The news came out yesterday that the See of Rome will be vacant as from the end of this month and there will be a conclave to elect a new Pope. The bookmakers are taking bets and calculating probabilities, based on I don’t know what expert advice or data. We know that Benedict XVI intends to retire into a life of prayer and study. Will he spend the rest of his life in the old Vatican nunnery we read about or return to Germany? At this point, speculation is unhealthy and idle, and will do none of us any good.
What is still interesting me is to read informed viewpoints, not only from those who applaud every gesture of Benedict XVI, but also those with a more critical viewpoint. Other than the racaille calling out for same-sex marriage and women cardinals, there are some sensitive spirits around. I already quoted Damian Thompson who is a respected journalist and a devout Roman Catholic. The American journalist Rod Dreher has written Viewpoint: Benedict a disappointing leader in troubled times in our very mainstream BBC news. Former Catholic? I bristled, wondering whether he was now a militant atheist. No, originally a Methodist, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and again to Orthodoxy – a traditionally-minded Christian likely to have a more interesting critical viewpoint than many in his profession.
The real issue in the Church, the elephant in the room, has been, since the pontificate of John Paul II and before, clericalism. That would be, in this journalist’s analysis and that of many others, the underlying cause of the complicity by silence of just about the entire clerical caste in the sexual abuse of children by priests. The present Pope saw the extent of the disease whilst he was yet at the CDF under the dying John Paul II. There was no end to it. Whilst John Paul II was alive, next to nothing could be done about it.
Back in April 2005, the sclerosis seemed to be at an end with the Pope’s death, and it seemed that the only thing to do was to abandon the Church of Europe and America to its fate and base a new effort of renewal on the Church in Africa and South America. Let Islam or Big Brother have Europe – and good night! Then Cardinal Ratzinger was elected. I had not yet joined the TAC and I lived on my own in western France as a vagante priest. Would reconciliation be possible with a Church more concerned with “restoration” than the status quo of the clerical bureaucracy? I welcomed Benedict XVI, but quickly saw that anything positive would take decades and longer than our lifetimes. We began to read on the blogs “the Pope of unity” – but “brick by brick“. This great theologian would continue to inspire us by his writings as an intellectual, but he would try to govern by persuasion than constraint. I agreed, as I was already through with the conservatives who wanted everyone to suffer except themselves, rather like those who want the end of the world but at the same time to survive it.
I was already far from the RC Church. I lived in my house in the Vendée, did my translation work and ministered to those traditionalist Catholics who were not concerned about my not being ordained by as kosher a bishop as others would prefer. I was far from it all but connected by Internet, and I had a kind of “blog” on my website called Ramblings of an Unchurched Cleric. Day after day, I looked at the Vatican watching blogs, especially Father Zuhlsdorf’s entries between feeding wild birds and Italian cooking, reminding me of an Austrian priest I knew in Rome in the 1980’s, Fr Gregor Hesse.
I noticed that the traditionalists and conservatives hung onto every word of the new Pontiff, and quite frankly projecting their wishful thinking onto what he was actually doing. Benedict XVI has been for a reform of the reform, allowing the old liturgy for those who want it – but we have to remember that he and Cardinal Ottaviani thought differently at Vatican II in terms of theology and the clash between the ressourcement theologians and neo-Thomist scholasticism. The vision of Benedict XVI is radically incompatible with that of the Society of St Pius X and the old Roman School it seeks to restore and perpetuate. The differences reveal the same dead end as under Paul VI in the 1970’s.
Rod Dreher describes his feeling as one of disappointment. What happened between Summorum Pontificium, Anglicanorum coetibus and the appointment of Archbishop Müller to the CDF after the just as enigmatic and paedophilia cover-up tainted Cardinal Levada? I remember a film with Harrison Ford addressing the American President, and the latter enticing the character Harrison Ford was playing, saying that he “had a chip in the big game”, the old Potomac Two-step. One dances from one foot to another, without principles or coherence, merely as a political strategy. I have had my suspicions that Benedict XVI was a profound cynic. How does one get into the most powerful position in the Church and then become Pope without being like most politicians? The way Anglicanorum coetibus was implemented was deceitful and messy. Of course the conservatives would say that was all part of God’s will and that the arrangement is perfect. It destroyed Archbishop John Hepworth, rooted out those who had received orders in the RC Church (as was written in Levada’s Complementary Norms) and seems to have taken in a small number of TAC clerics and laity, just as long as they had never had any previous RC involvement. I am happy to see the success of the Ordinariate in Canada and the USA. Australia seems to be doing well, and the English one has taken on a few TAC men. As Deborah Gyapong and I discussed in 2010 and 2011, the whole thing was outsourced to men without the least sympathy for what had seemed to be the vision of Benedict XVI.
I don’t think the Pope is a cynic, but his advisers are!
Frankly, we seem to have seen quite a few half-finished and botched jobs, presumably because someone said to the Pope “You can’t do that. We’re not allowing it“. For Benedict XVI in 2005, it was a raw deal. No one could satisfy anyone, for the same man would be too conservative for the liberals and to “modernist” for the conservatives and traditionalists. Who in 2005 could have done better?
