HOW HUMBLE AND HOW LOVING A PAPACY?

By Paul

Much has been made of late regarding the loving humility and the Christian charity of the new pope.  He has been compared to John Paul II in terms of both warmth and personal charisma, and that comparison may be accurate.

Each of these prelates seems to have, or to have had, a special place in his heart for the poor of the world.  And the poor, let it be said, are surely in need of a strong advocate, inasmuch as they represent the very definition of powerlessness in society.  By contrast, those with money are those with influence, and can for the most part do and get what they want.  The poor get what is left over, if indeed anything at all is left.  So, I applaud the pope in this regard.  It is surely a very good thing for the poor to have friends in high places, and it is difficult to think of a higher position in society than that of Pontifex Maximus, at least in religious circles.  To note just how high an office this is let us just remember for a moment that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, was the first hereditary Pontifex Maximus (of the old religion).  It is often said that this title, Pontifex, comes from a combination of the Latin words “pons” and “facere,” and that they translate to mean “builder of bridges.” More probably, however, it relates to an old Etruscan term, and refers instead to a preparer of the roads.  It was the job of the Pontifex Maximus to keep the “pax deorum,” or peace with the gods.  This meant being a sort of highly valued go-between, mediating the way and conjoining gods and men, and helping people stay on the path that took them to the gods.

Given this regal background, to say nothing of the later trappings of the Imperial Papacy accrued over the centuries, the question suggests itself whether a person today can for long remain humble and lowly while occupying such a lofty place in life.  Let us hope that it is possible.  Let us give our best wishes to Francis I, who apparently took his name from that of Francis of Assisi, a saint made famous by his humility.

So far, at least, it would seem that the new pope is determined to maintain this simple demeanor, that same ability and willingness to reach out to ordinary people, and not to hide behind the truly formidable trappings of the Roman Pontiff.  His immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, was by contrast less successful at this, if it was a goal of his at all.  And so Catholics are rejoicing, and feeling relieved that they may have a more human leader at the helm these days.  In his recent installation ceremony, the new pope even spoke of the need to protect the environment, which must be something of a first for the head of a major religion.

Still, not everyone rejoices in quite the same way, and that is where we will have to wait and see just how inclusive the new pope’s love and humility turns out to be.  That’s because the truth of the matter is that not everyone is impartially and uniformly equal within the Catholic Church.  Let us take as an example first of all the role of women in the Church.  It goes without saying that we saw not a single representative of exactly half of all humanity within the conclave that elected the humble Francis I.  Nor were there any women in red occupying any of the balconies flanking the loggia from which Francis I gave his first “urbi et orbi” blessing (to the city and to the world), at which he asked for all to pray for him.   Nor will any Catholic see a woman on the altar celebrating mass on any Sunday, or any other day of the week, anywhere in the world, because women are shockingly banned from the priesthood, even though the reasons for this are entirely historically based and not at all rooted in any of the Christian scriptures.

But let us simply take for granted that it is unlikely, if not unthinkable, that Francis I, or any future pope in our lifetime, will ever change this policy, even though it is essentially merely a habit (and a bad one at that), a tradition, a custom, an historical norm.  We are told, let us not reach too high, let us not attempt to overreach, lest the men in charge of the church be made to feel uncomfortable to the point of becoming apoplectic.  All right, who wants to be responsible for giving an old man a heart attack?

Are there, however, other ways in which the new pope could reach out to and make women feel more valued, more included, more truly part of the church many of them love?  In my view there is.  In what could be both a simple and a highly dramatic gesture, why not consider allowing women to become deacons?  Yes, it is true that the diaconate has long been considered a step in becoming a priest, and when I was a young man and still considering myself Catholic, deacons were by definition priests-in-training only.  However, much has changed since that time, and today there are deacons aplenty in many Catholic churches.  They are so-called lay people, who never have any intention of going on to become priests.  Nor are such lay-deacons required to remain celibate.  It seems to me, therefore, not such a stretch, not so much an unthinkable step for the pope to cast the mantle of inclusion over women in this regard and to allow them to take on this important role.  It would be a wonderfully welcomed step, one that would help many Catholic women feel a deep sense of hope, of joy, and of empowerment within the church that has for too long regarded them as second-class citizens.

