Wednesday, April 20, 2005

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So about this new Pope....

From an institutional perspective [And an institutional perspective only!!--ed.], there is more than a passing resemblance between the Catholic Church and the now-extinct Soviet Communist Party. So, after reading this Associated Press report by Nicole Winfield, I'm still trying to figure out whether Pope Benedict XVI will be Yuri Andropov or Konstantin Chernenko:

Pope Benedict XVI himself predicted a "short reign" in comments to cardinals just after his election, and his brother said Wednesday he was worried about the stress the job would put on the 78-year-old pontiff.

While there are no indications that Benedict currently suffers from any serious or chronic medical problems, there have been ailments in the past including a 1991 hemorrhagic stroke that raise questions about how long his pontificate will last....

Benedict himself referred to his tenure in comments to cardinals just after his election, when he explained his choice of the name Benedict XVI, the pope who served from 1914-22 and had worked to prevent World War I during his brief papacy....

German prelates have expressed concern about Ratzinger's health. One young priest from Cologne, who asked not to be identified, told AP in Rome that Benedict has trouble sleeping and has a "delicate constitution." The new pope's brother had expressed a similar concern in a television interview.

Benedict's brother, Georg Ratzinger, told The Associated Press on Wednesday from Regensburg, Germany, that he was concerned about his brother's health and the stress the office will put on him.

"I'm not very happy," Georg Ratzinger said. "He's OK, and his health is good. I just wish for him, that his health holds out and that his office isn't a worry and a nuisance to him."

Ratzinger, the oldest pope elected since Clement XII in 1730, clearly was chosen as a "transitional" pope, who would fulfill the unfinished business of John Paul's quarter-century papacy yet not be another long-term pope.

Yet in electing someone who had repeatedly asked John Paul to let him retire and been refused there was also the possibility that the world would watch another pope slowly succumb to age and ailments on a very public stage. Benedict was the oldest pontiff elected in 275 years.

So either the Pope is healthy enough to reinvigorate and cement the Catholic Church for a short time, or he's going o get sicker and sicker very quickly.

Andrew Sullivan raises an interesing point about how John Paull II changed the rules to make it easier for Ratzinger to be chosen -- which raises an interesting question: will Benedict XVI similarly change the rules or stack the Politburo College of Cardinals to ensure a successor who shares his doctrinal preferences?

As a non-Catholic, I have no dog in this fight -- but I'm curious about what will happen.

posted by Dan on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM


We'll see how this goes.

posted by: jim dandy on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

Dan wrote:

".... I have no dog in this fight..."

Lion Gargoyle: "This is a fight between humans. It has nothing to do with us at all."

"What do you think Goliath?"

Goliath: "It's been my experience that human problems sooner or later become Gargoyle problems."

No dog in this fight, Dan? Wanna bet?

posted by: James on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

I don't see the comparison, even at an institutional level. I'm assuming, by making the comparison, that you mean the Church is holding out as long as it can before giving into the inevitable changes to come, due to some rising call for more freedom and/or change. Is this a correct read?

If it is, I couldn't disagree more. The Catholic Church leadership has had large amounts of its laity demand "change" before, and it hasn't given into changing its core teachings. The Protestant Reformation is a perfect example of this. Essentially, you cannot use a political template, as in either the Soviets or the Left and Right here in America to try to understand the Catholic Church.

Dan Darling, over at Winds of Change, pretty much says the same thing, but in a lot more detail.

posted by: Jason Holliston on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

At least the Vatican chef is happy. This morning the new Pope asked him "what's for breakfast?" and he got to say "Eggs, Benedict!"

posted by: JEB on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

... no dog in this fight ...? with a strategically crossed out Politburo?, me thinks thou doest protest to much

posted by: Blaine on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

Ratzinger/Benedict's "doctrinal preferences" are not "his." And they're not "preferences." The pope (any pope) has no authority to change doctrine which the Church believes has been revealed by God.

