Electing a pope in the midst of institutional and cultural crisis

The cardinals have gathered although the papal conclave hasn’t begun. Journalists from all over the world have descended on the Vatican for the election, and speculation is running rampant.

There are two issues that I find important about Benedict’s resignation and the next pope. First, the resignation itself. As many have pointed out, it is a remarkable event in itself, a sign of Benedict’s understanding of himself, his office, and the needs of the Church. Whatever else one might say about Benedict’s reign as pope, and his time as head of the Congregation on the Faith, this humble act sheds new light on everything he’s done so far. It’s radical, ground-breaking, and it will force future popes to take seriously the possibility of resignation. The power and prestige of the office has been changed forever.

The second issue is the conclave and the speculation about who will succeed Benedict. To say the Roman Catholic Church is in crisis is obvious. It is also an understatement. The dysfunction within the Vatican that led to the Vatileaks; the ongoing crisis over clerical sexual abuse, but even more the hierarchy’s complicity in that abuse, have brought shame upon the church and deep despair among both clergy and laity. The episode this past week, with Britain’s only cardinal elector forced to step down and not attend the conclave because of his own past sexual discretions is one sign of the rot at the heart of the system. That another cardinal, Mahony of LA, will attend in spite of his mishandling of the crisis, suggests that whoever is elected will have to work hard to rebuild trust in the hierarchy and the Church overall.

All this suggests that the hierarchy, the cardinals, and the curia have lost touch with the cultures in which the Church lives and have lost touch with much of the clergy and laity as well. As many of those who I link to point out, the Roman Catholic Church is in deep need of reform. The real question is whether the participants in the conclave realize how urgent the need is. Just as the Vatileaks scandal revealed how out of touch Pope Benedict was with the inner workings of the Vatican, and Pope John Paul II’s incapacity in his later years, it may be that those involved in the election have no idea of the depth of the crisis in the wider church and the wider world. We will no the answer to that question when we find out who they elect.

Diarmaid MacCulloch on the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church

Andrew Brown on the three challenges facing the next pope:

  1. the need to reform the Vatican bureaucracy
  2. the crisis among clergy
  3. the crisis among the laity: shrinking membership

An interview with Hans Küng and his Op-ed in the New York Times:

In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn’t let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based “shadow pope” like Benedict and his loyal followers.

From GQ: background reading on the “Vatileaks” scandal, a profile of the papal butler and the journalist who broke the story

So much from outsiders. Here are some voices from within the church

From Cardinal George of Chicago (who will be participating in the conclave):

So what we expect as Catholics from the pope is simply that he be the successor of Peter — that he be faithful to the charge given him and be the rock who will keep us from floating away into the sea of relativism that is often what we live in, in this particular kind of postmodern culture. That’s the biggest gift he’s going to have.

John Allen has a must-read piece on how this conclave differs from the 74 before it; and especially from the one in 2005 in which Cardinal Ratzinger was elected.

Peter Steinfels writes in Commonweal:

By resigning, Pope Benedict served the church well. He has spared it another prolonged period of mounting disarray. He has “humanized” the papacy, as Joseph Komonchak and others have pointed out. He has jolted the church into allowing that something generally considered unthinkable for centuries is really not beyond doing after all. And he has set the stage for his successor to do likewise.

That is important. The Catholic Church needs shock therapy. True, among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, millions of saints are leading lives of prayer and charity so ardent, brave, sacrificial, creative, and enduring that they bring tears to normal eyes. They are the best of us—and then there are the rest of us. Except in parts of Africa, the much-heralded growth of Catholicism is simply in line with the growth in population—or not even that. Latin American Catholics are increasingly turning to Pentecostalism or drifting away from religious practice and affiliation altogether, although not yet to the extent occurring in Europe and North America.

I’ll be following America‘s coverage of the conclave.

A couple of reviews of books about 16th century England

Both reviewers are prominent historians. Keith Thomas reviews The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford. It’s a study of Elizabethan spies and intelligence efforts. He concludes:

Stephen Alford’s engrossing book reminds us that most governments will stop at very little if national security is at stake. When political conflicts are exacerbated by fanatically held religious differences, the outcome is even more deadly.

The other review is by Diarmaid MacCulloch of Eamon Duffy’s Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition. It’s a collection of essays by the author of Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath (both of which I assigned in my classes over the years). MacCulloch is critical of Duffy for overemphasizing popular resistance to Reform and argues in the review that by the mid-Tudor period, the lines between Catholic and Protestant were fairly clearly drawn, that Duffy tends to overemphasize Catholic sentiment, and occasionally simply misreads the evidence. Most interesting, MacCulloch ends with an anecdote new to me that reveals the complexity of religion in sixteenth-century England:

In 1566, Elizabeth I’s archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, was disconcerted to receive a bill from the bailiffs of the city of Oxford. They were still owed £43 out of the £63 that was their expenditure for guarding and burning Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, back in Mary’s reign. Mary’s government added meanness to its brutality, and had not paid up. “The case is miserable, the debt is just,” the Puritan president of Magdalen College wrote in perplexity to the archbishop. So Parker, feeling that it was only fair, had a whip-round among his fellow Protestant bishops to pay for the expenses of burning England’s most famous Protestant martyrs. I wonder if any counter-reformation bishops would have reimbursed damnable heretics, had they presented that sort of bill.

Is the Anglican Communion imploding of itself?

Events are occurring with great rapidity.

  • The Diocese of Uruguay has petitioned to leave the Province of the Southern Cone. This is in response to a failed proposal to allow the ordination of women in that province on a diocese-to-diocese basis. Mark Harris points out how very different that diocese is proceeding in leaving its province than those dioceses of the Episcopal Church have tried to depart. If their petition is refused, they will appeal to the Anglican Consultative Council. Whatever happens, it’s a reminder that “realignment” works both ways. Fr. Jake points out the irony of a diocese petitioning the Province of the Southern Cone to leave, after the Southern Cone has attempted to poach dioceses from the Episcopal Church
  • Those “flying bishops” who are flying to Rome continue to generate comment. The great historian of English Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch has written incisively about the absurdity of the original scheme to provide episcopal oversight to those who rejected women’s ordination in the Church of England. Here’s MacCulloch on the perspective this group represents:

They represent one faction, which those of us who enjoy grubbing in historical byways term ‘Papalist Catholics’. For about 150 years this group among High Church Anglicans have performed athletic intellectual gymnastics about what the Church of England actually is. They ignored the fact that it had a Reformation in the sixteenth century, and turned their churches into meticulous replicas of whatever ecclesiastical fashions the Roman Church decided to adopt, while equally ignoring the fact that successive popes considered their clerical status ‘absolutely null and utterly void’. Now they are thrilled to find that the Pope was wrong all along, so they can after all be received on special terms into the ample bosom of the Western Church of the Latin Rite (which is in the habit of arrogating to itself the more general title of the Catholic Church).

  • Another report mentions “50 clergy who are joining the Ordinariate.”
  • And the Anglican Covenant debate is heating up in the run-up to Church of England’s General Synod. Thinking Anglicans has links to the latest entries in the debate. On this side of the pond, the Episcopal Cafe links to presentations past and more recent, by Cheryl H. White, canon theologian for the Diocese of Western Louisiana. From what I can tell, it seems to be arguing that the Covenant is rooted in the Elizabethan Settlement, an attempt to use the Elizabethan Church in support of the Covenant, just as the no-covenant folk use Hooker to oppose it. As I argued with regard to that, let’s debate the covenant on its merits, not on its imputed historical or theological precedents.