Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What is Benedict's Problem?

The Holy Father
greets the faithful
from the window
of his study
In my most recent posting I mentioned the need for the Church to achieve some sort of consensus on its mission and role in the world—not simply a magisterial consensus or even a theological one, but rather a program that excites the Church from the Pope on down to aboriginal Catholic in Australia, the illegal immigrant Catholic in the California peach orchard, to the Polish Catholic dockyard worker in Gdansk, to Catholic Catechist in Zimbabwe.  And of course—to you and to me.  
     The Second Vatican Council had made some good headway in this.  I am a product of the Pre-Conciliar and the Conciliar Church.  I remember the great excitement when John XXIII called the Council.  I remember the first time I heard English spoken in the Mass.  I, as a teenager, was one of the first lectors reading the epistle in our parish church.  I remember hearing the organ (our parish church was rather poor but we had a magnificent pipe organ) open up full glory for the first time into a stirring rendition of the “Protestant” hymn “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”  I remember those “bible vigils” and the first ecumenical prayer services at Thanksgiving.  We got off to a good beginning.  Along came parish councils and finance boards—good idea.  Even more English, and less Latin;  I liked that.  Paul VI’s revision of the Liturgy;  Bible Study and Adult Education;  Eucharistic Ministers—it all made sense to me.   Communion in Both Kinds—I thought that it was about time we listened to the Divine Command: “take and drink.”    I graduated from college (Philosophy and History) and went on to study Theology.  I read Avery Dulles and Karl Rahner and Bishop Robinson and Raymond Brown.  I also read a “minor theologian,” little known at the time, Josef Ratzinger. I also read Jerome and Augustine and Ambrose and some—admittedly not much—Aquinas. (As a result, I am pretty much of an Augustinian more than a Thomist in my basic outlook—and sorry to all you neo-cons, but I am happy about that.)  It all came together for me and began to make sense and I saw how the Council, far from introducing “new” ideas into our Catholic life and practice was reaching into its storehouse of the ancient and the true and retrieving the best of its earliest wisdom and practices and adapting them to a contemporary world.  I loved it.  I still do.  I think the two books that most influenced me—and continue to do so—are Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and J.A.T. Robinson’s The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology.  Theology was not to be the study that defined my life’s work, however.  While I continue to read in theology, I went on and earned a second Master’s Degree and then a Doctorate in History (Medieval and Early Modern Europe). 
      One of the youngest—indeed, I believe the youngest of the Bishops a the Council was the forty-two year old Karol Wojtyla.  At the time he was auxiliary bishop of Krakow, though by the third and fourth sessions of the Council (1964-65) he had been named Archbishop of that city.   Wojtyla showed mixed enthusiasm for the Council.   He made two interventions during the Council, one for the Decree on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudiam et Spes) and the other on behalf of liberty of conscience (Dignitatis Humanae).  I have heard—and I want to make this clear that I have not been able to discover one way or the other—that he did not support the decree Christus Dominus on the role of bishops and its theology of collegiality.  Certainly as pope, while he was supportive of many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in particular regarding inter-religious and ecumenical dialogues, he either never quite grasped the idea of collegiality or he deliberately blocked its implementation and development.  Whatever progress had been made in decentralizing church authority, empowering bishops in their dioceses and the national episcopal conferences to make decisions regarding disciplinary (including liturgical)  matters in their jurisdictions (bishops) or regions (conferences) in the years since the council was soon reversed.  Indeed the Roman Curia’s control over local jurisdictions is stronger than ever and the bishops have been—in practice, not theory—reduced to papal lieutenants in ways unthinkable under the predecessors of John XXIII.  Indeed after the feisty response of several Bishops’ conferences to Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae which reinforced the Church’s traditional ban on artificial contraception, Wojtyla, elected pope in 1978, began selecting bishops who would understand their role to be to carry out papal (and curial) directives and not see themselves as collaborators with the Pope in governing the Church.  (One of the entries I hope to get to one of these days is on the marked difference in today’s American episcopate from that of thirty years ago.)  I think we need to see that collegiality, other than in its ritual expression of concelebration with the pope on certain occasions such as a papal visit or the bestowal of the pallia, is dead.   I do believer, however, it is not to be buried but to be raised to newness of life when this winter of ecclesial discontent is over.  Unfortunately, by that time I myself will be awaiting resurrection too.  
