International News

Analysis: For Baseball’s Opening Day, a Vatican Fantasy Draft

St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium is seen during a simulated game July 12, 2020. (Photo: CNS/Jeff Curry, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

By John L. Allen

ROME (Crux) – Tomorrow is Opening Day of the COVID-shortened Major League Baseball season, and, like all red-blooded Americans, that has me thinking about fantasy drafts. If you’ve never played before, the idea is simple: You and a bunch of other people draft players to form a team, then track their statistical performance throughout the season. Whichever team has the best stats, wins.

Of course, baseball is not my only passion. I’m also a member of the Vaticanologist guild, which beckoned the thought: What if there were a fantasy draft for the Vatican?

Granted, popes don’t have the luxury of appointing heads of Vatican departments, technically known as “dicasteries,” like a fantasy draft. For one thing, they may be absolutely convinced that a particular person would be the best in the world for a given Vatican job, but they may also feel in their bones that he or she is more valuable to the papacy, and to the Church, in his or her current role.

That’s an especially live concern for Pope Francis, who’s an ardent champion of what he’s called a “healthy decentralization” in Catholicism and who believes most of the real action in the Church is local.

For another, a pope is constrained by geographical equity. Catholicism is a global faith, and even if a pope genuinely thought the 56 best people to head Vatican offices – that, for the record, is how many congregations, secretariats, dicasteries, councils, tribunals and other entities you’ll find on the Vatican web site under “Roman Curia” – all came from, say, the Philippines, or Botswana, or Albania, he wouldn’t stack the deck entirely with people from that country, in the interests of making the curia look a bit more like the Church.

Finally, the big difference between a baseball fantasy draft and the Vatican is that in baseball, there’s an objective way of evaluating performance. Not so in the Vatican – how do we calculate, for example, the “wins above replacement” for a prefect of the Congregation for Saints?

But let’s pretend for a moment those differences don’t matter. If there were a fantasy league for the Vatican, who would you pick?

I won’t go through all 56 possibilities – though I note that this year, baseball teams will open the season with a 60-man roster, so it’s not terribly disanalogous – but since a starting lineup is composed of nine players, I’ll give you my picks for nine Vatican spots. The only rule is that whoever you pick has to be currently active – so, for instance, I can’t draft St. Robert Bellarmine to run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which I would if we were doing an all-time fantasy draft.

In effect, the first nine picks should be your “no-brainers,” meaning the spots where you think there’s an obvious answer. None of this, by the way, should be construed as a negative judgment on the people who currently hold these jobs — after all, they were drafted by the only guy who really matters.

