Of Nativity Scenes and Vatican Budget Cuts

Over the last years we have learned that the St. Peter’s Square nativity scene has often cost upward of half a million euro. There has been not a little graft involved.

We also know that the Holy See has some money problems.

In the spirit of the new Franciscan renewal of the Curia, I have a suggestion to save money and to empower special groups of the marginalized in the Roman scene.

I propose that groups out there in Rome could be invited to build the crèche each year!
They would put their best efforts into it and the results would be, no doubt, edifying. They should construct the scene according to their own lived-experiences (which is how most modern theologians these days are reinterpreting doctrine… but I digress).

For example:

School-children from the periferia, a poorer outlying area of Rome.

They would create, perhaps, a classroom surrounded by a depressed area such as along the Via Flaminia with lots of old cars parked in the streets and maybe a pack of dogs (“cittadini non umani”) roaming about.  Don’t forget figures from video games.


“Barboni” is the Roman word for bums, street-people, the homeless. They would create a scene based on the cardboard boxes they live in under bridges along the Tiber or on top of grates. Over all, the 1% would be passing them by in their luxury vehicles.

LCWR nuns

This would involve mostly nice apartments, hair salons, and hotel conference centers. There would be an emphasis on walkers and slide-shows depicting their oneness with the cosmic egg in a futuring process of conscience evolution. Over the speakers we would hear recordings of talks by lesbian advocates and proponents of the ordination of women and the transgendered.

Self-absorbed Promethean Neopelagians.

Theirs would be a classic scene, depicting the Baby Jesus being adored by the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the Magi and lots of shepherds and angels and donkeys and moo-cows, etc. Front and center would be conspicuous gold and lace accoutrement. Gregorian chant plays over the speakers while aroma-therapy gadgets pump expensive incense into the piazza.

Each Roman dicastery of the Curia.

Frankly, by the time the list gets down to them, there won’t be any of those left.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Luvadoxi says:

    I have to say that, except for the LCWR nuns (about whom you just can’t make this stuff up!), I kind of like the other ideas–they might just work, especially the school children. OTOH–video gamers….not so much.

  2. Liam says:

    I think my New Year resolution will be to start a blog called: The Self-Absorbed Promethean Neopelagian. The blog will deal entirely with the debate between neo-gothic and baroque aesthetic styles as well as rigourous vs. moderate interpretations of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Visitors will be invited to say 3 Aves to be counted and then monthly presented as a spiritual bouquets.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. Faith says:

    I was thinking the same. Remember how he came the first time: homeless, with the most humble, the outcasts, etc.
    Come to think of it, he’d never feel comfortable in the Vatican, no more than Francis I.
    In the streets, under a bridge, in a cardboard box, etc., all are plausible.

  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I do like Joanna Cole and Michele Lemieux’s A Gift from Saint Francis: The First Creche (though if amazon is anything to go by, it might be an irresponsibly disproportionately expensive gift: perhaps there are still libraries with copies…).

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Okay, you got me. I thought you were being serious.

    (A little out of it today with a bit of a stomach flu.)

    Pretty good homily this weekend I think, with a ferverino directing folk to the recent papal exhortation.

  6. frjim4321 says: I thought you were being serious.

    I sort of kind of was. Actually it is a good idea!

    Get well soon. Being sick can fog your mind, and you need your wits around here.

  7. frjim4321 says:

    Thanks … you are right, my brain was foggy today … thankfully the homily was a lot of quoting, I could not get focused at all and dozed off for about 90 minutes this afternoon.

  8. jjoy says:

    Perhaps they could hire the poor and/or homeless to be a living tableau Nativity scene. That would be quite Franciscan, since St. Francis was the founder of the Nativity scene in the first place.

  9. Luvadoxi says:

    Self-absorbed promethean neopelagians…..is there a mug yet? ;)


  10. OrthodoxChick says:

    What in the world does it mean to label someone as “promethean neopelagian”? I still don’t get it. Sounds very unpleasant though. Maybe I should be afraid to ask.

  11. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Orthodox Chick,

    I suspect the ‘neopelagian’ part indicates a ‘do-it-by-myself’ attitude and the ‘promethean’ part means a ‘super-duper’ one of those: a sort of grandiose Romantic idea of revolutionarily setting everything right! (Perhaps not irrelevant is that the modern language of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (‘-wing’) refers to seating arrangements in the French Revolutionary Assembly – the ‘left’ revolutionaries did not think the ‘right’ revolutionaries were revolutionary enough…) Eric Voegelin is interesting about 19th-century revolutionary ‘Prometheanism’ in Science, Politiics, and Gnosticism.

