According to Dante, the last pope to resign couldn’t even make it into Hell. Pope Celestine V, a 13th century monk whose brief elevation to the papacy ended with resignation, is found among the ‘neutrals’ who neither God nor the Devil wants anything to do with. Dante was hardly an objective observer; he blamed Celestine’s resignation for the elevation of his nemesis Boniface VIII to the Papacy.Celestine was later declared a saint (mostly as a way to make his successor look bad; Vatican backstabbing is nothing new), but even so there has always been a cloud over the idea of papal resignation. Popes are supposed to die with their slippers on; John Paul II’s heroic struggle to carry on with his work as his health and strength failed were seen by many Catholics and non-Catholics as a moving testimony to his faith and dedication. The papacy was his cross, and he carried it like his Master all the way to the end.Benedict, some are already saying, is a shirker. Like Celestine (who, despite instituting the basic rules for papal conclaves that are still followed today, is generally considered to have been an ineffective and isolated leader), Benedict is being called isolated, temperamentally unsuited to the job, too intellectual, too pious, too weak.Perhaps. Via Meadia doesn’t have any moles in the Vatican. A number of unsavory sources, however, have appeared with lurid claims about a gay mafia in the Vatican being at least partly responsible for driving the Pope into retirement. In a story that was widely circulated around the world, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that a committee of cardinals looking into Vatican shenanigans prepared two volumes bound suggestively in red and totaling 300 pages, and that this shocking report was on the Pope’s desk when he made the decision to go. As the New York Times reports, a raft of other scandals and accusations has surfaced as the clerical backbiting and backstabbing gets into high gear.These are interesting stories and no doubt there’s some truth somewhere in the sludge, but the only thing we know for sure is that bitterly opposed factions inside the Vatican are doing their best to damage one another as various groups seek to strengthen their positions before the new Pope is named. Like most university departments, United Nations bureaucracies, Boy Scout troops and political parties, the Vatican is a hotbed of jealousy, competition and back stabbing.The best case for Benedict — or indeed any Pope — to resign before he is no longer up to the job is that in the absence of a strong pope the bureaucrats pretty much have the run of the Vatican. With no strong hand to keep them in check, the inmates take over the asylum. This perhaps is one reason why so many senior voices in the Church express reservations about Benedict’s decision and fear the precedent; if popes step down as they age the long reign of the bureaucrats and the cliques will come to a permanent end. Benedict may not be the last pope to see the need to step down when his powers begin to fade; Catholicism like much of western Christianity is in a state of acute crisis today, and however convenient weak popes are for church bureaucrats, the Vatican can’t afford to go on autopilot during the long slow fadeout of an aging pope.This isn’t just a Catholic crisis. The churches of the so-called Magisterial Reformation are also in trouble: Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed denominations are suffering from the same troubles that afflict the Church of Rome. Many of the problems are familiar elements of the western religious and cultural landscape. Textual criticism has challenged traditional views about the antiquity, accuracy and authority of the scriptures. The social consequences of cheap and easy birth control have opened a rift between traditional religious teachings about human sexuality and the ideas and behavior of many people in the West. The consumer society and the mass media associated with it constantly pull people, perhaps especially young people, away from Christian ideas even as an increasingly secular civil society pushes religion off to the side of the public square. The combination of rapid global communications, explosive church growth in the global South and the deep divide between the conservative social attitudes prevalent in Africa and Asia and the libertarian or even libertine norms of the global North makes it hard for universal institutions to develop a workable set of practices and procedures to cover the whole world.In America the Catholic Church in particular suffers from another acute problem: as the descendants of the 19th and early 20th century mass migrations of Catholics from countries like Ireland, Poland and Italy move farther away from their roots, they are also moving away from an inherited sense of Catholic identity. The ethnic neighborhoods with their parochial schools and civic associations rooted in and centered on parish churches have been fading away since World War Two; increasingly young American Catholics of European origin are emotionally and culturally distant from the Church of their ancestors. If it weren’t for immigration from majority Catholic countries to our south, the American Catholic Church today would be facing many of the issues of dwindling membership that challenge the mainstream liberal Protestant denominations today.
All this would be enough to keep a pontiff busy, but there is an additional set of issues facing the Catholic Church and its major western offshoots today. The most profound problem confronting the western Catholic Church is what might be called a crisis of clericalism. In Catholic life, the priesthood and the episcopate are much, much more than functionaries entrusted with certain ritual responsibilities and liturgical roles. It is not even that the sacrifice of the Mass, held by Catholic doctrine to be a renewal of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, is an act of such world shaking significance from a Catholic perspective that the priests of the Church are entrusted with supernatural power, including the power to forgive sins in God’s name. It is that a combination of historical, cultural and doctrinal factors have given the priestly orders a role in Catholic life that cuts against the grain of modern democratic culture in several ways.