People like Andrew Sullivan should become Protestants. Protestants believe we can make up the rules as we go.

posted by: George on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

holy crap did somebody just quote Gargoyles? That's incredible.

posted by: Jim Dandy on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

The New York Times made a good point in an editorial yesterday:

"... On matters of public policy, however, all of us have reason to be concerned about the opinions of the leader of more than one billion Catholics.

For instance, as a cardinal, the new pope inserted himself last year into the political debate over allowing Turkey into the European Union. He was quoted as saying that adding Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation of 70 million people, would dilute the culture of what he considers a Christian continent and that Turkey should align itself instead with other Muslim nations. At a time when few things are more important than reconciling the Islamic world with the non-Islamic West, it would be extremely disturbing if the pope became an unnecessary wedge. It would also be out of keeping with the heritage of John Paul II - who, for all his doctrinal conservatism, was a man known for his outreach to people of other faiths."

Europe is a Christian continent? For all of the bad things globalization is enabling, at least it's spreading secularization.

Didn't Ratzinger also argue that pro-choice American politicians shouldn't receive communion? If so, that's not above the fray, that's politics, so comparing the Catholic Church with the undemocratic Soviet Communist Party is appropriate.

posted by: Peter K. on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

Popes are free to have political opinions just like everybody else. But a pope's political opinions are not binding on Catholics.

A pope's political opinions are important to the extent that they are serious and thoughtful. John Paul II was against capital punishment and against the Iraq War, but it isn't clear he changed many minds on these and similar subjects.

posted by: George on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

Didn't Ratzinger also argue that pro-choice American politicians shouldn't receive communion?

Actually, no. He ordered it.

posted by: mark on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

"People like Andrew Sullivan should become Protestants. Protestants believe we can make up the rules as we go."

George, I hope you're just engaging in some subtle humor that I'm missing, but it sounds as if you're actually serious.

Even if I believed every word in the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church would still be just a whole bunch of crap that people made up as they went. The Bible doesn't say anything about making clergy be celibate, purgatory (it talks about hell, but it does not mention a pre-heaven waiting period in purgatory), or papal infallibility. In fact, the doctrine of papal infallibility has only been around since 1870, and is therefore definitely made up. And that part about covering up for pedophiles? Yeah, I must have missed that passage in my Bible.

posted by: Keith on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

That's why we have Protestant churches, Keith. For people like you. (And yes, I'm quite serious.)

posted by: George on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

I don't think the analogy to the Politburo sheds much light here. If the point is that both the Church and the former CP of the USSR were run by a small group of old men, it is a small point indeed. Of course, it is equally true that much the same could be said about most of the important institutions in the US and throughout the world -- US Gov't, the military, the UN, most major corporations, the major media, etc.

The more interesting point raised by your post is the suggestion that, like the CP of the USSR, the Church is so sclerotic that it may just fade away unless it accepts the reality of the modern world. This is where the analogy is seriously misleading. The usual issues cited for the notion that the Church is stuck in an irrelevant past are clerical celibacy, the exclusion of women from the priesthood, and sexual mores generally. As it happens, the first two are essentially issues of ecclesiastical discipline, and not fundamental matters of faith or morals. And, as the term is normally used to support a conclusion of sclerosis such as your comparison between the Church and the Politburo, the "reality" of the modern world is largely what the Church exists to challenge rather than embrace. It's instructive to take a closer look at the underpinnings of the sclerosis that is said to characterize the Church.

Priestly celibacy is a matter of church discipline, rooted in ancient tradition. But even within the Catholic Church, priestly celibacy is not a requirement in several of the Eastern Catholic rites (as much a part of the Roman Catholic Church as the dominant Latin Rite). Within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, moreover, the requirement of celibacy can be and has been waived for married Anglican priests who have converted and want to continue their priestly ministry. The point is that there is much historical precedent for a married clergy within the Roman Catholic Church, and that any change here is rather less fundamental that some might have thought.

