In a recent panel of the cartoon Non Sequitur, the young feminist Danae is told why she can’t be the next pope. In response to “Why not?,” daddy says: “Well… the most obvious reasons are, you’re not indoctrinated in the Catholic Church, you’re still a kid, and you’re a girl.” Later that night when one of her stuffed animals says, “Uh… really? He said you’re overqualified to be the pope?,” Danae replies, “Yep, that’s the way I heard it.”
As someone who’s not even remotely connected to the Catholic Church but who has always been intrigued by the pageantry, the drama, the contradictions, the history, the scandals, and the color of the smoke when the new guy (gal?) is elected, I got a good laugh from the cartoon. Considering that Pope Benedict XVI’s previous job was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor institution to the Inquisition, I’ve been following with some interest the news of his sudden abdication a few weeks ago. To add humor to the mystery, he’s now taken on the academic title of “pontiff emeritus.”
Lest we forget, the former Cardinal Ratzinger persecuted and suppressed the so-called “liberation theology” in Latin America, and banned, censored or excommunicated liberal clerics in Europe and North America, earning himself such nicknames as “grand inquisitor” and, among his fellow Germans, “Der Panzerkardinal.” In addition, he has continued the indefensible policy of excluding women from any meaningful role in the church.
Five centuries ago, just a few years before Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” the Catholic reformer the Reverend John Colet delivered a blisteringly frank homily to a cathedral full of English bishops and senior clergy. To an unamused audience, he argued that “never was there more necessity and never did the state of the church more need” a profound effort at purification–not away from Catholic belief, but back toward living it more zealously, more honestly, more faithfully, as though this world and the next depended on it, because they do.
Like most people, I have no real idea why this pope decided to call it quits. But I’m glad he did. He reminded me of one of the elevated members of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980s when the world witnessed a series of aging and out-of-it General Secretaries who came and went in quick succession.
In Benedict’s words, as broadcast over The Vatican Radio website, on 10 Feb:
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
“Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects.”
Prayer and suffering? How about addressing the real problems of your flock, such as poverty, sexual abuse scandals and pedophilia, celibacy amongst the priesthood, the ordination of women, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, and Vatican money laundering to name a few. All one has to do is watch the documentary Mea Maximus Culpa: Silence in the House of God by Alex Gibney to wonder where this pope has been.
Perhaps life in Rome can get back to “normal” when we get past all the pomp and circumstance of Benedict’s departure from the papacy to become a humble man – “I’m just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth.” I have to scratch my head, though, wondering how his ilk ever rose to the top. When he says he plans to spend the rest of his life in prayer, I wonder if he has enough time left to atone for all his deeds and “defects.”
It’s common knowledge now that the resignation is an action virtually without precedent. No pope has resigned in modern times. And no pope has ever resigned for reasons of failing health. In addition, only one pope, Celestine V of the 13th century, who never wanted to be pope in the first place, issued an edict confirming the right of the pope to abdicate, and then promptly did.
So in the midst of all this discussion, I went back to read The Grand Inquisitor, Chapter V of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In a second coming, Christ appears in Spain during “the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day to the glory of God, and ‘in the splendid auto da fe the wicked heretics were burnt.’”
After the inquisitor has questioned Christ, who remains silent throughout, why he has come back “to hinder us,” the old man declares,
“…All has been given by Thee to the Pope, they say, and all, therefore, is still in the Pope’s hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time, at least.”
At the end of the interrogation, the inquisitor concludes,
“Know that I fear Thee not… What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, tomorrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee. I have said all that I had to say and thus the argument is settled.”
One can only imagine Christ posing the question “Quo Vadis, whither goest though?” when asked about the direction of this church of the 1600s or today’s church as it wrestles with more than just its direction.
So as we settle in to see how this strange tale plays out, maybe there will be a good ending. Perhaps someone might even emerge who will echo the pleas of the distant John Colet, who simply wanted to restore theology, rejuvenate Christianity, and direct people to see the scripture as their guide through life. This may not be everyone’s path, but it’s a start.
Quo vadis, next churchly prince?