Thursday, 28 February 2013

Thank you Papa Bene!

WYD Sydney

Today is the last day of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI (his reign officially ends at 6am Friday Australian Eastern Summer Time), so I thought I would join many others in thanking him for his labours in the vineyard over the last eight years.

The achievements of the Pope, and what is needed now...

There have been a number of interesting and useful analyses of his pontificate and where things now stand already written, and I would particularly recommend these couple:
  • Michael Brendan Dougherty's The unfinished business of Pope Benedict XVI, published at the Sydney Morning Herald (while I don't particularly agree with his overall assessment of where Pope Benedict's approach, it is worth reading for his acute analysis of the mess he inherited from his predecessor  Pope John Paul II alone - I particularly enjoyed the line 'he travelled while Rome burned'!); 
  • Tracey Rowland's piece over at the ABC Religion and Ethics webpage; and
  • John Rao's nice historical perspective on the popes of the Reformation and their effectiveness, and the lessons for today, over at Rorate Caeli.
I don't totally agree with any of the assessments I've read though, so here is my take on his legacy.

I should note that I'm not an ultramontanist, so I don't agree with everything Pope Benedict XVI has said and done.  But in a lot of areas, I don't think he is being given sufficient credit for what he has achieved - though perhaps the full extent of his legacy will take some years to become truly apparent.

1.  Leadership: 'presiding in the love'

Recent Popes have illustrated a number of different possible approaches to the leadership role of the papacy.

We often here it said that the Pope is not, in fact, the CEO of a world-wide organization.  They can't just set the strategy and then expect the organization to set about implementing it (well, maybe they could if they revived the Inquisition, but...).

That hasn't stopped some from behaving as if they were though, and trying to do just that, the most obvious example being the post-Vatican II revolution imposed on the world's Catholics (yes folks, I am a traditionalist, not a conservative!).  Pope Paul VI, for example, issued wads and wads of legislation in the wake of Vatican II, abolishing this and that, freeing things up to experimentation, imposing a new liturgy, and allowing Vatican enforcers, backed up by bishops fired up (or brainwashed depending on your perspective) to force a revolution (sorry 'reform') across the world.

Pope John Paul II tried a different strategy, based largely around the power of personality.  His magisterial teaching contains a lot of 'hard sayings' that we can treasure as important contributions, such as his focus on life issues for example. But the cost was the fostering of a dangerous ultramontanism that held that anything a pope said or did was pretty much infallible.  That might perhaps almost work in an age with less public scrutiny, where far less that a pope says or does ever comes into the public eye, but it is positively dangerous in the modern era in my view (consider for example some of the nuttier versions of theology of the body, and some of the excesses of ecumenism and interfaith relationships).  And while Pope John Paul II fed the cult of his followers, he pretty much ignored those who rejected his line.  That helped cement the great divide in the Church we now have between liberal/progressives and conservatives.

Pope Benedict XVI by contrast, it seems to me, returned to a much earlier model, asserting that the role of Peter is primarily as the guardian of truth, the bishop who 'presides in the love': his task is to set out what the truth is, and lead others to see that truth through his teaching and example; and where necessary, to step in to resolve disputed issues.  To me at least, that is a very appealing approach.

And consistent with that, he has focused, above all, on reasserting orthodoxy (right belief), correcting errors that had become popular in the wake of the 'spirit of the Council'; and orthopraxis (right practice) in the form of the resacralization of the liturgy, and revival of traditions and traditional practices.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of his legacy is the reassertion of the principle lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we pray determines what we believe.  In the decades since Vatican II, the prevailing ideology decreed that practices, even ancient traditions of the Church were not important, all was changeable.  Pope Benedict XVI has reasserted the idea that our beliefs are not just thinks that can be encapsulated in words, but rather are embedded in the culture.

The effects of much of his corrective work will take time to work through: time for a new generation of priests to be exposed to the traditional mass, for example, and have it as a reference point for their approach to liturgy; time for some of those heresies justified by reference to creative or otherwise readings of the Council documents to finally die a death.  But I think over time, as his Magisterial teaching is fully absorbed, I think it will have a huge impact.

