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Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a remembrance

 |  NCR Today

When I first met Cardinal Edmund Szoka in 1986, I knew very little about him except that he had a reputation as a conservative. I was in Detroit to interview him for what became my first book on the governance of the church, Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church. I did not realize at the time that he was also going to end up in my books on the U.S. bishops' conference and the Vatican.

I found a gracious man who was willing to give me more than an hour of his time and allow me to interview anyone in his chancery about the operations of the Archdiocese of Detroit. He even had a sense of humor. When I asked him, "What do you do," he responded, "Well, we don't get paid well, we don't have to do much." Then, fearing that he might be quoted, he quickly said into the microphone, "That was a joke."

In fact, Szoka worked very hard overseeing an archdiocese with 1.5 million Catholics, 340 parishes, and 201 schools. The archdiocese was organized into five regions, each of which was probably more populous than many dioceses in the U.S. Each region was headed by an auxiliary bishop, with whom he met as a group each week for three hours. Like many bishops, he spent a lot of time meeting with various consultative bodies: priest council, pastoral council, vicars, etc.

He also had the largest diocesan fund raising drive ($10 million in 1986) in the country at that time, and he used some of this money to keep Catholic schools afloat. "The public schools in these large cities are in trouble and the quality of education is in trouble," he told me. "The only alternative that the people in the city, and mainly black people have, are Catholic schools. So we are serving a real need. At the same time, the schools present the best opportunity, I think, for evangelization."

Other things he was proud of was a program to make all parishes handicap accessible as well as programs in Catholic schools for mentally handicapped. He also put money into developing Catholic TV programs.

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Another priority was making annulments easier, which he did not by making the rules easier but by giving the annulment office the staff and funding necessary to make it an efficient operation. It was one of the first in the world to be computerized. When visitors from the Roman Rota saw it, they wished out loud that they had the money for such a system, to which Szoka replied, "I will get you the money." The Rota became the first Vatican office to be computerized, thanks to Szoka.

In praising Szoka's work on annulments to a reporter, I once opined that he was motivated by the fact that his parents were divorced. He later cornered me and asked me not to say that. For him it was more than personal; he felt that in every divorce you lost not just the individuals involved but the next generation. If the church says, "your mother is bad and can't go to Communion," then the kids will not stay with the church.

One of Szoka's handicaps was that he had a hard act to follow, Cardinal John Dearden, one of the great leaders of the post-Vatican II church. It is much easier to follow a bishop everyone hates than one that is loved and admired.

Yet for all his greatness, Dearden refused to deal with changing demographics and declining numbers of priests in the archdiocese. He knew closing parishes upset people so he left the problem to his successor. Szoka attempted to do it through an extensive study that came up with a comprehensive plan. The result was a PR disaster as he became identified as the archbishop who wanted to close 30 parishes.

Other controversies involved his calling on Sister Agnes Mary Mansour to resign as head of the Michigan Department of Social Services which funded abortions through its Medicaid program. "She was taking a pro-choice position and well, you can't do that in the Catholic Church, and certainly religious can't do it," he said. "Because she wouldn't change that attitude I said, 'Well, then you've got to leave the job,' and she wouldn't."

He was also called in to investigate New Ways Ministry. As he was gathering information on the organization he asked Sister Jeannine Gramick what she thought about the morality of gay sex. He quickly corrected himself, "Don't answer that. That's the internal form." As a strict canon lawyer, he knew his job was only to investigate what was publicly said and done.

He also suspended a priest who had been elected to the Democratic National Convention, but reinstated him months after the convention when he promised not to do it again. He was also criticized when he withdrew from a Detroit ecumenical organization that invited Hans Kung to speak in the city.

In Szoka's mind, these were controversies he could not avoid.

We [bishops] do have a responsibility for standing for what is right, for standing for church doctrine or church discipline and that is our responsibility and we have to do it. We have to do it no matter what the popular approach may be or the popular feeling or whatever it's going to cost us, and I think I can say that because I've paid some of that price. But we must be people of principle.

He also stood up for principles that would not be considered conservative.  In a strong speech to the Economic Club of Detroit, a prestigious business group, he complained of "a pernicious and a pervasive racism in this area."

Szoka's skill with money was noticed by others in the church. The bishops elected him treasurer of the bishops' conference, and in 1990 he was called to Rome to head the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.  

As president of the prefecture, he made many enemies as he computerized finances and imposed the first unified chart of accounts on Vatican offices. He also produced the first detailed audits of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, which were distributed to bishops around the world. But he was not allowed to go near the Vatican Bank.

He could have accomplished more if he had been give the kind of power that Cardinal Pell is being given today by Pope Francis. Szoka was little more than a glorified bookkeeper, but that did not stop him from pushing people to do what he thought was best. "Szoka thinks he has more power than he does," Jesuit Fr. Roberto Tucci told me in 1993. "He has gone beyond his position by telling people they should cut their budgets."

He was also politically naive. For example, he wanted to cut Vatican Radio programs to Eastern Europe. "This would mean firing 50 people," explained Tucci, who headed Vatican Radio and was later made a cardinal. "You just don't fire people in Italy today." In addition, cutting programs to Eastern Europe would never happen under a Polish pope.

In 1997, Szoka became head of the Vatican City State, which at the time had a budget of about $130 million with about 1,300 employees in the museums, stores, post office, police, and other services in Vatican City. Here he made more enemies by imposing financial controls and by ending the sale of cigarettes in the Vatican store.

Szoka left the Vatican in 2006, and without him the Vatican quickly returned to its old ways of operating. The Prefecture for Economic Affairs became a quiet, nonthreatening office that did not look deeply into Vatican spending. One Italian got the job because they wanted to remove him from planning the millennium celebration where he was a financial disaster.

Cardinal Szoka was not a favorite of progressive Catholics, but he did what he thought best for the church. Certainly, the Vatican financial scandals of recent years would not have happened if Szoka had had his way. He would support the financial reforms taking place under Pope Francis. He would also be pleased to see that Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is on the agenda of the upcoming synod of bishops. 

[Correction. In an earlier version of this blog, it was stated that Cardinal Szoka was responsible for the financially disastrous decision to build the John Paul II museum in Washington. This was incorrect.]

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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