    I also wonder if something that St. John Climacus says (in Step 22 of The Ladder) is relevant: “there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, ad prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things.”

  12. OrthodoxChick says:

    Venerator Sti Lot,

    Thank you for the definition.

  13. The Masked Chicken says:

    I have thought a lot about this phrase. Venerator Sti Lot is, I believe, correct when he writes,

    “I suspect the ‘neopelagian’ part indicates a ‘do-it-by-myself’ attitude.”

    The Promethean part needs a little more fleshing out, however.

    I believe the exact original quote was, “auto-referential Promethean Neopelagian.” Of course, as I have mentioned, before, this is a misuse of the term, “auto-referential,” since any self-referential act is, essentially, undefinable in terms of truth.

    In any case, assuming he meant, self-absorbed, the terms mean someone who is, essentially, self-righteous who wants to help others become self-righteous. Prometheus is the Titan who brought fire (stolen) to mankind. Fire stands in Greek mythology as a form of illumination of the mind. A Neopelagianist is a modern person with access to 2000 years of theology who thinks that they have the means of saving themselves by their own works apart from grace. Put together, these refer to a person who thinks they know-it-all about grace, God, the church, etc. because they have read and absorbed all of the, “Rules,” and because of that knowledge they are able to effect their salvation. More than that, they have to bring this news (like fire) to all of the unenlightened with the idea that if they, too, only knew the rules and dogmas they could follow them and be saved by their own knowledge. That this knowledge is not complete, nor free, nor from God’s grace is indicated by the third term: self-absorbed. The person is navel-gazing as they store more and more dogmas within themselves thinking that if they only know enough rules they will get themselves and others to Heaven, but these are select rules chosen by the person, who acts as their own authority on which rules are the important ones.

    You, sometimes, see this in apologetics settings with people who have memorized all of the, “answers.” They think they know it all and they think they have a duty to bring this knowledge to man, not realizing that they are being merely self-absorbed or prideful, focusing on what they thing they gleefully know, rather than what is demanded in charity. It is a form of smugness. It is not open to the Spirit. These sort of people, when they are confronted by a question they don’t know the answer to and cannot look up in a book, instead of simply saying, “I don’t know,” will try to reason out the answer based upon their knowledge, assuming that everything they think of has the ring of truth. They, then, take their manufactured answer on the road the next time the question comes up. They are self-absorbed by turning within for verification, they are Promethean by wanting to bring an ill-timed and incomplete knowledge to those they meet, and they are Neopelagian because they think that God will pat them on the back for their ingenuity.

    Hope that helps. Of course, as Venerator Sti Lot points out, the remedy is humility.

    The Chicken

  14. OrthodoxChick says:

    The Chicken,

    That definitely helps. But I don’t know how many such folks are filling up the clerical ranks, nor the pews, that the Holy Father feels it necessary to point these folks out. I hope he’s open to the possibility that such folks must exist on both sides of the divide in the Church, rather than only one or the other.

  15. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Chicken,

    yes that does help…

    I wonder, though: because they know-it-all, they will surely know that the salvation is not by the knowledge, and that Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism (which latter is really Pelagianism) are doctrines justly condemned by the Church.

    Hence, they will not think it is by the knowledge, etc., that salvation comes. They will not think it is for their ingenuity that God will pat them on their back, but, if anything, they think it is possible that maybe God will pat them on their back for the good work inspired by Grace of having used such means as they personally had (not necessarily ingenuous).

    Theoretical distinctions, to be sure. You might say: “yes, they say all that, but more deeply…” However, I still think that theory does matter, and that people ought not to be judged by what is possibly their deepest motivation of heart we can perhaps analyze out of them, but only by the explicit intentions they form in their conscience.

    The interesting thing for me is that this is largely a description of my own person, especially the part about that “looking up” or “reasoning out” of answers to questions.

    Except, as I said, that I know Pelagianism to be false, and for the Promethean part. The only man I thus really tried to convince was the grumbling part of my own humble person. I so far succeeded and, most privately, do think that I was not sinning by this effort, and that actually God gave me a helping hand with it.