Genuine leadership involves making hard choices, saying hard things that many will reject.  But Pope Benedict XVI has also tried to find face-saving formulas that provide a basis for consensus building.  Some of these often seem more pragmatic than perhaps entirely convincing: the two forms of the Roman Rite for example (which are surely in reality two distinct rites!); the principle of continuity with tradition with which to 'interpret' the documents of Vatican II.  Nonetheless, those formulas provide, I think, a basis to rebuild greater genuine unity within the Church, while allowing for legitimate diversity.

Cardinal Pell suggested yesterday that the task of the next Pope will be to pull people together.  Perhaps there is something in this if it means building consensus behind the directions that Pope Benedict XVI has already set in train, using the tools he has devised to achieve this.

But any future Pope would do well to keep firmly in mind that his job is, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, above all, as Christ's vicar, to prevent the Church from falling to the gates of hell, not to be popular or find the easy middle ground between warring factions.

2. The Pope of Christian Unity

I'm not sure whether it was Fr Z who coined the term pope of Christian unity for Pope Benedict XVI, but it is surely a title much deserved.

Pope Benedict has worked hard to refocus ecumenism so as to try and reconcile those closest to the Church, and succeeded at least in the case of the Anglicans with the establishment of the Ordinariates.

His less appreciated work though, I think, has been his efforts to heal the undeclared schism within the Church.  Pope Benedict XVI inherited a Church out of control, where heresy was rife, openly promoted even by bishops.

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many thought he would be the great enforcer.  Instead he has attempted to entreat, persuade and rebuke, and encourage. Only when all else has failed has he taken more concrete action.

Turning around opinions, changing minds, and bringing people into line takes time.  And many of us have perhaps been frustrated that things haven't happened faster, and at the realization that some of the bishops who have been replaced have been of the old mold, not the new.

Still, a report today suggests that the pope has been (mostly) quietly cleaning out the episcopacy at the rate of two or three a month.  One shudders to think just how bad one has to be as a bishop to have gotten on the radar (well ok, Australians have a fair sense of that in looking at our share of the culling, some of whom went relatively quietly and one who didn't! +Morris aside, our 'grave reasons' list includes, after all +Power of Canberra, +Malone of Newcastle, and +Toohey of Wilcannia-Forbes ).

Allowing time to take its course has worked before, while going in too hard has provoked outright, declared schism.  Either way, souls are at stake, so its a prudential judgment involved.  But he may well prove to have jumped the right way.

3.  Cleaning up the cesspit

Perhaps the single most important thing that Pope Benedict XVI did though, was his early action to remove Fr Marciel from any active role in the Church.  It set the stage for the action that has occurred, and, together with Pope Benedict's clear acknowledgement of the problem, and genuine engagement with the victims of the abuse scandal, has done a world of good.

Moreover, while many continue to dance around the issue, and focus on the paedophile fringe, Pope Benedict XVI clearly recognized that the bigger problem is not paedophilia but active homosexuals (given that 80% of abuse cases involved same sex relationships with adolescents, not children).  That is why he has clearly asserted that those with homosexual inclinations cannot become priests.

The problem is far from solved of course, not least because many members of the  hierarchy continue to portray the whole problem as an anti-Catholic media plot, Pope Benedict XVI's comments to the contrary notwithstanding.  Some even see themselves, and not those they failed to protect, as the victims.  Perhaps in some cases that is understandable, because some have made false accusations, while others are clearly motivated by issues other than justice for victims.

But Pope Benedict XVI recognized that the moral authority of the Church is at stake in this, and has acted accordingly. Let's hope his successor also gets it.

Of course, the other cesspit is, on the face of it, the Curia itself.  It is true that Pope Benedict XVI doesn't seem to have made any serious inroads in the problems therein, or in dragging its bureaucracy into the twenty-first century. But perhaps, in correcting at least the worst excesses of doctrine and praxis of recent years, he has at least laid the groundwork that will enable his successors to succeed at that daunting task.

Please keep the soon to be pope-emeritus in your prayers.


R J said...

One small but not wholly unimportant typo: it's "Michael Brendan Dougherty", not "Brendan Michael Dougherty". (The Sydney Morning Herald link gets it right.)

Kate Edwards said...

Thanks, fixed.