The University of Dallas Ministry Conference this past weekend featured a variety of speakers, including John L. Allen, Jr., a prominent journalist and author who writes for the National Catholic Reporter and serves as the Senior Vatican Analyst for CNN.
Allen gave two lectures at the conference. His lecture “Five Myths About the Vatican” clarified several misconceptions about the Holy See.
Allen is hailed as an authority on the inner workings of the Vatican and Catholic affairs. “Newsweek” writer Kenneth Woodward called him “the journalist other reporters – and not a few cardinals – look to for the inside story of how all the pope’s men direct the world’s largest church.”
As an expert on the Vatican, Allen attempted to debunk five myths during his session.
The secular media often portrays the Vatican as a group of ideologically identical men who act as one. On the contrary, he said, there is a misunderstanding of the term “the Vatican.” According to Allen “the Vatican” is in reality a diverse collection of people who share the same basic morals but bring a variety of opinions and ideas to the table.
Allen also repudiated the perception of “ultra-centralization,” the popular image of “a central figure who controls everything.” Instead, in proportion to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, the number of people employed by the Vatican is extremely small: Fewer than 3,000 work at the Roman Curia.
Another myth about the center of the Church is that of Vatican secrecy. According to Allen there is truth to the saying that “Rome is a city where everything is a mystery and nothing is a secret.”
He said that lazy reporters have perpetuated this misconception and that it is “a dirty little secret of journalism, that [journalists] can’t be blamed for knowing [what it is] impossible to find out.”
The veteran reporter stated that it is easy to “crack the code” when one understands the three languages of the city: Italian, the language of the place; the language of the Church, which requires knowledge of theology and canon law; and the language of the Vatican itself, such as the distinctions between a congregation and a council.
Allen also rejected the claim that the Vatican is an institution of immense wealth. In reality, he said, the Church is undergoing its own financial crisis.
The Vatican’s annual operating budget is $270 million, which may seem like a large figure until compared to the annual operating building of the University of Notre Dame, for instance, which is $1.2 billion.
The Patrimony of the Holy See – that is, its property and investments – totals just over $1 billion. In contrast, Notre Dame’s endowment is around $7 billion.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Allen argued that the idea of careerism in the Church is “flat-out false.”
There is a belief that the Vatican is driven by priests who want to move up the food chain, so to speak. He maintained that “nine times out of ten, [priests] make decisions because they believe it is the best decision for the common good of the Church,” not to further their own careers.
He explained that most cardinals, for example, find it difficult to see themselves in a papal capacity, and asserted that most “have no desire to be pope.”
Allen also said in his lecture that he often struggles to remain unbiased in reporting about the Church. He said that his “experience is that the trick to reporting on religion is to be close enough to understand but far enough away to be objective.”