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.

What should Roman Catholics do?

A Roman Catholic couple, visiting Madison for the weekend, came to services at Grace yesterday. They were talking to parishioners and to Deacon Carol after the rest of the congregation had made its way through the line. By the time I got to them, their hands were full with brochures explaining the Episcopal Church, our welcome bags, etc. They shared their experience of growing frustration, even alienation from the Roman Catholic Church. The parish where they had been members for decades was no longer comfortable. They struggle with some of the statements by the RC bishops, and with “politics from the pulpit.” They also struggle with the role of women in the Church and were thrilled to see Deacon Carol and other women serving at the altar.

I struggle with my pastoral response to people. They’re not the first who have sought us out in recent months. There’s a wedge being driven in the Roman Catholic church that is forcing many to rethink their place in it. As Episcopalians, we can welcome them in, invite them to explore whether we offer a suitable home for them. We can also pray for them and show compassion. I know all to well how difficult it is to leave the religious tradition of one’s childhood and family. I know too that many who make that break may never again feel like they are at home in the world spiritually. My heart aches for people like that. It aches as well that people are forced to such points, often against their will. The Roman Catholic Church of today is not the Vatican II church which many welcomed and loved.

James Martin, SJ, offers a prayer for frustrated Catholics (it works as well for others who are frustrated with the institutional church in which they find themselves).

Here’s what Bill Kellerthinks:

Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.

And one who’s going the other way (from atheist to Catholic)

I’ve not posted about the conflict between the Vatican and the American nuns; I’m a spectator there. But the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article in English on Pope Benedict XVI that deserves reading. Without a word about the American Church–the article is focused on Vatican machinations amid the ongoing scandal, and the jockeying for position with the 85-year old pope’s health beginning to fail.

Speaking of Vatican II, America links to an article written by Martin Marty in 1968, reflecting on the end of the council and its significance. It, too, makes for interesting reading.

The Gathering at Assisi

Francis X. Clooney, SJ on the meeting. Austin Ivereigh wrote a series of posts on the inter-religious gathering at America’s In all Things blog.

Benedict’s speech is here. As Clooney writes, Benedict is insistent that in spite of the use of religious language and motivation to support and rationalize violence, especially terrorism, religion is a force for peace. Benedict said,

The fact that, in the case we are considering here, religion really does motivate violence should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons. In a way that is more subtle but no less cruel, we also see religion as the cause of violence when force is used by the defenders of one religion against others.

These are important words given the tendency by adherents of many religions, Christians, Muslims, Jews, among them, to deny their religion’s complicity in violence.

Perhaps most interesting was the inclusion in this third Assisi meeting of nonbelievers, agnostics. Benedict said of their presence:

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.

Clooney raises several questions about the meeting. First, he is critical that the group did not pray together in any way. As he writes:

as spiritual seekers will also insist, the path cannot be traveled if praying-together be entirely ruled out (as seems to have been the case in Assisi 2011). Our crises are spiritual as well as intellectual, and even on intellectual grounds, deeper truths can sometimes be glimpsed only through spiritual windows, when they are open. How we can best pray together across religious borders – differently with different believers, one might guess – is open to study and discernment, but the answer is not “pray by yourself.” It is not enough to take the train together (from Rome to Assisi) or to give or listen to speeches in the same place. Pray together we must.

The Pope on the role of Religion in secular society.

It’s fascinating to observe the pope’s visit to the United Kingdom from afar. Fascinating on several levels. 1) There’s the beatification of John Henry Newman with all of its implications for Anglican-Catholic relations. 2) There’s the ongoing fallout from the sexual abuse crisis. 3) The crises within Anglicanism over sexuality and gender. In the latter case, the ordination of women bishops complicates relations further. 4) There’s the pope himself.

On the latter point, the pope made remarks about the role of religion in English society. England, like other European countries, has struggled with the role of religion in a multicultural society.

Benedict XVI made his position quite clear early on in the visit:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”.

Many interpreted what he was saying to link Nazism and Atheism. In fact, he seemed to be arguing that excluding religion from public life results in an impoverished understanding of human nature and society. One might argue the merits of this, but it seems silly to discount those thinkers who have developed a deeply human and humane understanding of the human person and society without recourse to religious language.

In his remarks at Westminster Hall on Friday, Pope Benedict expanded on his remarks. To

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Here he argues that the slave trade and twentieth century totalitarianism were products of the misuse of reason, which could have been avoided had reason taken into account religious understandings. Of course, to use his examples, religious thinkers applying reason, found what they thought were “objective moral principles” that supported both slavery and totalitarianism.

In the final paragraph at Westminster, he goes even further:

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

I read a little essay by Juergen Habermas on the place of religion in secular society just as the Pope’s visit to Great Britain began. Habermas, the great German philosopher, has engaged questions of the role of religion in secular society in the last few decades.

In a few paragraphs, Habermas outlines the problems. The liberal state, he argues, relies not on conformity to its principles, but on “a mode of legitimation founded on convictions.” It “requires the support of reasons which can be accepted in a pluralist society by religious citizens, by citizens of different religions, and by secular citizens alike.” For religion to thrive in such societies, “the content of religion must open itself up to the normatively grounded expectation that it should recognize for reasons of its own the neutrality of the state towards worldviews, the equal freedom of all religious communities, and the independence of the institutionalized sciences.”

One wonders what Habermas makes of the current controversies in the US over mosques and Quran burnings. It seems the Pope feels the Catholic Church (or Christianity) may soon be persecuted in Great Britain in similar fashion. I’m also always suspicious when someone starts talking about the “unique role” of religion or Christianity in European or American society.