DIVIDED OPINION Though some were unsympathetic, in the main, to the direction of Benedict’s papacy, there is no doubt he is a formidable and sophisticated theologian.
Papal Conclave makes for an interesting Lent
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Talleyrand who was French and Metternich who was Austrian were inscrutable diplomats in the early 19th century. They watched each other’s moves carefully. Distrust defined their relationship. When Metternich died, Talleyrand made the immortal comment, “Dying,what did he mean by that?”
Speculation has abounded since Pope Benedict announced his intention to resign the most powerful religious office in the world on February 28. Was it because of the Vatileaks controversy in which his butler was implicated and which revealed much shoddy intrigue in the Vatican curia? Had he come to the conclusion that the church needed a new direction but he did not have the energy to lead it? Was it because of the current difficulties of the Vatican bank?
Maybe, however, we should take his resignation statement at face value. At a meeting with cardinals he said that he did not have the mental and physical strengths to continue in the office entrusted to him in April 2005. He is 85, he has looked frail in recent months and he has a history of illness. Already he has served almost the equivalent of two American presidential terms. To expect someone of his age to continue unwillingly in office is a form of cruelty.
It is not good for the the church that a debilitated Pope stays in situ as it causes a paralysis in policy and administration. This was evident in the final years of John Paul II as he raged valiantly against the dying of the light. The historian, Eamon Duffy, put it succinctly in “The Tablet” magazine: “Who would invest in a multinational corporation whose chief executive was old and ailing or enlist in an army led by senile generals?”
Though I am unsympathetic, in the main, to the direction of Benedict’s papacy, it would be ungracious of me not to acknowledge his merits. He is a formidable and sophisticated theologian.
His encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” was an acute critique of the economic theories and business practices that caused the 2008 global financial crisis. During his successful visit to Britain he gave a thoughtful speech on the relationship between religion and society.
In his public appearances he exuded graciousness and charm. His gentle smile illuminated many gatherings, not unlike a grandfather at a family event. For my part, I found it difficult to reconcile this benignity with his ruthless pursuit of a number of theologians in his previous role as Head of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which earned him the tabloid nickname of “God’s rottweiler”.
Historians will probably regard his decision to retire as the most revolutionary act of his papacy. This last happened in 1415 when Gregory XII gave up office.
In the intervening years the belief had grown among Catholics that a Pope would never again resign. The sense that the papacy was a life sentence added to the mystique, the majesty and even the terror of the office.
Benedict’s decision may open the way for an office more in tune with modern practice. Ultimately we may see a retirement age for popes, as is already mandatory for bishops. Or even more radically the papacy being given a fixed term of, for example, ten years.
It has been said that the death of a pope provides an interval of freedom that allows the cardinals to contemplate the election of a pope who might move the church in a new direction. This certainly happened in 1958 when the open-minded John XXIII succeeded the remote conservative, Pius XII.
There is a fear that this freedom will not be there when the conclave meets to elect the new pope. Will the cardinals be influenced in their choice by the reality that the outgoing pope is still alive? Will they be afraid of hurting or disappointing him by electing someone who might have a different vision of the church’s future?
Whoever is elected as the new pope faces a daunting task. While the church is flourishing in numbers in Africa and Asia, it is declining due to the inroads made by Protestant evangelical churches in Latin America. The state of the church in the western world provides the severest challenge.
Vocations to the priesthood have declined so drastically as to call in to question the church’s capacity, in the near future, to provide the Eucharist for its communities. Yet, so far, the Vatican has closed the door on married priests and locked it on the possibilities of female ordination. The child abuse scandals and cover-ups have diminished significantly the church’s moral status. The Vatican has forbidden the Eucharist to couples in second unions. Its teaching on homosexuality, stripped of the soft words in which it is sometimes encased, is harsh and insensitive.
The cardinals go into conclave in mid March. We are in for an interesting Lent.