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Patrick Luciani: From The Charles River to the Holy See

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Mary Ann Glendon’s In The Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West (Image, 2024), which provides a piercing look into one of the most powerful institutions in the world across the rule of three different popes.

To most, the Vatican is a mystery. How corrupt is it? Who’s in charge? Even most Catholics know little about the Holy See’s operations.For clarification, the Vatican is the actual structure or independent country within the city-state’s walls, while the Holy See is from the Latin “sedes,” or seat of power, run by the administration known as the Curia. Mary Ann Glendon’s In The Court of Three Popes gives us a glimpse into these questions, including a year as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under George W. Bush. It’s also a memoir of her life, career, and how she found herself working in the courts of three pontiffs.  

Professor Glendon came to the attention of Pope John Paul II through her legal writings on women as the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. In 1995, she was asked to head the Vatican’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing. There, she discovered that the UN’s stance on helping women differed from hers and the Vatican’s. Progressives from European and Western countries were interested in political and sexual rights and access to abortion with little concern for support needed by mothers and poor single parents or the importance of education and raising healthy families. Here she speaks with practical authority having raised a mixed-race daughter as a single mother.

Glendon’s journey continued under the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI where he and John Paul II supported the need to bring the laity, both men and women, into the Holy See’s administration. As a member of the Papal think tank on social science, she collaborated with other lay members, including Nobel Laureate economist Kenneth Arrow. Despite not being a Catholic, Arrow admired Karol Wojtyla and his mission to open the Vatican to new ideas, a mission that gained momentum after the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII in 1963. She also brought other world scholars and thinkers into the Vatican, including Henry Kissinger and Francis Fukuyama, and not to the pleasure of everyone. After all, the Italians in the Vatican are a jealous lot and still suspicious of foreigners. 

Pope Benedict’s primary concern was the encroachment and growing acceptance of relativism and postmodern ideas worldwide, where the pursuit of truth was deemed futile. An intellectual himself, Benedict was also a great defender of America’s constitutional support for the separation of church and state and believed in the coexistence of faith and reason in sectarian life. 

President George W. Bush greatly admired Pope Benedict when he asked Professor Glendon to be his ambassador to the Vatican in his last year in power. But sending official representatives to the Vatican from the U.S. is relatively new in American history.  

American Protestants—including Eleanor Roosevelt who discouraged President Harry Truman from sending representatives to the centre of Roman Catholicism after the Second World War—always held deep suspicions and distrust of the papacy. President Ronald Reagan appointed the first ambassador in 1984 when he learned that Rome was the centre of international intrigue. And if he wanted to know what the Russians were up to, Rome was the place to be. Henry Kissinger once said that the Holy See “collects a great deal of intelligence from all over the world but doesn’t know how to use it.” 

(When Kissinger accepted Professor Glendon’s invitation to spend the night in the Vatican’s spartan accommodation that included a small room, single bed, and tiny desk, he was dismayed when he found out there was no room service.)

Professor Glendon believes that Pope Benedict and President Bush never received the credit they deserved for their support of the poor: the U.S. as the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, especially to the 1.4 million AIDS sufferers in Africa, and the Catholic Church as the world’s largest “hands-on providers of health care, education and general aid to the poor.” Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.S. was the only time the president went to Andrew’s Air Force Base to greet a head of state. There he declared that Benedict was the world’s greatest spiritual leader. Their relationship was such that there were rumours that Bush was contemplating converting to Catholicism. 

In this April 16, 2008 file photo, President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI walk down the Colonnade of the White House in Washington. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo.

Professor Glendon was intellectually and spiritually in sync with Popes John Paul and Benedict; it was a different question with Pope Francis. Though she admired his dedication and common touch, she often found his statements on Church doctrine inconsistent and occasionally troubling. His off-the-cuff remarks would sometimes get him into trouble, such as delving into unchartered international questions, including the Russia-Ukraine war, implying Ukraine provoked Russia. And she certainly would not have been pleased with the Pope’s careless apology for genocide when he visited Canada in the summer of 2022 when apologies can be “opportunistically exploited.” Nonetheless, Pope Francis appointed Professor Glendon to a commission to investigate the accusations of corruption of the Vatican Bank, known as The Institute of Religions Works (IOR), an institution that goes back to the eighteenth century. 