Despite that fact, given the importance of tradition in the Catholic Church -- it has always been regarded as one of the foundations of the Church's teaching, along with revelation through Scripture -- it is foolish to expect (and, I think, even to want) some sudden, stroke-of-the-papal-pen revision to an ancient practice. As with any institution for which tradition is a central element, change comes best in small steps over longer periods of time.

The ordination of women would be a more radical change, but as with priestly celibacy, it is fundamentally an issue of ecclesiastical discipline rather than faith and morals. On this issue, there is no historical precedent within the Catholic Church for the ordination of women (at least I am not aware of any), although in the very early Church when the various clerical roles were just being sorted out, some women had prominent roles in individual churches. A hint of that fact comes through in Paul's epistles, although it is equally true that Paul does not seem to have welcomed an expansive role for women in those early Christian communities.

While the ordination of women in the Catholic Church would be a radical and wrenching change, it is also true that, over the 40 years since Vatican II, there has been a steadily increasing role for women in the sacramental life of the Church. There is no reason to expect that that ongoing evolution will stop any time soon. Where it will end, if it ever does, no one can say.

The controversy over the Church's stand on sexual mores -- abortion, birth control, homosexuality, the institution of marriage, and a host of related issues -- gets to the heart of the argument made by those who see the Church as an outdated institution likely to fade from the scene, and that won't be missed. Unlike issues of ecclesiastical discipline and organization, these are matters of fundamental faith and morals because, each in its way, reflects a view of the purpose and object of human life that forms the core of the Church's teaching. That is not to say that the Church's current positions on any of these issues is frozen for all time, or that it is not likely to evolve. There was a time, for example, when the ban on divorce and remarriage in the Catholic Church was thought to be absolute, and the indissolubility of Christian marriage has at least as persuasive a claim to Biblical sanction as does any of the Church's teachings on abortion and like issues. The reality in the Catholic Church today is that an annulment of a prior marriage can often be obtained on grounds that, only a few decades ago, would have been deemed unacceptable.

In recognizing that Church doctrine and ecclesiastical practice continue to evolve, albeit slowly, it is even more important to recognize that the Church is based on that belief that each of us is called to live the Christian life as Christ gave it to us in the Gospels, and the Church has taught it over the centuries. That life is worlds removed from a life of self indulgence, moral relativity and vague notions of easy spirituality. In that sense, the mission of the Church is to challenge the reigning nostrums of the modern world. In his short, pre-conclave homily, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained that reality far more eloquently than I can.

I take it that the point of the comparison between the Church and the Politburo is that the Church needs to abandon its role of confronting the modern world and challenging its values, and instead should accept the values and mores of modern life and work from there. That could never happen, not because the Church is run by a small group of sclerotic old men, but rather because its mission and purpose is to call all men to something better for the fulfillment of man's true potential as participants in the life of Christ. If the Church ever adopted that approach, not only can we be sure that it would quickly fade into irrelevance, but even more damning, it would richly deserve that fate.

posted by: Richard on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

If you're going to make an analogy, Ratzinger is more like Suslov, the Kremlin's longtime guardian of orthodox Marxist-Leninism--though it's true Suslov never became General Secretary. Suslov, like Ratzinger, was in his own way an intellectual--which Chenrnenko and Andropov were not.

posted by: David T on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

George, you seem to quite deliberately miss the point. George, you are a Catholic because you like the stuff the Catholic Church made up, not because you're opposed to making things up.

Yes, maybe Andrew Sullivan could go Protestant. But the point here is that one could go Protestant precisely because one doesn't like making things up. In fact, if one is opposed to making things up as you go along, then one HAS to become a Protestant, since much of the Catholic Church's doctrines are just made up.

I will concede that Andrew Sullivan, given certain biblical teachings, would have to join those Protestants that do make stuff up, instead of those Protestants that don't. But this all begs the question. Given that the Catholic Church has so much made up stuff, can't it make up some better stuff than it has?

posted by: Keith on 04.20.05 at 05:54 PM [permalink]

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