    Though I wonder if that restriction of “Prometheanism” is a good thing, it might rather be lack of zeal perhaps, and lack of courage even more, shyness, rather than humility. Though indeed, bringing an ill-timed and incomplete knowledge to those they meet is something disagreeable.

  16. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    OrthodoxChick writes, “I hope he’s open to the possibility that such folks must exist on both sides of the divide in the Church, rather than only one or the other.” I hope so, too, and (while not yet having read enough, carefully, of what is actually written, rather than quotations attributed) I think so, as well, regarding what is outside as well as inside the Church, but, if so, it seems to me that that needs to be brought out a lot more explicitly and clearly.

    A book I keep hoping to read someday (having read an earlier, related paper) is Stefan Rossbach’s Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality (1999). It came to mind now in the context of similar problems in all sorts of ways of thinking coming not only out of the French Revolution, and the Enlightement, but the Renaissance, the late Middle Ages, even the high Middle Ages.

    A lot of this more simply has to do with human sinfulness – I am glad to be reading St. John Climacus at the moment (but probably even say that in a vainglorious way, and point that fact out in one, too… ) – but sinfulness also seems to be related to particular shapes, ideologies, and so on, through time.

  17. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Masked Chicken,

    Thank you for your consideration of “the Promethean part”. I keep meaning to read more about (19th-20th-c. interest in) Prometheus – Kerenyi, for instance – and not getting around to it. It seems complicated, in that Prometheus and Zeus can be regarded in such different ways (and because so much of what Aeschylus wrote is lost). One general way is a self-conscious revolutionary identification with Prometheus, eternally defiant of tyranny (however understood). The ‘Prometheans’ you sketch so not seem markedly of this sort (unless there is sort of kakodemonic Zeus posited), but neither do they seem to see Prometheus as having gotten it wrong and needing to repent and be reconciled to a Zeus who is an image of God.

    I think Tolkien is variously busy with pondering ‘the Promethean’, in his treatment of Hurin, in his treatment of the Numenoreans, and in the history of Aule and the creation of the dwarves. Let us pray that ‘Prometheans’ of whatever sort do not get ‘played’ like Hurin and the majority of the Numenoreans, but come to their proper humble senses to be eucatastrophically surprised like Aule.

  18. Mr. Green says:

    OrthodoxChick: But I don’t know how many such folks are filling up the clerical ranks, nor the pews, that the Holy Father feels it necessary to point these folks out.

    Why, is there a minimum requirement such that if fewer than n people fit a description, the Pope shouldn’t mention it? But he’s not referring to any specific people, of course — he’s describing two extremes; and therefore of course he’s aware that some people will fall on one side as well as the other. There are the gnostics who don’t care about the rules; and the promethean pelagians who care only about the rules. Most of us will not go all the way to either extreme, but it is good to reflect on both kinds of error, and always watch that we keep a balance… we have to remember always that the rules are a necessary means to an end, but they are not the end themselves.

    The Masked Chicken: I believe the exact original quote was, “auto-referential Promethean Neopelagian.” Of course, as I have mentioned, before, this is a misuse of the term, “auto-referential,” since any self-referential act is, essentially, undefinable in terms of truth.

    Nice post. I guess you are thinking there of a circular proposition? In context, I take “self-referential” to mean more the type of person who acts as his own reference or authority, and that seems to be how you interpreted it too. Neither “self-referential” nor “self-absorbed” seems 100% right in English… I wonder if this is a term that has a different flavour in Spanish.

  19. OrthodoxChick says:

    Mr. Green,

    I’m saying that some context would be helpful. If a Pope wishes to point out to us an example of “extreme” thinking and/or behavior, in order that we might guard against engaging in such, then is it more efficient to toss out a complicated description and leave us to decipher its meaning and context? If he has a particular order, or ideology in mind, isn’t it better to just come right out with it and put people on notice? Do you know of any self-absorbed people who realize that they’re self-absorbed? Self-absorption and self-awareness don’t exactly go together. Have you ever bumped into a know-it-all who recognizes that he’s a know-it-all? Are such folks apt to read the Holy Father’s exhortation and think to themselves, “Self, I’m a promethean neopelagian. I really must work on that!” And if not, then what’s the point, really? What effect will the comment have? It’s keeping us occupied here, but other than that…

  20. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Venerator Sti Lot,

    interesting comment on Tolkien.

