Religious Affairs: Papal attraction

Catholicism’s premature change of guard may produce a sorely missing north-south bridge.

Pope Benedict XVI   311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi )
Pope Benedict XVI 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi )
Back in 1415, with the decadent Borgio papacy nearly 80 years away and the Reformation’s challenge more than a century away, there was no hint that catastrophe was approaching Catholicism itself, even when a three-way battle for the Holy See made a pope resign.
Now, as Pope Benedict XVI prepares to retire on Thursday and his successor’s selection process starts Friday, it takes no church historian to realize that the world’s best-organized faith is in deep moral, institutional and political crisis.
Similarly, it takes no fortune-teller to predict that the next pope will be expected to impact an embattled Vatican’s relevance in a world wedged between a largely post-religious north and an increasingly Islamist south.
The 117 cardinals and archbishops who will convene Friday in the Sistine Chapel are expected to produce a new pope within 24 days, during which they will meet daily in order to hear and scrutinize each other before finally selecting someone in their midst and sending white smoke to billow through the chimney atop St. Peter’s Square.
THE MOST vexing crisis pervading the conclave will be the sex-abuse scandals that have shaken the Catholic world in recent years.
The abuses, whose main victims were thousands of boys ages 10 to 14, resulted in cover-ups, investigations, prosecutions, convictions and high-profile resignations – most memorably Boston’s Archbishop Bernard Francis Law in 2002 – as well as a flood of lawsuits that have forced some dioceses to shut down entire churches and some to declare bankruptcy.
The span of the sex-abuse allegations – multiple countries in four continents over more than half a century – has made some suspect that, just like the dioceses of San Diego, Portland and Tuscon were compelled to declare financial bankruptcy, the entire Church might as well declare moral bankruptcy.
The consequent institutional crisis, which the National Catholic Reporter has described as one of the worst in the Church’s history, comes at a time when Catholicism is steadily losing followers.
The US has lost more than 1,000 parishes over the past two decades, and European church attendance has plunged to well under 50 percent even in Catholic bastions like Spain and Ireland.
While these trends have been accelerated by the recent scandals, they also reflect a rich West’s post-religious Zeitgeist highlighted by abandoned churches’ reincarnation as quaint real estate projects.
This, in essence, is the major internal challenge Catholicism faces as its top clergy gather to anoint their new leader. Though this crisis had long matured by the time Benedict began his eight-year papacy, the image problem the Church faced when he entered office has not changed and was in fact exacerbated with this papacy’s own share of brouhahas, from financial disorders in the Vatican’s innermost banking to document leaks from the pope’s innermost chambers.
Beyond image, there is no indication that the deeper theological value at play in the sex scandals – clerical celibacy – will be seriously reviewed any time soon. The conservatives who have efficiently resisted contraception and family planning are believed to vastly outnumber the liberals, a ratio that leaves consideration of priestly marriages and feminine priesthood highly unlikely.
Moreover, with Islam steadily expanding in Europe while evangelical churches sprout from Brazil to Africa, Catholicism is challenged not only morally but also geographically. Symbolically, Rome’s own great mosque, whose construction was financed by Saudi Arabia, seats 12,000 worshippers representing an estimated one million Muslims throughout Italy whose quest to build yet more mosques is facing political resistance.
Understandably, then, some are beginning to eulogize Catholicism as a declining faith whose colorful ceremonies and sprawling business interests can no longer conceal its moral crisis and political irrelevance.
Such eulogies have been made in the past and proved premature.
BACK IN 1978, with some 100 million Catholics trapped beyond the Iron Curtain while communism coran the world, Stalin’s famous disparagement of the pope as a general with no divisions seemed vindicated.
Hardly a decade of history had turned on its head.
The daring appointment of a charismatic Polish bishop as pope was soon followed by hugely attended masses beyond the Iron Curtain. Communism’s subsequent downfall was at least partly related to Catholicism’s underestimated energy and untapped resources. Catholicism had displayed such resilience previously, during the Counter-Reformation, when it retook much of the turf it had previously lost to Protestantism.
It follows that when the Conclave convenes next Friday, it will try to define the turf it must conquer this century if it is to restore its diminishing historic relevance.
While the Church must find a way to restore its following in Europe and North America, that is essentially a defensive battle.
To go on the offensive the way it did under John Paul’s leadership, the Vatican will have to seek a geopolitical niche where it can have a relative advantage. And in today’s perplexed international system, such a niche actually exists and begs to be filled. Circling the entire globe, it runs along the cleavage that separates the rich north from the poor south.
With Islam mainly in the south, Protestantism mostly in the north and other faiths lacking global reach and pretensions, Catholicism is the only religion firmly positioned to suspend bridges across this fault line. Similarly, with the rich world perplexed in the face of capitalism’s moral failures and economic malfunctions in recent years, the Cardinals may think they can inspire a counter-greed Zeitgeist of chastity and charity.
The selection of a charismatic pope from the Third World would help change the subject from recent decades’ sex scandals and the affairs that haunted Benedict’s papacy to issues of wealth and poverty and north-south relations.
Then again, to make such a choice, the Conclave must share a sense of historic urgency of the sort it felt in the face of communism’s assault. The Italian names that have been touted – Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasca of Genoa – like Canada’s Marc Ouellet, may fail to deliver such dramatic change. Then again, a choice like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is considered problematic because of his anti- Islamic militancy. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines has been more careful and, at 56, is also younger than the others, who are between the ages of 65 and 72.
The next pope may well be someone whose name has not come up at all. But whoever he is, the choice will immediately be interpreted as a statement either for or against change. The Church, after all, did not always confront history’s challenges as successfully as it fought communism. Next month’s choice will therefore be judged by the extent that it resembles one of two precedents: the vision with which the papacy confronted communism or the impotence with which it met fascism.
WHILE RELEVANT for a broad range of issues, from clerical morality and Western greed to north-south relations and Islamist expansion, one issue that does not stand to be affected by the papal succession is the Jewish world.
Theologically, the transition since Vatican II’s retreat from Christianity’s historic accusations against the Jews has since matured and become a quiet harmony, albeit one where many still find room for improvement.
Politically, the Vatican’s full recognition of the Jewish state two decades ago and the papal visits here by both John Paul and Benedict have cemented a normal relationship between the Jewish people and its former archenemy, a relationship Israel can only dream to someday have with its current enemies.
Ironically, the Vatican’s current relations with the Jews are much better than its relations with the millions of disenfranchised Catholics whom the new pope will be expected to somehow appease.
The writer is a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.