But the IOR isn’t a bank in the traditional sense. It disperses funds collected from churches around the world for charitable purposes. However, funds not distributed are invested, and that’s where the problems start giving most an image of corrupt priests out of The Godfather Part III. After all, Glendon was warned that “the Devil lives in the IOR.” Something she came to believe, especially when she was paid for her travel expenses by the Vatican in white envelopes filled with U.S. dollars. But the closer the external inspectors got to the problems of IOR, competent inspectors and employees were dismissed, while schemers and sycophants rose. The IOR was a classic case of institutional and bureaucratic public choice theory. Not only the Devil, but human nature lives deep in the bowels of the Curia.There was some hope that Australian Cardinal George Pell would clean out the Holy See’s Augean Stables. Unfortunately, he was undermined by Cardinal Giovanni Becciu, who acted as the Pope’s chief of staff and now stands trial for embezzling and misappropriating millions of dollars of Vatican funds to friends and family while undermining his opponents, including Cardinal Pell.

Then, there’s the sexual abuse in the church. Though Professor Glendon doesn’t dwell too much on the topic, she was disgusted when the news broke of the abuse of minors. She was also dismayed by the media’s accusations that the Church was the main locus of child abuse. She reminds the reader that two major studies at John Jay University found that other institutions where abuse was more extensive, yet the media failed to cover those stories as extensively as the Catholic Church. 

The Courts of the Three Popes is a masterwork of storytelling, coupled with great writing and honest reporting. Anyone looking for a dispassionate view of how the Vatican operates today, with all the good and bad, should read it. Mary Ann Glendon has written an instant classic. 

The Weekly Wrap: Canada’s out-of-touch public sector unions are taking their entitlement too far

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Union reaction to Ottawa’s back-to-work rules is an opening for Max Bernier

A minority parliament is usually the subject of regular election speculation. But we haven’t seen much of that since the Liberals and New Democrats announced a supply and confidence agreement in the months following the 2021 election. 

This week, however, we heard calls from public sector unions for the NDP to abandon the parliamentary agreement and precipitate a federal election due to the government’s new policy that federal public servants must be in the office at least three days per week. 

It seems like a rather odd issue over which to plunge the country into a summer election. Especially since most Canadians have returned to the office. While remote and hybrid work reached as high as 40 percent of workers in April 2020 and then remained constant at about 24 percent between May 2021 and May 2023, the percentage was cut in half to just 12 percent as we entered 2024. 

The remaining share of Canadians still working from home is by far disproportionately comprised of public servants. A late 2023 poll, for instance, found that four in five federal employees were still working remotely in part or in full. 

From this perspective, the federal government’s three-day-per-week policy is far from punitive or radical. It remains more flexible and generous than a lot of other Canadian workplaces. 

Yet one wouldn’t know it from the reaction of the public sector unions. They called it a “slap in the face” and obliquely warned of a “summer of discontent.” One union representative even bizarrely described the physical workplace in terms typically reserved for third-world prisons: 

Bedbugs. Bats. Mice. Cockroaches. Mould. Odours. Poor air quality. Missing or broken equipment. Trash littering workstations. These aren’t conditions fit for federal employees.

The unions’ extraordinary reaction strikes me as a misread of the Canadian public’s appetite to affirm their members’ asymmetric workplace arrangements. This isn’t a Norma Rae moment. It’s an expression of out-of-touch entitlement. 

We’ve previously warned about the growing divide between private and public sector workers. The sizeable gap in wages, benefits, job security, and broader perks already seemed unsustainable. Calling for an election and threatening work action to avoid having to show up to the office three days a week risks blowing the fault line wide open. 

The only question is whether there are any political voices prepared to confront these issues. It’s not a big surprise that Prime Minister Trudeau has been silent or NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has promised to “put pressure” on the government to reverse its back-to-work policy. It is however more notable that Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has stayed clear of the debate. As an Ottawa-area MP, he may be reluctant to provoke the large number of public servants who live and vote in his riding. 

If so, this issue could represent a big opportunity for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party. The party has lacked an identity since the repeal of the pandemic restrictions and Poilievre’s own political ascendancy. Polls currently put its public support at just 2.5 percent. 

Coming out firmly in favour of returning public servants back to the office, including threatening to terminate those employees who refuse to comply, would presumably be popular with a silent majority of Canadians—particularly, one assumes, among conservatives. 

As Conservative leader, Poilievre has carefully protected his right flank. He would be wise to avoid letting Bernier outflank him on getting public servants back to the office.

Protesters gather outside of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024, while Vice President Kamala Harris is meeting with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz. Susan Walsh/AP Photo.
We’ve made the Israel-Hamas war about Western domestic politics

A lot of domestic and international news this week was marked by the opposition of Western governments, including the Biden administration and the Trudeau government, to Israel’s pending ground invasion of Rafah, a Southern Gaza city which is believed to be the last holdout of Hamas militants, including possibly its leader Yahya Sinwar. 