Beyond this, the Church’s clerical nature makes it look and feel illegitimate to many people today. The question of women’s ordination is particularly tough for the Catholic Church given the importance of the priesthood in its life. Since the bishops actually run the Church in a legal sense, with the Pope at their head, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is inevitably seen as a power question and not just a spiritual one. Via Meadia is not inclined to deliver ex cathedra judgements on points of Catholic doctrine so we take no stand on the theological validity of the case against the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, but the Catholic Church’s belief in an exalted spiritual and political role for its all-male clergy puts it at odds with what many in the West have come to see as a vital moral principle of gender equality. This not only creates resistance to Church teaching on a key issue among many members and potential members, it legitimates anti-clericalism among many advocates of women’s rights in the West. The Catholic Church, with its ‘retrograde’ and ‘medieval’ outlook on women’s rights, many feel, must in the name of justice be pushed aside from social and political power wherever possible.The commitment to an all-male clergy also taints Catholic moral stands on issues like abortion and homosexuality for many people. The Church’s opponents have an easy time characterizing Catholic beliefs about sexuality as a form of misogyny and backwardness, and can point in indignation and derision to the sight of an all-male College of Cardinals convening once again to elect yet another male pope.The Church’s clericalism puts it at war with the spirit of the contemporary West at an even deeper level. As observers since de Tocqueville have noted, one of the core features of modern democratic culture is a flattening of hierarchies. The citizens of a democracy are equal before the law; the patterns of deference to established leadership fall away as democracy advances. Add to this that the spread of universal education and, in the last generation, an explosive increase in the number of people receiving higher education, and the scale of the problem that the clergy face becomes more apparent.Through much of western history, the parish priest was often the best educated person in any given community. As such, priests were very much a part of local leadership and even governance. On theological matters, even poorly trained priests were oracles of knowledge; that they conducted the Mass in the holy language of Latin underlined their unique access to knowledge and spiritual realities beyond their parishioners’ grasp. In those times, the idea of an authoritative priesthood more or less matched the realities on the ground. The priests generally were better educated than most of the laypeople they led, and to seek guidance from a priest was generally a commonsense as well as a pious thing to do.Besides its doctrinal basis, the special role of the clergy was deepened by Europe’s political history. During the long Middle Ages church institutions as well as individual clerics propped up weak and understaffed governments with their abilities, resources and moral authority. Many bishops and other clerics ended up in positions of real political power. In much of Europe, bishops and archbishops (who often came from noble families) were territorial magnates: the Pope was not the only churchman to command troops in battle. Cardinals ranked as princes, and Rome was not the only city where the city’s top prelate was also its political ruler.The idea that priests and bishops form a special worldwide order under the leadership of a sovereign Pope led the Papacy to fight hard for recognition of the Vatican as a sovereign city state following its defeat in the wars of Italian unification. This idea remains important to the Church’s conception of itself and of its independence from all secular rulers. The visible Church as embodied in its bishops and priests is the government of Christ’s kingdom on earth. The Catholic Church does not see itself as just another NGO, and its representatives and leaders are the heirs of the apostles and they exercise an authority that transcends earthly governments and is ultimately not accountable to them.Noble as this idea is, it has repeatedly led to abuses that have gotten the Church in trouble. In the past, many clerics abused their privileges and scandalized public opinion in various ways. More recently, it has played a role in the Church’s flawed response to the allegations of clerical misconduct that have mounted to become the most serious moral challenge to the Catholic Church in several hundred years.Some of the Church’s toughest fights with secular rulers have been over jurisdiction. Secular rulers wanted — and still want — one law to cover everyone in their domains. The Catholic Church has fought a mostly losing battle down through the centuries to keep the clergy under Catholic law. In the old days, members of the clergy could claim something akin to diplomatic immunity when it came to trials before secular courts. Priests and others associated with the church could only be tried before ecclesiastical courts — then as now often much milder and slower with many more protections for the accused than the legal systems of many countries.The Church seeks to protect and to discipline its own. That instinct, combined with the universal human motive of not wanting to see ones dirty laundry aired in public, is what led many bishops to try to handle reports of improper sexual relations between priests and congregants through internal discipline and procedures. The protection of the Church’s network of priests and bishops was important enough, in the eyes of some key officials, to justify hushing up scandals, reassigning rather