Friday, March 1, 2013

The Post-Benedict Catholic Moment: What Now?--A Selection of Commentary

I may be offering you another slice of rich fruitcake and cloying cup of eggnog the day after Christmas--when what your sated body rightly craves is a modest, vinegary salad and tonic glass of bitters--but how can I possibly ignore all the goodies you readers have been sending my way, regarding the transition in the papacy? There they are, to be read, and shared. And so here's a selection of statements about the "what-next" steps for the Catholic church, many of these from articles recommended by Bilgrimage readers in the last day or so:

In The Guardian Diarmaid MacCulloch maintains (I'm transcribing parts of the video to which the link points) that there is a "real big crisis in the church" at present, in which there is "nowhere to hide now" for the leaders of the Catholic church. As he notes, "We've had two popes in succession who really denied that the church needed to change at all." But, 

You can go on denying that change is happening for so long. You can keep your head inside a paper bag for so long, but in the end, you have to take the paper bag off. And that's what's happening to the hierarchy of the Roman church now. They're having to face realities which they've steadily avoided facing for the last thirty years.

And then there's this remarkable observation, which strikes me as extremely insightful and extremely important: 

The great new fact worldwide, and not just in northern Christianity or northern religion: the place of women--utterly changed in the last, really, hundred years, no more than that, and it's extremely rapid change. And it seems to me that a lot of angry conservative religion is precisely about the changing position of women. It's male anger, male fear. We see it in the church of Rome because it's an intensely male-dominated institution. Even nuns now are seen to be the enemy by Rome--quite extraordinary that  the faithful nuns of the United States are being treated as rebels by the Vatican. Women are a problem for traditional religion, and yet, I suspect they will also be the salvation of traditional religion.

In his comments to Amy Goodman and Juan González at "Democracy Now!" theologian Matthew Fox could well be speaking in deliberate counterpoint to MacCulloch. Fox opens:

I think I’ll take the pope at his word here when he says he’s tired. I would be tired, too, if I left as much devastation in my wake as he has, first as inquisitor general under the previous pope. He brought the Inquisition back. And it’s true I was one of the theologians expelled by him, but I list 104 others in my book, and it keeps growing, the list keeps growing.

And then he adds:

It’s become a viper’s nest there, obviously—the Vatican is. I really think that, as a theologian, I see the Holy Spirit at work in all this. I think that the Catholic Church as we know it, the structure of the Vatican, is passé. We’re moving beyond it. And it’s become a viper’s nest. It’s really sick, what’s going on, obviously—the cover-up of the pedophile priests. And you can see it everywhere: Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles; this cardinal in Scotland; Cardinal Law, who was elevated after he left Boston, given a promotion, running a fourth century basilica in Rome; and this pope himself, the recent documentary that came out a year—a week or two ago from HBO about how the buck stopped with him. We’re hearing these horrible things that went on at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, where over 200 boys, deaf boys, were abused by a priest, and Ratzinger knew it. There’s Father Maciel, who was so close to the previous pope that he took him on plane rides with him, abused 20 seminarians, and he had two wives on the side and abused four of his own children, and Ratzinger knew about this man for 10 years. That document was on his desk, and he did nothing until the year 2005.

Amy Goodman asks Fox why he was silenced by the current pope when (as Joseph Ratzinger) he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then expelled. Fox responds by nothing that the Vatican objected specifically to the following: his feminism; his calling God "mother"; his penchant for speaking about "original blessing" rather than "original sin"; and his refusal to condemn homosexuals at the behest of Ratzinger and the Vatican. 

And then he observes--and here's where I find the fascinating counterpoint to what MacCulloch says above:

They’re really Rorschach tests about what really freaks out the Vatican. And, of course, above all, it’s women and sex. And that is the agenda. Whenever there’s fundamentalism and fascism, it’s about control. That’s why the Vatican, the Taliban and Pat Robertson have this in common: They’re all freaked out by the possibility of bringing the divine feminine back, and with it, of course, the equal rights of women.

For Andrew Brown in The Guardian, there are now "three interlocking difficulties" facing the leaders of the Catholic church following Benedict's departure: crisis in the curia,  crisis in the clergy, and crisis in the laity in the developed world. Brown zeroes in on the crisis within the Vatican itself with the following incisive analysis:

The central administration of the Vatican is plagued by corruption allegations and obstructionism. It functions too much like the rest of Italy. A pope of enormous energy and willpower and administrative experience would be needed to clean it out. Yet this, too, may be inevitable, as the VatiLeaks scandal showed. The Italian model of politics doesn't even work in Italy. You can't run a global organisation on those principles.