The real obstacle was certainly the Vatican bureaucracy. I tend not to believe in conspiracies. No one forced Benedict to abdicate, but they might have told him that he would henceforth be no more that a rubber-stamper for the bureaucracy. Who would want to continue being Pope in those conditions? Note that he was never able to undertake a real reform of the Roman Curia since the Animal Farm pigs took over under Paul VI and John Paul II. The poor man probably “saved his soul” by resigning. We can only hope that Boniface X or whoever it’s going to be isn’t going to put his predecessor into Paolo Gabrieli’s old dungeon cell and make him die of disease and starvation!
What could have been done by the sex abuse crisis? We know what most of the liberal journalists would say – make the RC Church a worldwide clone of ECUSA under Ms Schori! My answer to that would be completely unexpected. The problem of both Rome and ECUSA is clericalism. How do you deal with clericalism? Get rid of priests and bishops? Clericalism is not a problem only with priests but with any elite that considers itself as above the norms of the rest of humanity. I sometimes find lawyers and surgeons more clerical than priests I know – when they are arrogant, unaccountable to anyone, and maintain their power through secrecy and intrigue.
In order to deal with priests who rape and bugger children, you have to break down clericalism, the mechanisms protecting the guilty. I know what the clerical game is like. When I last wrote about my experience in seminary, I mentioned that we were trained in clericalism and the art of using secrets and secretiveness to gain power over others. Secrecy is a cult, and not merely for the protection of persons who have confided their sins to a priest as they confide their physical ills to a doctor and the injustices committed against them to a lawyer. The cult of secrecy goes much further and serves clerical power for its own sake.
I was just a few years in seminary and just a few years in country parishes, but Benedict XVI has been in it up to his neck since the 1940’s when he went to seminary.
What next? Logically, they could make Bishop Fellay a cardinal and elect him, putting the SSPX in the position the Jesuits occupied in the Counter Reformation times. The trouble is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were kings and princes in the Church’s pocket. They whipped their subjects into compliance. Unleash an über-traditionalist Church on the world today, and what would we get? I can only imagine the cartoons in the newspapers! The thought is absurd. You need men like Mussolini, Franco and Pinochet with their secret police, torture chambers and places where people can be made to “disappear”. Otherwise, religion depends on convincing people of its intrinsic truth. Is it true? Do we believe it to be true? Or, is the object of our faith our power to manipulate other people and play God?
Benedict XVI has always been realistic about the limits of Catholicism in Europe. The game is over, though one may be permitted to believe in some divine miracle. The traditionalists expected too much and projected their wishful thinking on a man who wasn’t going to play their game. He kept his silence, an idea we will be reading a lot about in the liturgy in about six weeks time…
Dreher’s conclusion, as one who went Orthodox, is that the game is over in Europe and Canada, and increasingly so in the USA. All churches are declining, the liberal ones faster than the conservatives. It’s all being thrown away like the household rubbish we put out in the street each week.
I don’t know if clericalism has the same meaning in those parts of the world where Christianity is thriving. It would seem that the only way the Church in the west can be reformed is to leave it to die its death. There are fewer and fewer priests in the parishes, and soon there won’t be the money to keep the provincial dioceses going. Our churches will be demolished, sold, redeveloped or put to secular use.
We seem to be confronted with the same reality as in 2005, only that the sentence was suspended for a while. The last chance of 2005 is now blown. It would seem that Europe belongs to Allah or Big Brother, as may also be the case in the other western countries. Perhaps it is time to leave the western world, except that the peoples we once colonised are hardly likely to want us on their doorstep. Bernard Moitessier was not so wrong as he set out for his second circumnavigation. We can hole ourselves up into our micro-churches, but that will only be a temporary stop-gap and band-aid on the wound. I have no illusions about our little Anglican communities, as they are just as fragile as a boat in the Roaring Forties, but being on a boat is better than swimming.
I remember a friend talking to me about the change of civilisation from the one whose death we are witnessing, and that we will not have the consolation of seeing what will replace it. Even the assumption that Europe would become Muslim or as “atheist” as Albania in the Communist era is open to criticism. Muslims, when they get money and the amenities of western consumerism become less interested in the Mosque and the Koran. They discover pleasure! Pressure is also building against capitalism and consumerism. Where would that lead? The future is as obscure as the conclave in Rome next month.
For the Roman Catholic Church, there may be twists in the plot as this month nears its end. Certainly the traditionalists have their hopes for a climatic declaration of the canonical regularisation of the SSPX, leaving them to oppose Vatican II and every kind of theological work outside the neo-Thomist Roman mould. I can only see problems, and the man Joseph Ratzinger would still be alive to be made to pay the Devil. This Pontificate could simply come to its last day in silence and nothing to report. That seems more likely to me. There is nothing to understand! Foucault’s Pendulum – it just goes tick-tock.
Perhaps this should be our thought as we hear the words tomorrow – Remember, o man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. That is our reality, as it was many times for the unfaithful of Israel.