There is in addition another whole swath of humanity, which also appears to exist outside of the humility and love preached by Francis I, namely, gay people.  Then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is on record as having said that gay marriage is “destructive of God’s plan,” and he claimed that the adoption of orphans on the part of loving same-sex parents is tantamount to child endangerment.  Are these the words of a loving and humble man, it has to be asked?  In fact, it could well be said that it is especially incumbent on the Catholic Church these days to tread carefully when it comes to matters of sex and love, as its own history is a clouded one in this regard.  Even in Argentina, the new pontiff’s home country, only some 25% of Catholics actually attend church on Sunday, and virtually no one follows the church’s teaching on contraception and birth control.  The sordid and depressing details of child abuse on the part of Catholic clergy in virtually every country where there are Catholics is so well known that it hardly bears repetition here.  And divorce, too, is as common among Catholics as it is in the general population.

Love is a great goal toward which we all ought to constantly strive.  It is what makes this sometimes cold and lonely world a place where all of us can find solace and a degree of happiness.  Is it, therefore, a good thing for the head of an organization that professes to live by the love of God and by the teachings of Jesus Christ, that great Avatar of Love, to preach exclusion and separation?

When I was still a monk, I well remember one of the great hymns of the church, sung in the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant.  It began: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”  In translation, this means: “Where (there is) charity and love, there God is (too).”  There are several words in Latin depicting the idea of love, and although some authors have used them interchangeably, it is generally believed that “caritas” refers to the greater love of all humankind, beyond the purely personal, while “amor” applies to the love we feel toward those who are closest to us.  Note that the hymn, whose author is unknown but which has been in existence for close to a thousand years, speaks of both.

So, let us hope – and those who pray, let them pray – that Francis I will open his heart to all people.  We all ought to rejoice that he is so keenly attuned to the needs of the poor, and that is a good thing.  May he continue this crucial mission throughout his papacy.  But again, is it truly commensurate with Christian love (and charity), is it part of God’s plan to willingly shut out whole other segments of humanity in the process?  If the Catholic Church has a role to play in the world of the 21st century, its leader must embrace all people, no matter what their race, color, creed, social or economic standing, sex, or sexual orientation might be.  Otherwise, he may be an affable and avuncular old man, but he is also one who lives by the code of a creed no longer relevant in today’s world.

 

RETIREMENT, A DEGREE OF RETRENCHMENT, BUT NOT RETREAT

By Paul

What are we to make of Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he is abdicating the papacy and retiring?

It has been said that he is the first pope in almost 600 years to do so, ever since Gregory XII in 1415. But that may not be a fully appropriate comparison, inasmuch as Gregory’s stepping down was done under a good deal of duress. It was the time of the so-called Great Western Schism, and there were simultaneously as many as three popes, all claiming legitimacy: one in Rome (Gregory XII), one in Avignon (John XXIII), and another in Pisa (Benedict XIII). Things got very messy for a while, but finally the first two resigned (again, under a good deal of pressure). Benedict XIII refused to do so, however, and got himself excommunicated instead. Finally, Martin V took over, and things began to stabilize a bit.

What may be something of a more even match is the freely, indeed eagerly, tendered resignation of Celestine V in 1294. Known for his great asceticism, Celestine (who had founded a stricter order of monks, subsequently referred to as the Celestines, under the general rubric of the Benedictine rule) was virtually almost forced into accepting the papal role. He even tried to hide in the forest when they came to get him, but the pursuing cardinals eventually caught up with him. He reigned for just over 5 months, ineptly so according to all accounts, probably because he had no interest in it and did not want the job in the first place. When he finally resigned, he said that he did so because of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, the deficiencies of his own strength, the perverseness of the people, and his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”

I’m not sure that people are any less perverse today than they were in the 13th century, but that is not among the reasons Benedict XVI has given for his retirement. It seems as though it’s because he feels himself to be too old, too infirm, and just no longer capable of attending to his duties as Supreme Pontiff. Fair enough, I guess. He is, after all, an 85 year old man with Parkinson’s disease.

