Thursday, March 7, 2013

Fr. Paul Surlis: "Lost Hope Has Put the Church in Today's Crisis"

Joseph Ratzinger at Vatican II

Margaret Talbot is not the only one currently writing about the lost opportunity for Catholic reform under pope Benedict XVI. At Consortiumnews, Fr. Paul Surlis, who taught moral theology at St. John's University in New York for many years, discusses "The Catholic Church's Lost Hope." As he notes, the reforms mandated by the second Vatican Council, which provided great hope for many Catholics, were stopped in their tracks by John Paul II and his successor Benedict, and loss of hope produced by this reactionary decision has placed the Catholic church in serious crisis.

Fr. Surlis notes the irony of the emeritus pope's observation, in his last public Mass, that the Catholic church has a "disfigured" face--irony which turns on the apparent inability of Benedict to see or acknowledge his own role in disfiguring the face of the Catholic church at this point in its history. As he points out, Benedict clearly knows the prescription that Vatican II offered for church reform, since he was a leader of the reform movement at that council, and published a succinct statement of the primary teachings of the council in a book entitled Theological Highlights of Vatican II.

One of the key teachings of the council was that power should be exercised collegially in the church:

One of the great structural changes envisaged by the council was a transition from a centralized, monarchical papacy where one person, the pope, assisted by the curial cardinals, has absolute power over the universal church to a church that would be governed by the bishops of the entire church in union with the pope. As the twelve apostles were with and under Peter, so the bishops should be with and under the pope. And, according to the council’s vision, the wisdom of the People of God, i.e. rank-and-file members of the Church, should always be consulted.

But from the outset of his papacy, John Paul II, actively abetted by Joseph Ratzinger in his restorationist agenda that tried to eradicate the reforms of the council, "made it clear . . . that the role of the bishops was to assist him in his ministry, not to exercise any sort of independent governance with and under him as the council envisaged." John Paul undercut the teaching authority of national bishops' conferences that grew up in response to Vatican II's call for collegiality, and when any of those conferences told the laity under their pastoral leadership that the magisterial teaching about contraception should be weighed by the informed consciences of believers, John Paul reasserted the notion of "absolute obedience" to papal teaching about contraception--which is to say, he reasserted absolute obedience to himself as pope.

Again, with Ratzinger's active assistance, John Paul "smuggled the aura of infallibility" into theological discussions opened by the council, which have every right to remain open, insisting at one point that the issue of women's ordination had been definitively settled. Because he said so. And no further discussion of that matter was to take place. As Surlis says, this distorts central aspects of the long tradition of Catholic moral thinking, which has never insisted that moral right is defined primarily by the will of a superior who commands obedience.

I'm struck, in particular, by one part of Surlis's very valuable analysis of John Paul's and Benedict's legacy: he notes that, though Benedict may have offered prophetic leadership in the area of social and economic teaching, that leadership was seriously undercut by his "drumbeat of criticism" of homosexuality and his unrelenting focus on the issue of abortion:

As pope, Benedict surprised many with his valuable social teaching. He was called the “green pope” because of his advocacy of responsible stewardship of the environment. Benedict denounced predatory capitalism and – in the wake of the global financial collapse – he suggested valuable structural reforms for global capitalism, a system he saw as especially failing the needs of the poor. However, his drumbeat of criticism of homosexuality as intrinsically evil and his constant references to abortion tended to drown out his social message.

As I've said repeatedly on this blog, I think analysis of this sort of the teaching of Pope Benedict is precisely correct. Benedict's social and economic teaching depends on assertions about universal human rights that cannot be maintained when he (and the Catholic magisterium in general from John Paul forward) singles out LGBT human beings and women as scapegoats, with a view to denying or limiting the full range of human rights of these targeted groups within the human community.

You can't preach rights for everyone while denying rights to denigrated minorities. And you can't convince the world at large that you stand for human rights for everyone when your own institution tramples on the human rights of its adherents, denying them a voice or role in governing the institution, denying half the members of that institution the right to ordination, denying theologians a right to a fair hearing when their theology is challenged by reactionary groups within the church, denying bishops their rightful place in the governing structures of the institution.

You can't convince anyone of what you yourself don't determine to live and model, as the leader of your institution. What we need in a pope, Surlis concludes (citing Timothy Shriver) is a "better lover"--of God and Christ--who energizes the members of the Christian community to become "better lovers of other human beings." And this is hard to accomplish when the person modeling love for the entire community is intent on grasping all power and authority jealously to himself, and singling out some members of the community for excoriation and exclusion.

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