(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 13. Note: this appeared before the election of the new pope.)
It’s highly ironic that the resignation of the pope, who is seen by more than one billion Catholics as the world’s holiest man, was accompanied by the sort of feverish gossip and speculation normally associated with a Hollywood marital bustup, or perhaps the picking of a Melbourne Cup winner.There has been rampant conjecture about what caused him to throw in the towel – the first pope to have done so for 600 years. Although Catholic law allows the pope to step down, it’s assumed that the appointment is for life.
This is connected with the belief that the pope is chosen by God and only God can remove him, which explains why some conservative Catholics were shocked and disappointed at Pope Benedict’s announcement.So why did he choose to go? He said he was too tired to do the job properly – which, from a secular perspective, seems a fair call at 85. It’s suggested he didn’t want to suffer the fate of his predecessor, John Paul II, who spent his last years trying to run the Church while weakened by Parkinson’s disease and osteoarthritis.
But the rumour mills in Rome were suggesting other reasons. Some say Benedict quit because he knew of a looming crisis within the Church that he didn’t want to deal with, although it’s hard to imagine what could be worse than the sexual abuse scandal that has already blackened the name of the Catholic hierarchy.Others suggest he was disheartened by his inability to make headway against the Vatican bureaucracy. Pope Benedict, according to Vatican watchers, was first and foremost an intellectual, with little experience at running an institution – least of all a bureaucracy as byzantine as the Roman Curia, Catholicism’s governing body.
In particular, it’s said that he faced obstruction in his attempts to deal with the sexual abuse crisis, astonishing though that may seem.There is some evidence too that the pope no longer felt he could trust some of his closest aides. This emerged after his butler, charged with passing confidential papers to a journalist, told prosecutors that from conversations he overheard while serving meals, it was clear the pope was being kept in the dark about scandals in the Vatican.
On top of all this, reports persist of financial skulduggery involving the Vatican Bank – not a new phenomenon, as anyone with memories of the murky Banco Ambrosiano affair of the early 1980s can attest.In that saga, the American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank, was heavily implicated in corrupt dealings involving the Mafia and a secret Masonic lodge called P2.
British author David Yallop – the same man who wrote Beyond Reasonable Doubt, about the conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas for the murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe – produced a book entitled In God’s Name, in which he put forward an elaborate conspiracy theory surrounding the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, whose reign lasted only 33 days.I was a practising Catholic at the time, and well remember my shock on reading Yallop’s book. If even one quarter of it was true, it was an appalling exposé of moral rot within the Vatican.
It’s reasonable to conclude from what we have read lately (much of it written by Catholic journalists) that the Catholic Church is no different from any other human institution. Wherever power is concentrated there is also ambition, vanity, rivalry, envy and greed. Devout Catholics naively assume their leaders are above all that, but of course they are not.But enough about possible explanations for the pope’s resignation. The more pressing question now is who will replace him, and what direction the Church will take under its new leader.
Many within the Church would say it desperately needs a new pope who will throw open the windows of the Vatican, metaphorically speaking, and let in some sunlight and fresh air.There seems little prospect of that happening if the conclave of cardinals reverts to tradition and elects an Italian pope. There have been 217 Italian popes, far more than any other nationality. For the past few centuries their domination has been almost total, broken in modern times only by Benedict, a German, and his Polish predecessor.
Italy remains a powerful influence in the Church, with half as many cardinals as the entire Southern Hemisphere, where more than half the world’s Catholics now live. But the Italian cardinals are too closely associated with the status quo, and for many Catholics that means corruption and stagnancy.In fact it’s time to ask whether any European pope can revitalise the Church and restore its moral authority. The truth is that the Church in Europe and North America is in steady decline; the real dynamism and growth is in the New World.
That’s evident even in New Zealand, where Asian priests increasingly make up for the shortage of New Zealanders in the priesthood, and where congregations in many urban churches reflect the rapidly changing ethnicity of our cities.I believe that whoever succeeds Benedict will inherit not one Church, but two. On the one hand there is the Church represented by the Vatican and its discredited, calcified hierarchy – an institution that remains stubbornly opaque and inscrutable in an age that increasingly demands transparency and accountability.
Then there is the Church “on the ground”, which is a different thing altogether.Although no longer a practising Catholic, I still occasionally attend Mass when staying with family members. And what I often see when I go to Mass is a vibrant congregation of believers; good, devout people who remain loyal Catholics despite having been repeatedly let down by so-called “princes of the church” – people like the disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, recently forced to resign after admitting “inappropriate” behaviour with young priests.
It seems to me that these people – the “faithful” as they known in Catholic jargon – remain committed to their religion despite the Church’s leadership, rather than because of it. The first priority of whoever becomes pope should be to rebuild their trust in, and respect for, the Vatican.Catholics deserve better than to see their Church shamed by some of the deeply flawed old men who control it. You have to wonder what Jesus Christ would make of them.