Still, this decision leaves a lot of questions in its wake. Let’s just say that the papacy is not immune, nor has it ever been throughout most of its history, from politics. How could it be? The position, and therefore the man (never a woman, it goes without saying) who holds it, wields far too much power in the world. This remains true even in today’s admittedly more secular society. A friend of mine, who will remain anonymous because I don’t have his permission to name names, believes that Benedict might have resigned specifically so that he could have a hand, albeit covertly, in the selection of a new pope. The thinking, apparently, goes that Benedict, realizing his growing physical and mental weakness, decided to throw in the towel while he still had control of his faculties. And that he did this so as to have the opportunity to manipulate things behind the scenes in the upcoming conclave (the assemblage of voting cardinals that choses the new pope), with the express purpose of ensuring that a fully vetted conservative would take over as his successor.

I have no way of knowing if this was actually part of Benedict’s thinking, but again he would clearly not be the first pope in history to make a decision based on the desire to advance a certain political agenda. Indeed, Benedict’s record is a distinctly mixed one, to say the very least. On the one hand, he comes across as a somewhat benign white haired old man, a shy hermit, and a scholar. He may in fact, as an individual, possess these traits, but as pope it cannot also be denied that he has done some very damaging things.

The first, and possibly most injurious, among these is the great pedophile scandal of the Catholic Church. I am not suggesting that the pope himself physically harmed any children. However, in his role as cardinal – and later as pope – there can be little doubt that he knew of many hundreds of priests, possibly more, who did do personal and psychological harm to children under the guise of their priestly duties. And he did nothing to bring this to light. Instead, time and time again, just as we saw with Cardinal Law of Boston and Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, to name only a few co-conspirators, he made decisions which held the reputation and the finances of the organization of the Church as paramount, to the detriment of the wellbeing of children who had been grievously harmed by priests and other religious.

Other dubious acts, decisions, and hurtful comments come to mind, as well. He showed himself inordinately insensitive to Muslims early on in his career, he did little to shed light on the scandalous and illegal practices of the Vatican bank, and he inflicted great harm on gay people the world over. His extraordinary comments regarding the latter will, in fact, go down as among the most ignominious in history.

Benedict XVI has said that homosexual acts are evil and “intrinsically disordered.” Regarding same sex marriage, he is on record as accusing gay people of manipulating their God-given identities in order to suit their sexual choices, and in so doing actually destroying the human creature in the process. In regard to the adoption of children into loving gay homes, he has said that this represents an attack on the family, and has even gone so far as to claim that it is a threat to world peace. He appears to insist that being gay is a choice, not a fact of nature, and has said that, in “choosing to be gay,” man is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God. Are these, we have to ask, the words of a shy and benign hermit/scholar?

And yet, in spite of all, I do not wish the pope ill. Indeed, what I wish him is enlightenment. And I can only hope – and yes, even pray – that he will some day come to see the error of his ways, and recognize that the inertia and inaction he has demonstrated when it comes to protecting children, the intransigence and obfuscation he manifested regarding the Church’s finances, and the harsh and hateful words he has spoken about gay people and others all have consequences in the real world.

I wish him enlightenment, but I frankly do not expect it. What I expect instead is that some day in the not too distant future, Benedict XVI (or however he chooses to call himself once he resigns), will be walking along the well-tended garden path behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and he will run into the new pope. I expect the conversation will be brief, but pointed, and that he will urge his successor to follow all the misguided promulgations and policies that he, himself was responsible for. In other words, I expect retirement from him, and a degree of retrenchment as an individual. I expect he will spend his time in prayer and reflection and study, and I can only hope that in the process he achieves a modicum of wisdom. But, sadly, what I do not expect is a clear statement, or any retreat whatsoever, from the hurtful and damaging declamations and policies the retiring pope has unnecessarily inflicted upon an already distressed and suffering world.