  1. Secretary of StateArchbishop Peter Wells, papal ambassador to South Africa. A Tulsa native, Archbishop Wells is flat-out the smartest, hardest working, and most effective individual in Vatican administration I’ve ever met. He worked his way up in the Secretariat of State, finishing in the number three role as the assessor, and now has the diplomatic seasoning someone in the top job needs. There’s never been an American Secretary of State, but Wells become thoroughly “italianizzato” here without ever losing his American hustle and can-do spirit.
  2. Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta. Historically you’d want your best theologian in this job, but in the Pope Francis era most of the important doctrinal judgement calls aren’t being made in the CDF. As a result, its most consequential function has become leading the Church’s fight against clerical sexual abuse, and on that score, there’s simply no one better than the Vatican’s former top prosecutor of abuse crimes. In addition, Archbishop Scicluna is no slouch theologically either.
  3. Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches: Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq (Kurdistan). A cleric of the Chaldean Catholic rite, Archbishop Warda brings the right pedigree to head the Vatican department for Eastern churches. Moreover, he’s overseen an ambitious rebuilding project in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq after the ISIS occupation, and nobody better exemplifies the determination, resilience and tenaciousness of Eastern Catholicism better.
  4. Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. In this role you want someone for whom seminary formation and priestly life is an “idée fixe,” and that’s Dolan, a former rector of the North American College in Rome who’s devoted a remarkable share of his energy and thought to the priesthood. When I did a book with Cardinal Dolan several years ago, I recall riding in a SUV after an exhausting day to an appointment for a visit to one of his vicariates, where he’d likely be on stage late into the night. Instead of napping or catching a Mets game on the radio, he spent that one free hour phoning New York priests who had birthdays that week, just to let them know he was thinking about them. That’s the guy for this job.
  5. Prefect of the Congregation for Saints: Notker Wolf, former Abbot Primate of the Benedictines. Since the Benedictines have produced more canonized saints than any other religious order in the history of the Church, who better to head the Vatican’s top office for saint-making? Granted, Wolf just turned 80, but in the 21st century 80 is the new 60 – after all, he’d still be three years younger than the pope he serves. Further, Wolf, a Bavarian, has deep Roman seasoning from his years as the first among equals in the Benedictines, when he was based at the Benedictine college of St. Anselmo. Finally, as another plus, he’s the only churchman I know who played in a hard rock band (he was the lead guitarist for a group called “Feedback”.) Maybe he could play “Stairway to Heaven” during canonization ceremonies, which would definitely make them more lively.
  6. President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity: Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. Speaking of smart, Archbishop Gudziak is a graduate of Harvard where he studied under Henri Nouwen. He has a remarkably balanced perspective on ecumenism, succumbing neither to the dovish tendency to bend over backwards to accommodate the other party – he has a typical Ukrainian Catholic distaste for that tendency in Rome’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox, for instance – or the hawkish instinct to insist that dialogue must always be on our terms.
  7. President of the Pontifical Council for Culture: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy. Okay, you may think this is cheating, because Cardinal Ravasi actually holds the gig I’m drafting him for – but then, all I said above was that the pick has to be currently active. In all honestly, I simply can’t think of anyone better for the job. Cardinal Ravasi eats, drinks and breathes culture the way true fans do baseball. In the Vatican press corps, we’ll try to guess how many literary citations Cardinal Ravasi will drop in a given talk, and we’re almost always under the mark. The thing of it is, he’s actually read all this stuff – he once told me he’s always been gifted with the ability to get by on little sleep, so he spends the wee hours poring over the latest in hermeneutics, cultural anthropology, philosophy, and other egg-headed pursuits, as befits a former prefect of Milan’s Ambrosian Library.
  8. President of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See: Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank. There’s never been a lay person named to head the Vatican’s equivalent of a central bank, but radical times call for radical measures. Fueled by scandal, long-term weaknesses and COVID-related shortfalls, the Vatican faces a serious financial crisis. Despite media and public fascination with the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called “Vatican bank,” insiders know the real money in the Vatican is in APSA, which controls both its investments and its real estate. Moreover, the Vatican bank clean-up started under Pope Benedict XVI and is more or less complete, while APSA remains decidedly a work in progress. Who better to take the reins than Italy’s most celebrated living banker, described by Paul Krugman as “arguably the greatest central banker of modern times?’ Moreover, Draghi is a faithful Catholic appointed just ten days ago to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
  9. Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications: Lucetta Scaraffia, Italian journalist and former editor of “Donne Chiesa Mondo,” a supplement devoted to women and the Church of “L’Osservatore Romano,” the official Vatican newspaper. During her seven years running the Vatican’s only regular publication devoted to women’s issues, Scaraffia produced material of genuine journalistic interest, including a mini-crusade about the need for the Church to deal with sexual abuse of religious women. There’s no bar to a woman running the Vatican’s communications office, since it’s currently headed by a layman, and she knows how to make religious topics relevant for contemporary audiences. As a bonus, she’s married to the famed Italian journalist Ernesto Galli della Loggia, so it would be the Vatican equivalent of a double play.

There you have it: Two Americans, someone from Malta, an Iraqi, a German, a Ukrainian (though born in the States), and three Italians. That’s my fantasy Vatican lineup … what’s yours?