than defrocking suspect priests, and maintaining confidentiality even as predator priests were transferred to new posts where young people and children would be placed in harm’s way.In the past, in the United States and elsewhere, such problems would have been handled on the QT, and civil authorities would not have wanted to meddle in church matters. Bishops would be quietly informed and left to take whatever actions they thought best. But the declining social power as Euro-Catholics gradually drift away from the Church, combined with the publicity attached to legal proceedings and public outrage over the widespread abuses has left the American Church vulnerable to American civil and criminal law in a new and challenging way.Last July, Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was sentenced to prison after being convicted of endangering the welfare of children because he allowed the Reverend William Avery (since then, defrocked by the church and imprisoned by the state for abusing a 10 year old boy) continued access to children after determining that Avery had earlier abused a child. In September of last year, Robert Finn, Bishop of Kansas City, was sentenced to two years probation on similar charges. Nothing like this could have happened thirty or even ten years ago; the power and the prestige of the American Catholic Church is at its lowest ebb since well before the Civil War.Many Catholics object that in some ways the attention paid to the sex scandals in the Church has been unfair. Certainly much of the commentary about these scandals has been. We have been treated to years of unctuous lectures, for example, about the relationship between the Church’s demands for priestly celibacy and the abuse scandals. Yet the wave of scandal has spread well beyond the Church; pedophilia and coverups have been found everywhere from the Boy Scouts to prominent football teams where celibacy was not an issue. If embarrassed commentators have apologized to Catholics for some of the exaggerated and inaccurate attacks, those apologies have not come to Via Meadia‘s attention. Many who follow press coverage in which these scandals are treated as breaking news have missed the point that much of the activity in question took place decades ago, and the pastoral, low key approach of many Catholic bishops to these cases often reflected what many lay psychologists at the time considered best practice. Loyal Catholics who bristle at the unfairness of this coverage have a point.But with all caveats and reservations duly noted and filed, and with the anti-Catholic bias of some reporters and commentators duly acknowledged and discounted, the scandals are still horrible enough, and the pattern of response so inept and institutionally protective that the damage to American Catholicism — perhaps especially among the Euro-Catholics who in any case were edging towards the door and who find pedophilia scandals the perfect excuse to leave in a huff — will be profound and historic.Unfortunately, scandals of this kind have emerged in many countries, undermining the Church at a time of religious questioning and social change. It is very hard for an organization widely seen as protecting pedophiles and relegating women to second class citizenship to get a hearing for a moral agenda that in many ways goes against the wishes of human nature and the spirit of the times.That is particularly true when the core claim of the Catholic Church — that its hierarchy is both divinely instituted and vested with a unique power of infallibility on matters of faith and morals — runs so deeply counter to the democratic, pragmatic and questioning spirit of the modern world. In an age when people doubt authority, the Church claims to embody authority. In an age when hierarchies are suspect and increasingly flattened, the Church asserts the dignity and necessity of hierarchy and rank. In an age of individualism the Church demands conformity.Benedict’s successors have their work cut out for them. As a young theologian, Benedict participated in the Second Vatican Council, then seen as a work of aggiornamento, the updating of the Catholic Church to meet the challenges of a new time. As his reign draws to a close, the Church is once again at odds with the world around it.Via Meadia believes that a vibrant, strong Catholic Church is a necessary element in American and world culture. We share the sorrow and pain so many Catholics feel over the troubles besetting this ancient and glorious citadel of faith. We hope and believe that the miraculous powers of renewal that time and again have brought the Catholic Church back from the brink will emerge again in this century.But we agree with Pope Benedict XVI that this deeply troubled institution needs a firm hand at the helm. Not since the Reformation has the Church been so shaken to its core; what is needed now is nothing less than a movement of renewal and reform as intense and demanding as the Counter Reformation itself. As in the earlier crisis, the solution won’t be found in diluting Catholic spirituality and faith. It’s an intensification that the Church needs, combined with a ruthless purging of the unfit from positions of trust and a recovery of the spirit of outreach and evangelism that marked the Church at its most compelling. When new and unconventional religious orders and associations are forming, when controversial new art is informed by a Catholic spirit, when rock solid adherence to dogma combines with reckless and daring innovation in the realm of outreach: then the Catholic recovery will be well underway. Bureaucrats everywhere will mostly loathe all this and long for the days of sleepy routine and quiet corruption; strong popes and bishops and mothers superior will have to fight hard to drag the Church, kicking and screaming, into a new and better day.