    As for the myth, the standard form (which to me as a German are, naturally, the canonical works of Gustav Schwab) seems to be that Prometheus apparently never repented. Zeus’ own son, Hercules, nevertheless somewhen released him; Hercules’ father apparently approving, however, Prometheus had to bear a ring with a stone from the Caucasus so that he could still be said to be bound to it.

    Another thing, though it is probably unnecessary to say so… if you’re interested in the image modern society has made about Prometheus, Goethe’s poem on him seems seems to be of decisive importance. Which was one of the few poems I learnt in school and immediately disliked. (Sources tell us that Goethe wished the spirit of rebellion, here present, be counterbalanced by his Ganymed, however that somewhat pantheist-inspired poem which seems to drown thinking in a flood of emotionalism does not suffice for me.)

  21. Mr. Green says:

    OrthodoxChick: If he has a particular order, or ideology in mind, isn’t it better to just come right out with it and put people on notice?

    Actually, I don’t think so. Sometimes that is called for, but that sort of thing can also lead to problems, especially a general exhortation like this. If he names group X but misses group Y, then Y will start thinking, “You see, we’re OK, the Pope has no problem with us, not like those awful X’s!” And all the X’s will complain that Pope is picking on them and letting group Y off the hook. And the Z’s will pat themselves on the back for not being X or Y. But this isn’t a personal directive to an individual or a single group; it’s directed at all of us, and that’s exactly whom we should consider each point aimed at: us. Of course, we are not all rabid neognostics, nor dyed-in-the-wool promethean neopelagians. That’s not the point. We all have a tendency to wander, at least a little, in one direction or the other, or both. The Pope is listing all sorts of possible errors, and it’s up to each of us to examine our own consciences to see if we might be deviating from the straight and narrow.

    (Consider “Thou shalt not murder”: that’s not an excuse for all of us who have never killed anyone to get all cocky about how good we are. There can’t be a million commandments, so a small number cover a wide range. Murder, for example, has traditionally been taken to cover anger in general; I’ve never murdered anyone, but this commandment reminds me that even much smaller outbursts of anger are still wrong.)

    Do you know of any self-absorbed people who realize that they’re self-absorbed?

    Of course: me! Now happily, God has not let me get so self-absorbed that I cannot even recognise it in myself, but I certainly have my little streaks of self-absorption. Don’t we all? Again, I think the point is to apply these concerns to ourselves; not because we are such great sinners (necessarily!), but because we nevertheless need to remove the splinters from our eyes. And if we do, we just might be able to help our brothers who have beams in their eyes….

  22. OrthodoxChick says:

    Mr. Green,

    I get your point. I’m afraid you’re going to have to try selling it to someone else though. I’m just having a hard time accepting that the Holy Father would come up with a term like “promethean neopelagian” and expect a large amount of Catholics worldwide to a.) figure out what it means and, b.) examine oneself with regard to one’s thoughts and behavior as they relate to said invented terminology.

    Who does that? Really. In everyday life in countries all around the world, who does that? Other than this blog and a few others, have you heard anyone in real life (versus virtual life) discussing this? I’m very grateful to Fr. Z. and all of the commenters here for discussing it, because without the discussions, I wouldn’t have any chance at all of understanding what the Pope means by using that term. My point is that I think that a Pope like Francis, who seems to pride himself as being a pope of the people, would know that using vague, complicated adjectives isn’t the most effective means of stirring self-examination among the masses. And that is why I think he is referring to someone – some group, order, or movement specifically when he uses that term. He knows right-well that regular folks haven’t all studied prometheus, nor pelagianism. I sure haven’t. So it stands to reason that Pope Francis chose the descriptor that he did because the people he’s aiming it toward HAVE been educated in those areas and are capable of figuring out what he’s getting at. In other words, he chose that phrase because he knew that the people in his crosshairs would know he’s got them in mind. My only comment is to say that I hope his crosshairs are wide and broad enough to include folks on both sides of the divide.

    That said, I’d still prefer the promethean neopelagian nativity scene as it has been described above. And as far as Z swag goes, I think that pinning the words “self-absorbed promethean neopelagian” on oneself will make for quite a conversation piece at the office Christmas and New Year’s parties.

