence of an address (questions around Regensburg were raised). The most interesting papal addresses are the ones he does not see – those that the pope prepares personally: in Benedict’s case, his encyclicals, major homilies, and annual advent address to the Roman Curia. Given how much is written for the pope, it is like having a graduate seminar with Professor Ratzinger almost every day – even if the personal meetings are less often.

Occasionally the various dicasteries in the curia ask him for theological input on a document, and he serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In one of the oldest continuously operating bureaucracies on the planet, he’s one man serving in an office consisting of only himself. It can be hard to tell what effect his work is having without the constant interaction of peers. This touches on one of the challenges for a friar used to life in community, used to working and living in constant contact and consultation with other people, now working in a more solitary position.

He did get invited to lunch with the pope, once. It is fairly common knowledge that Pope Benedict normally prefers to eat alone or with the sisters who prepare his meals – understandable for an introvert in an intensely public office! However, when a film crew came in to film a “day in the life of the pope”  for international TV consumption, it happened that the Holy Father would be seen having a ‘working lunch’ with three members of the papal family, including, as it happens, Fr. Giertych. (“A great, open conversation. We three had wine, while the pope had juice”) As it was viewed around the world, some cardinals expressed how lucky our Friar Preacher was – even they had never had lunch with the pope!

“Never mix theology and philosophy, because philosophy always wins.” Despite the irony of such a statement from a Thomist, or perhaps because of it, this comment alone sparked a conversation that continued with some of us well after Fr. Wojciech left for the evening. While philosophy – in the broad sense of all the ‘sciences’ and other disciplines – can serve the church and our study of theology, they should never be confused as if they are theology, or as if the revelation of the Word should be judged according to the criterion of philosophy, politics, or social sciences. When this happens you end up getting the problems that, for him, have stemmed especially from 1968, and include the identification of the faith with one political party (‘as a good Catholic you must vote for candidate X or party Y’), the revision of the life of faith to fit in with what people expect from other fields, and end up with relativism (‘there may be a Truth, but we can’t know the Truth, so you have your truth and I have my truth’).

The conversation got really interesting as we delved into the vocation, identity, and relationships of the laity, clergy, and religious. Religious should be visible in the world, and laity should be “discreet” (leaven in the world, to use another phrase) – and we have had trouble with religious being more like laity and laity being more like religious. Specifcally, he noted some religious orders without habits of any kind (“it doesn’t matter what kind: a modern habit or a medieval habit or a 19th century habit”) living in apartments where you can hardly find them, or some of the lay movements whose first order of business seems to be deciding what kind of habit to design – and the more medieval the better!

When I asked about lay people serving in ministry positions, his response was about people wanting to be the lector all the time, or spend all their time helping at the church because something is amiss in their real life or they do not understand that the primary lay ministry is in the world, not collecting money at mass or something, “don’t spend your life holding on to the sacristy door”. But what about lay people serving the church in a paid, full time manner? Even the Roman curia has lay ministers in its employ?

“Well, of course the church will always need administrative personnel, computer technicians, finance experts, people to manage the facilities – especially in places where the church is burdened with such institutions as schools and hospitals”. Pastors should not be “running the plant”, but should be engaged in sacramental and pastoral ministry. But even this was more about ‘secular’ jobs that one could do for the church or for another entity, not so much ecclesial vocations; we tried a different track: We are here in Rome, studying at pontifical universities, to get ecclesiastical degrees – what would he expect for us to do with them?

“We have a saying in Poland: man cannot live on theology alone!” As a lay person you should be thinking of making a living, to support a family, you cannot do this with a theology degree. You cannot come from a degree and demand a job from the bishop – he may not have the money. [Can you imagine anyone demanding a job from a bishop???] We need the people (mentioned above) to be theologically trained, but it should be a secondary to your primary education. He shared his experience fromPoland, where a degree is a civil, legal contract – maybe in that system there is a “demand” to be employed in the field. But he wondered most people studying in Poland for theology degrees should have instead been studying harder subjects like medicine or law, but admitted that each country is different: “We have 100 friars living at the monastery in Krakow, 14 masses a day, confessions with two-hour waiting lines” and no experience of a non-ordained person devoting their life to the church outside of a religious community.

 “I’d rather see thirty ‘normal’ people give one hour a week, than to pay one person for thirty hours a week, if that person does not have the best formation…” But, he admits he may be wrong as he quoted the Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar, who wrote after being dragged to Rome to be questioned in the 1950’s, wrote in his journals “I may be getting the answers wrong, but these are real questions – and that’s what enervates these people here in Rome!” He was asking questions about the laity and ministry and looking to scripture and the patristic sources for answers. We have to keep asking these real questions, even if it takes time to get the right answers; that is better than ignoring the problems!

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1 Comment

  1. […] is a Thomist. He and I would have many long debates some of which revolved around the maxim of the Papal Theologian: “Never mix philosophy and theology, because philosophy always wins!” My friend felt that, as a […]

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