What Brown says is seconded by Erasmus in The Economist, who writes,

Whatever combination of factors prompted Benedict XVI to step down on February 11th, almost everybody agrees that infighting in the curia has been surging out of control. Medical and human factors may have been the catalyst for his decision. But had he stayed longer, it would have been harder for Benedict to maintain his profile as an unworldly intellectual, surrounded by scheming careerists; it would be have been harder to deny his own share of responsibility for the mess. As far back as September, he was confiding to visitors that he was longing for a life of theological reflection and prayer nd weary of high ecclesiastical politics. But the escalation of the Vatileaks affair, and all that lay behind it, must surely have accelerated his move.

Erasmus adds that no matter how many accolades we may want to place at the feet of Benedict the theologian (and, God knows, those accolades are being laid with abandon at the former pope's feet right now by epigones in the Catholic press), it has to be admitted that Benedict precipitated the very serious crisis of the Catholic church by ruthlessly and deliberately decimating its intellectual class:

But however well endowed the German pope was with grey matter, critics are saying that he was excessively harsh in crushing creative thought among his fellow clerics, not only as Pope but from the moment in 1981 when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he took over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican department which lays down church dogma and ensures that the line is followed. Marco Ventura, a professor of law and religion with chairs in Belgium and Italy, sees a link between the doctrinal uniformity that was imposed on Benedict’s watch and the bureaucratic infighting that threatened to overwhelm him. “When there is no philosophical discussion to absorb people’s energy, power struggles are the only thing left,” Mr Ventura believes. In other words, if storms caused by careerism in the curia threatened to sink the papal ship, it was partly because Benedict himself had been too zealous in stilling the nurturing waters of theological debate.

And, finally, wonderful commentary by theologian Ivone Gebara via Rebel Girl at Iglesia Descalza, with which I choose to end because it strikes me as one of the best "final words" possible in the discussions about what kind of pope should succeed Benedict. I find the commentary in the Catholic media and mainstream media jejune, lifeless, wearisome in the extreme, in its need to fawn over the outgoing pope--while never admitting that he's outgoing for a distinct reason. And that reason is well-analyzed by each of the preceding commentators, all of them either members of the secular media or theologians Benedict sought to marginalize.

It is not commentary like this that the Catholic community needs right now. Commentary that replicates the defensive, grotesquely adulatory mythology of the past--commentary that tries to marginalize the insightful voices of non-Catholic journalists or marginalized Catholic intellectuals--will not move us where we need to go as a community that finds itself in very serious crisis. There's also the shameful commentary of the leading centrist Catholic blog sites in the U.S., which present themselves as the arbiter of the intellectual conversation defining Catholic identity, but which refuse to speak honestly about who Benedict was and what he and his predecessor have done to the church, about brother and sister Catholics the last two papacies have seriously wounded--whose voices are not permitted in the staid, managed, parochial, and ultimately insignificant centrist conversation defining Catholic identity.

We need now to hear other voices, including and in a privileged way, the voices of women and women theologians like Gebara, who was herself silenced by Benedict (as head of the CDF) in the early 1990s.

Gebara begins by arguing that we now face "a privileged moment to invite the Catholic communities to rethink their governance structures and the medieval privileges that this structure entails." In that moment, she insists, the kind of "magical" discourse often used to talk about the Holy Spirit's connection to the church is entirely unhelpful. This discourse mythologizes the process by which a pope is selected, implying that a group of all-male, elderly, clerics are somehow the special channel by which the Spirit moves within the community, and no matter what decision these elderly male clerics make on behalf of the rest of us, it's necessarily a right and holy decision.

Those who cling to these ideas have an understanding of faith that has simply not grown beyond the level of childhood, Gebara argues. And the media do a serious disservice to the public and to the Catholic community itself when they collude in this magical-mythological chatter about the papacy and the selection of new popes. 

What we need, Gebara maintains, is a theology of the Spirit that recognizes how the Spirit works within the whole community of the faithful, and within historical conditions and secular realities. That non-magical, adult, and theologically well-grounded theology of the Spirit moves toward the following conclusion as Catholics think about the selection of a new universal shepherd:

And finally, I want to return to the Holy Spirit, to that wind that blows in each of us, that breath in us that is greater than us, that brings us closer and makes us interdependent with all living beings. A breath of many shapes, colors, flavors and intensities. A breath of compassion and tenderness, a breath of equality and difference. This wind or breath can not be used to justify and maintain power structures of privilege and ancient or medieval traditions as if they were laws or indisputable and immutable norms.

To which I can only say a hearty, Veni creator Spiritus! as the conclave gathers to elect Benedict's successor. 

The photo of the papal helicopter bearing Benedict away yesterday is from the Twitter feed of CBS News

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