     John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, in his salad days was an ardent supporter of the Council and its agenda but through the years has grown somewhat doubtful of its fruit.  That is understandable.  As a young (late thirties) theologian, a peritus (theological advisor) to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne—one of the most liberal voices in the Council—Ratzinger was in the company of the leading theologians of his day—Rahner, Schillebbckx, Küng, deLubac, Daniélou—other than  all his seniors.  Moreover the group of prelates around Frings was the most liberal wing of the Council including Cardinals Koenig of Vienna, the Jesuit Bea, the Dutch Alfrink, and the other architects of the Council.  It was a heady experience and Ratzinger’s demotion to academia when the Council finished must have seemed exceptionally boring, even for one who cherished the turgid as did this young German theologian.  What caused Ratzinger/Benedict to become so critical of the Council—or, as his defenders put it—to the interpretation of the Council so prevalent in the years immediately following it?  (One cannot say that a bishop, much less the Pope himself, is “critical” of a Council as that would undermine all authority in the Church, including his own as a Council, even Vatican II, is an embodiment of magisterial authority.  Criticism must be softened to challenge not the Council itself, but the “interpretation” given it by named or unnamed persons who are allegedly “abusing” its authentic meaning.)     Some scholars and writers claim, and I think accurately, that the cultural shift of the late sixties—a shift not within the Church as much as in society at large—where respect for traditional authority was rejected (Americans: think Vietnam, 1968 Democratic Convention, Woodstock, Watergate) shocked the maturing theologian who while intellectually liberal was so culturally conservative.   The authority of the Church was challenged too, even from within high levels of the Church, in the almost universally negative reaction to Humanae Vitae, a reaction that deeply pained the sensitive Paul VI.  I suspect the equally hypersensitive Josef Ratziner felt a deep personal concern for the unhappiness of the “Hamlet Pope.”   I would point out that at this same time not only was there a revolt against established authority, religious, civil and even familial, but there was, in Europe at least, a cultural revolution in which the “new generation” walked away from hallowed institutions ranging from the Church to Europe’s cultural heritage.  The Rolling Stones replaced Mozart and cannabis replaced the Eucharist as the sacrament of communion.  This collapse of culture has undoubtedly been a shock for Ratzinger as one of the professed aims of his papacy is the restoration of Christian culture (I am of a divided mind to put that term in quotations) to Europe.   I mentioned that Josef Ratzinger has, like Paul VI before him, a (hyper)sensitive personality.  This is not to say that he overreacts to situations based on perceived slights or insults.  To the contrary, both men (have) displayed a patient long-suffering.  But this too is problematic in a prelate who has pastoral responsibilities whether as Archbishop of Munich, as the very public Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or as Pope.  The nerves of steel to make the tough unpopular decisions and then get a good night’s sleep for the next day’s work—a quality displayed by John Paul II—are  incompatible with a sensitive soul.  Paul VI’s anguish earned him the sobriquet “the Hamlet Pope,” but it seems that Benedict may find himself suffering even more intensely than Paul even as he holds the papal office in a time even more complex and critical, far more complex and critical, than his predecessor but two. 
     Finally let us remember that when all is said and done, Benedict is not a spring chicken (a term one of the small children around here just asked the meaning of, having heard it on the television blaring across the room from me.)  Why is anyone surprised that an eighty four year old man favors communion on the tongue, mass celebrated versus apsidem (facing the wall), and likes a more antique style of furniture in his apartment and some more old fashioned clothes on himself and the nuns who bring him his breakfast?  Let the man be an old man, for heaven’s sake.  You want a pope who jogs bare-chested and in shorts, elect a young pope next time. 

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