The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI & the Future of the Church

I couldn't help but notice some of the less than gracious comments in the media about Pope Benedict in the wake of his announcement in which he renounced the office of the papacy. As one might expect these days, the most hateful of these comments came from within the Church and appeared in their medium of choice, The New York Times.

For example, in a letter to the editor on February 11, Daniel Maguire, a professor of theology at Marquette University, wrote the following:
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI may be the most influential act of his papacy. It opens a window of opportunity for serious reform, starting with the papacy, in a church roiled in multiple crises. If the scandal of the papacy as one of the last absolute monarchies in a democratizing world is not addressed, all other reforms will falter. Catholic scholarship is clear. There is no evidence that a papal monarchy was Jesus’ idea.
Of course, if you accept that Peter was the first pope, there would be lessons. Peter was married. A happily married pope with a strong spouse and children could think more clearly on sexual and reproductive issues and not let the church get mired in obsessions that obscure the message of justice and peace that Jesus preached.
Of course, no change will occur if the Catholic laity act like sheep awaiting word from their all-male shepherds.
This ex-priest, who thinks the best thing about Pope Benedict's reign is his resignation, also believes and teaches that abortion and same-sex marriage are morally permissible. But he's not alone in his attitude toward Pope Benedict. On February 28, Paul Elie, of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, penned an op-ed piece in the Times, in which he said, among other things:
American Catholics should consider resigning too...if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time...
In traditional parlance, Benedict’s resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter “vacant.” So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend...
We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly...
For the Catholic Church, it has been “all bad news, all the time” since Benedict took office in 2005: a papal insult to Muslims; a papal embrace of a Holocaust denier; molesting by priests and cover-ups by their superiors...
A temporary resignation would be a fitting Lenten observance. It would help believers to purify and deepen our faith in the light of our neighbors'... It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.
When I read comments like those of Maguire and Elie I always find myself wondering why such people remain in a Church they obviously despise.

Perhaps the least gracious of commentators, however, was Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University which, like Georgetown and Marquette, is also a Jesuit university.  Writing in Religion Dispatches, a daily online magazine that apparently prides itself on its lack of reverence ("respectful but not reverent"), Drescher shares her thoughts on Pope Benedict's "painful legacy" with respect to every disaffected group residing "on the margins of the Catholic Church":
...the legacy Benedict began shaping in 1980 as Cardinal Ratzinger...and which he solidified during a mere eight years as Bishop of Rome is seen as something far more complex and troubling.
UC Riverside professor Jennifer Scheper Hughes, who has studied Benedict’s reaction to liberation theology in Latin America both before and during his papacy, suggests that he leaves a painful legacy for Roman Catholics in the region. [Quoting Hughes] "His legacy in Latin America is precisely this: the systematic dismantling of the infrastructure of liberation theology..."
"It’s hard to identify a figure who has been more oppressive to LGBT people in the religious world than Pope Benedict," says DignityUSA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke.
From the labeling of homosexuality as "objectively disordered" and “intrinsically evil” in magisterial documents he developed as a cardinal, to condemnations of transgendered people as mentally ill, to more recent attacks on marriage equality as a deterrent to world peace, says Duddy-Burke, the current pope has actively worked to undermine the full equality of LGBT people and denigrated their human dignity...
Joelle Casteix, Western Region Director for SNAP, which advocates on behalf of some 20,000 survivors and allies of those abused by Roman Catholic priests...says Pope Benedict “offered empty promises and apologies” about the abuse scandal “as a PR move” while at the same time “portraying victims as enemies of the Church.” This, she says, has continued to “ensure the marginalization of abuse victims within the Church...”
...between the smackdown on nuns and the excommunication and silencing of priests supporting the ordination of women and opposing the Church’s position on birth control, it would be hard not to conclude that Benedict’s papacy has been difficult for women throughout the Church. LGBT advocate Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, herself no stranger to Vatican disciplinary silencing, argues that “women in the Church have as difficult a time as lesbian and gay individuals. Both are treated as second-class citizens.” She notes that the rebuke of LCWR had much to do with the solidarity many women religious, and women in general, have felt with LGBT people who have been marginalized within the Church and are often alienated from it...
Outside the Catholic Church, Benedict managed to provoke Muslims, Jews, and Anglicans variously in the course of his papacy, sharply distinguishing “God’s Rottweiler,” as he was famously nicknamed, from his far more genial, if no less conservative predecessor, John Paul II.
After reading these and other commentaries on Pope Benedict and his impact on the Church, I couldn't help but recall something he wrote in a book published way back in 1970. I first read it in an English translation published by Franciscan Herald Press (1971). It has since been republished by Ignatius Press (2006) under the title, Faith and Future. Speaking of the Church of the future, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote (p.116-118):
From the crisis of today, the Church of tomorrow will emerge. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges...she will be seen more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision...Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession...Alongside this, the full-time ministerial priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But...the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world...

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to be the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness and well as pompous self-will will have to be shed...But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, and answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
When I first read this, perhaps 30 years ago, I wondered how this German theologian could possibly come to such a seemingly pessimistic conclusion. The intervening years have since convinced me that his vision of the Church's future is not only a likely future, but also a truly optimistic one. Yes, the Church may once again have to enter a period of suffering and cleansing. Like the people of Israel and Judah, it may have to experience an exile from the world in which it had grown all too comfortable, a world to which many of its members too easily conformed. Once released from this exile, it will present to that broken world a far smaller Church, but a purified, restored and holy Church, a Church that will present a beacon of true hope to a world in search of meaning. I believe we are privileged to be living during this time of renewal and hope.

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