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you on all points!
    I love (retellings) of classical myths, but do not think I have read any Schwab, yet. (I’ll search my shelves, to check if he is waiting unread!)
    I cannot find where I have put my copy of Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, to see exactly what he says. Nor have I paused to reread Shelley, or what I too vaguely recall C.S. Lewis saying about his Prometheus in an essay on him.
    I am always wanting to read more Goethe, while being chary of him. (I heard some marvelous lectures on Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen as in part an answer to Wilhelm Meister – but have still not read either, yet!) I loved singing in the chorus in Brahm’s Alto Rhapsody, and Erhart Kästner’s Die Stundentrommel vom heiligen Berg Athos (which I read in the translation, Mount Athos: The Call from Sleep) got me listening very enthusiastically to the end of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (while I tend only to listen to the Veni Creator part). So, I will set myself to look up his Prometheus (and perhaps, his Ganymed, though your description is not exactly encouraging).

    Do you know if Carry van Bruggen’s Prometheus (1919) has been translated into other languages from the original Dutch? I’ve heard it well spoken of, as a study of a sort…

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Do you know C.S. Lewis’s “Christian Apologetics” (1945), where he discusses, on the basis of his own experiences, the difficulties in saying what you want to say in ways the audience will hear what you intended (and in finding out if you have succeeded)? (Addressed to Anglican priests and youth leaders, it includes a list of 18 “words which are used by the people in a sense different from ours”, including “Atonement” and “Immaculate Conception”.)

    I can imagine Pope Francis thinking he was being concise – and clear – and not trying it out on enough different people to find out if that was so in fact, before issuing it. This could still be the case assuming he thought “the people he’s aiming it toward HAVE been educated in those areas and are capable of figuring out what he’s getting at.” At least, I, though interested in Church history and the battling of heresies on the one hand, and what people have thought about the story of Prometheus on the other, am not sure I get it.

    I think you are certainly right that “some context would be helpful”, and just a slower, longer, simpler way round, to stand a better chance of communicating clearly. Lewis found out how much he had to learn, though he had been writing and publishing things and lecturing for decades already, and he keep working on it – let us hope that the Holy Father will, as well, and not feel shy about following up with whatever is necessary to try to be clear, and go on doing so as much and as long as seems needed to do it well and thoroughly.

  25. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Venerator Sti Lot,

    thank you for your kind answer!

    Do not be discouraged to read Ganymed., it is a great poem (though obviously a rather emotional one, and not as good as Prometheus, purely considered as poem). My criticism was only with respect to its sufficing as counterbalance to Prometheus.
    One might almost think Goethe was (or was then – it was before his Italian travels and also before) of the opinion that religion is feeling and intellect is anti-religion… sounds a well-known attitude? Indeed. This has by the way led many decent men – and women! – to resort to antiintellectualism. See for example that “that’s certainly for all the things they are doing in Cape Canaveral” comment w.r.t. bad weather by the old lady in Billy Wilder’s Apartment. (My father tells that similar things were frequently said by older people in his youth.) You even see that in the saints, sometimes; not anti-intellectualism, of course, they are saints, but a certain downvaluing of the intellect still.

    I know only two poems of Goethe that I don’t personally like: one, “the Divine”, better known as “noble be the man, helpful and good”… you know, it just goes on and ever on like that.

    The second, The Corinthian Bride, is great as a poem, but it is a breathtakingly subversive piece of propaganda against Christianity. Prometheus is not, the Prometheus just gives his position and lets us the freedom to say “well, no”.

    As for Schwab, his Tales from Classical Antiquity are basically what a German understands as “the Greek Mythology” now. When at school we were reading another work from Goethe, Iphigenie on Tauris, the class was neatly divided into about four people who had read Schwab in their youth (including my own humble person) and the rest who had not. The first group understood; the others did not.

    About Carry van Bruggen I don’t know.

  26. Mr. Green says:

    OrthodoxChick: Really. In everyday life in countries all around the world, who does that?

    I don’t think many people read papal writings at all. Those who do will either be able to figure it out, or else seek help understanding it from others — just as we are doing by discussing it here. But since people of all kinds seem to have been perplexed by it, I don’t reckon it was specially intended for any of them. I also take Venerator Sti Lot’s point to heart about the difficulty of knowing how your audience will take something. Maybe Pope Francis never imagined it all the fuss it would cause. On the other hand, it definitely has got people talking, so maybe that was his sneaky intent all along…!

    And as far as Z swag goes, I think that pinning the words “self-absorbed promethean neopelagian” on oneself will make for quite a conversation piece at the office Christmas and New Year’s parties.

    Heh, I look forward to someone trying that and reporting back here!

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