Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Habemus Papam: We Have a Pope

Preface: I thought against writing this. Not because I didn’t feel called to speak on the issue, but because I have Church History readings to complete and I am very far behind. Who has time to blog? But as I thought about it further I realized that this is the perfect time to blog, that I have the chance to engage with history as it is being made, to reflect on what is happening. With that said, I’d like to offer an extended reflection on Ratzinger’s election to leadership of the Catholic Church.



Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Bishop of Surburbicarian Sees of Ostia and Velletri-Segni, and prior Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was named Pope by the College of Cardinals today. He has taken the name Benedict (XVI), and is the first German pontiff since the 11th century.

I was raised Catholic, so the issue has some personal relevance to me; I’ve long argued that there is a certain sociology and psychology to being raised Catholic that is hard to move away from. I’ve long ago left the Roman Catholic Church, but my spiritual roots lie in Catholicism. And as a seminarian, a budding religionist, the issue of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church should have some professional interest to me as well. Beyond those areas of familiarity, though, I am not necessarily qualified to speak with authority on this issue; I only marginally followed Ratzinger’s career, and issues of Catholic ecclesiology or polity are beyond my scope.

To be sure, I am distressed that Ratzinger is the new pope; distressed, but hardly surprised. Pope John Paul II has been naming conservative cardinals for over two decades, and at the same time, dismissing and silencing theologians whose voices were too liberal or progressive for him. The college of cardinals is not a random sampling of theological persuasions, and the pool was skewed toward the right.

The man who has been chosen was not merely a conservative cardinal; John Paul II’s right-hand man (no need to use inclusive language here), the enforcer of Catholic orthodox doctrine. In fact, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—the institutional descendent of the Inquisition—Ratzinger has officially weighed down heavily on the many issues of importance to me, to liberal Catholics, and to those Catholics who have personally suffered from repressive orthodoxy.

Take, for example, his view on Catholic voters:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

(2004 memorandum to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C.)
So much for freedom of conscience.

But before I can bemoan too loudly the new pope, let's look at the realities. There wasn’t going to be any other kind of pope.

Even the talk of the possibility of a pope from Central America or Africa wasn’t going to give us a theological progressive. Sure, we might've ended up with a non-European, and multi-culti Peregrinato rejoices in that prospect. But like I said: JPII has been “stacking the deck” with his conservative cardinals from early on; liberation theologians (those who identify the struggle of the poor against oppression as intrinsic to the Gospel) have been silenced, and the religious leaders--not just the Roman Catholic cardinals-- from the southern hemisphere are conservative across the board. The same is true with the Anglican communion.

And consider the following from the Christian Science Monitor:
"I thought it would be him," said Georges Barimousirwe, a Catholic seminarian visiting Rome from Congo. "He is very severe; we need a man who can put the church back into its place."
True, this is one quote, but I'm going to submit that it is representative of the theological ethos south of the equator. Philip Jenkins wrote about this global theological shift in "The Next Christianity":
In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations — currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America — now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church, a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith. The revolution taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is far more sweeping in its implications than any current shifts in North American religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation and the surging Southern religious revolution... (The Atlantic vol 290, no. 3, Oct. 2002)
Were people really expecting anything different? A person of color is not necessarily a liberal. An African pope would quite possibly give us a different cultural perspective, but his theology would still have been theologically conservative, and doctrinally ultra-orthodox. (Let's remember that St Augustine of Hippo was, in fact, from North Africa, and this Carthaginian Bishop shaped Christian theology for centuries.)

And, also to the point: This is not a step backward. Ratzinger--pardon me, Benedict XVI--wil be following the footsteps of JPII. It is not like the Church has lost a pioneering crusader for theological reform, another John XXIII. It will be more of the same, a continuation of the old policy that has alienated Catholics, driven some from the Church, and driven many away from a life of faith entirely.

This is where the Church was heading. No one can be surprised.

I feel obligated to end on something other than pure gloom. In doing some research, I learned that--according to one vegetarian website, at least--Ratzinger is quoted as saying:
That is a very serious question. At any rate, we can see that they are given into our care, that we cannot just do whatever we want with them. Animals, too, are God's creatures . . . Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.
What’s my point? That the Inquisitor-turned-Pope is really a good guy because he cares about the bunnies? That this makes up for his gays-are-evil stance? Not at all.

But it does help me to find something of virtue in him, something I can connect with and say that his theology is not absolutely bankrupt. Certainly, as the defender of orthodoxy, he has spoken vehemently against things of vital importance to me—gay rights, gay marriage, the ordination of women, and so on. Hell, he even opposed Turkey's joining the European Union. (No room for a Muslim country in Christian Europe.) But seeing this, I have to recognize and accept that his theology is complex and not one-sided, and as such is one of many faithful representations of the spectrum of Catholic theology. There's still some room for grace in there.

There's no telling what the future holds for the pontiff or the Church. I'm not a soothsayer, and I'm not a skilled enough interpreter of Catholicism to discern a trajectory out of what happens here. I can only hope and pray that Benedict XVI exercises wise pastoral leadership--for his sake, and for the sake of the many Catholics whose lives he will have an impact on.

For now, I can only look at this situation the way I look at any challenging situation in life: I expect the worse; but I also hope for the best. And reality will probably be somewhere in between.

Pax vobiscum.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Perry King said...

Keep on preaching Scott! One interesting thing that could happen soon is that Oscar Romero, the martyr de facto saint from El Salvador, will become an official saint. His life and witness put to shame all the conservative clerics who are allied with the oligarcy in Latin America. There are still a lot of progressive Catholics out there like the Catholic Workers. If progressive Catholics will be leaving in droves we have an opportunity to offer them a home with liberal protestants. I enjoy your deep reflections Scott. Keep up the good work. Perry King

10:31 am  
Blogger Peregrinato said...

Um...thanks Perry, but this is James. Scott is down the road at Boy in the Bands--probably the blog that referred you to this post ;)

10:56 am  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Really great thoughts about the new Pope. My thoughts exactly as far as there being another conservative Pope given what John Paul II did with "stacking the decks". I tried to find something of good in JPII and was at times successfull. It should be interesting to see what Benedict XVI does, too.

12:26 pm  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, James. I got a call moments after they announced at the Vatican and the first words out of my friend's mouth were, "Don't you think that stint in the Hitler Youth is really his FINEST credential?"

Gloom indeed. And I'm sorry - it's too late to call you tonight and I'm running around like the proverbial chicken sans noggin lately. Please forgive.

10:26 pm  
Anonymous Trickie said...

I was seeing Pope Ratzo as their worst possible choice of all the cardinals. I realize that JP2 had the chance to stack the deck over the years, but I guess I didn't realize that pretty much all of those he had chosen over the years were equally severe in their regressive views.

I also naively didn't realize the catholic church would willingly become even further removed from the realities of modern life. That's what happens when you entrust your beliefs to a bunch of 70+ year old (mostly) white men.

8:37 am  

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