Most Western commentary and reporting on the topic has tended to focus on the growing tensions between Israel and Washington and the individual role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in prosecuting the war. There’s been little discussion about the case for such an offensive or the role of the Israeli war cabinet and broader public opinion. 

In Monday’s forthcoming episode of Hub Dialogues, I put these questions to Dan Senor, a leading American foreign policy thinker and practitioner with strong connections in Israel. His answers are illuminating. I’d encourage The Hub community to check it out. 

As he explains, Israel has thus far “dismantled” 20 of Hamas’ original 24 battalions. The remaining four, which are estimated to represent about 15,000 soldiers, are believed to be in Rafah. If the goal of Israel’s overall military operation is to seriously degrade Hamas’ capacity for terrorist offensives, then it must push on to neutralize these remaining fighters and their accompanying infrastructure. 

It’s also hugely important as a matter of deterrence and a sign of strength. Israel’s military response to the October 7 attacks cannot be merely understood as short-term retribution against Hamas. It’s also directed at Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others that aspire to do harm to the state of Israel, as well as its new partners in the region who have come to the negotiating table due in part to Israel’s perceived strength. Abandoning the operation at this point would represent a huge victory for Sinwar and Hamas and a sign of weakness to Israel’s regional enemies and prospective friends. 

As for the tendency to personify the Israeli war effort through the figure of Netanyahu, Senor reminds us that the war cabinet is comprised of senior figures like Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot who are among the prime minister’s chief opponents. His point here is that the ongoing military operation—including the Rafah offensive—cannot be understood as merely a reflection of Netanyahu’s unilateral decisions or his own domestic political calculations. Reports in fact indicate that the war cabinet has unanimously endorsed the invasion into Rafah.  

Yet a lot of these basic details have been excluded in the public debates in Canada, the U.S., and other Western countries. It’s as if we’ve collectively subordinated the facts on the ground in favour of our own domestic considerations. Diaspora politics or the election cycle have gradually come to trump everything else. 

Regular Hub contributor David Frum anticipated these developments as early as the next day after the October 7 attacks. As he presciently put it

Israel will need time to do its work. In the first shock of horror after a Hamas terrorist outrage, Canadians light up their national symbols with blue and white. Then a week passes, and Canadian politicians with an eye on domestic anti-Israel voters get impatient. They condemn violence on “both sides” and interpose to protect the terrorists from the consequences of their own aggression. Let’s not repeat that pattern that only perpetuates violence. Hamas started the war. Let Israel finish it.

Indeed. His assessment was right then and it’s still right today. 

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner speaks to the media in Toronto on Monday, May 6, 2024, after his team’s season-ending loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.
Could a little regional competition save the Leafs?

Yesterday the Toronto Maple Leafs’ executive brass held a year-end press conference to defend another disappointing season and discuss what comes next.

Fans were unironically promised major changes from team president Brendan Shanahan, who has presided over every personnel and roster decision for the past decade. One can understand if they’re a bit skeptical.

One Leafs analyst tweeted: “Brendan Shanahan completely missed the mark. No answers, no transparency, no authenticity, no conviction.” A member of my hockey chat put it this way: “[I’m] just not sure how someone can have a job like this for 10 years in a ‘results business’ and have such crappy results and still be around.”

An underrated explanation is that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a monopoly over the most hockey lucrative market in the world. The organization generates significant annual profits regardless of the product on the ice. Demand for corporate sponsorships and rink-side tickets simply outstrips supply.

We know from basic economics that this can create a perverse set of incentives. It blunts the inherent impulse towards efficiency and improvement. It can diminish ambition and foster complacency. It can contribute to only winning one playoff round over the past decade.

If a key source of the Maple Leafs’ problem is a lack of market competition, then perhaps the solution is a new NHL team in the Greater Toronto Area. We know that there’s more than enough demand in the region to sustain another team. That’s demonstrated each time the Maple Leafs play in Buffalo and the arena is full of Leafs fans who traveled across the border for affordable tickets. It seems self-evident that of the possible expansion options, the GTA is most viable choice.

There’s only one problem: the Maple Leafs believe that they have a veto over the establishment (or relocation) of a NHL franchise within 50 miles of Scotiabank Place. The team cites section 4.3 of the NHL constitution that states: “No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member, without the written consent of such member.”

Yet a 2008 review by the Canadian Competition Bureau judged that this provision was “anti-competitive” and only a majority vote of the NHL board of governors is needed to establish or relocate a franchise. The NHL has not since tested the ruling with a specific case.

Maybe now is the time. Not only would it significantly boost league revenues (including a massive, one-time expansion fee), but it would impose some much-needed competition on a Maple Leafs organization that has consistently let me and other long-suffering fans down.