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Church reform and papal retirement, a year on

John Allen’s article commemorating the first anniversary of Pope Benedict’s resignation this week points out that for all the attention Pope Francis has received this year as a ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformer’, the single most revolutionary act by the bishop of Rome in the last year was Benedict’s humble and courageous decision to retire. 

Even here in Rome, studying at the heart of the Church, I found out first through Facebook

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It is a great example of something that should not have been surprising, or all that revolutionary. Certainly, it was, given the climate and context of the Church in recent decades. Following on the heels of the soon-to-be saint John Paul II, who lingered in office several years longer than was probably good for himself or for the Church, one might have thought it was blasphemous to suggest something of the sort. In a sense, Benedict, being the excellent ecclesiologist that he is, had to resign, to disabuse the papacy from the personality cult, and remind us that every office in the Church is one of service and ministry; not power, prestige, or persona.

The impact on the conclave was obvious, as many commentators have already noted. Rather than an overwhelming outpouring of grief at the death of the towering figure of John Paul II that got his right-hand man elected, the cardinals were able to take better stock of the real situation in the Church and especially in the curia, and set about doing something about it.

It never ceases to amaze me how strong the current is that was in favor of the retreat from reform (sometimes called a ‘reform of the reform’) in a Church that has declared, a the highest level of authority, ecclesia semper purificanda. The truth is that there is no purification without reform; there is no reform without action. We must act to change the Church, so that the Church can change the world.

For the last generation, we have been told repeatedly that ‘tinkering with Church structures’ is not what is needed; instead, greater personal holiness is the all-encompassing solution. There is both wisdom and naivety in such statements. The wisdom is that prayer is paramount, and holiness is indeed a necessary virtue in all Christians; the naivety is that tinkering is not what is needed not because it is ineffective, but because some structures have been so badly neglected for so long that any ‘tinkering’ is just putting lipstick on a pig. Anything short of a radical and all-encompassing overhaul is complicity, or at least complacency.

But in a sacramental reality, we cannot underappreciate the real value of a change in tone; we cannot dismiss it as superficial. Which is not at all to buy into the oversimplified dichotomies we see, both in secular media (e.g.Rolling Stone)  and in the reactionary wing of the fold that contrast Benedict and Francis, putting one or the other in a completely unfavorable light.

It has always seemed to me that Benedict’s biggest liability was not (just) a hostile secular media who never let go of the image of God’s Rottweiler – because in truth, his biggest fans never did either, still hoping for the hammer of heresy to drop. It was about image, though: His apparent penchant for baroque bling distracted from his genuine reform efforts.

For too many in the church, these trappings of power and privilege – whether imperial, renaissance, or baroque in origin – go hand in hand with clericalism and the sex abuse scandal. Who can forget that it was the church of lace surplices, brocaded maniples and mumbled latin anaphorae – with its concomitant failure at human formation in seminaries and warped ecclesiology – that brought us the greatest wave of scandal the Church has faced in the modern age? It does not matter that there is little or no direct causal relationship, but the correlation is too widely fixed: “traditionalism” = clericalism = abuse of power = a climate of permission for child sex abuse.

Joseph Ratzinger had long been trying to redeem that, to separate out the legitimate traditions from their accrued associations. He may have a point that the transition from the Missal of Pius V to that of Paul VI was too abrupt, but his solution came forty years too late. Add that to his well-established reputation and the series of administrative and communications fiascos, and there was only so much he could do.

So he did what he could: he set the stage for someone without the same baggage to come along and continue the good work he had started. I can imagine that he realized the cost of trying to restore some place in the mainstream for the older form of the liturgy came at too high a cost, or that the cause of reunion with the SSPX was lost. Or perhaps he saw his work done already: he brought the tridentine liturgy out from the periphery and into the center of the Church, in whatever small way. He left no more excuses for “traditionalism” to be a code word for dissent, and planted the seeds that may redeem that part of our liturgical patrimony from its oft-associated failures in ecclesiology, pastoral formation, and leadership.

Thanks to Pope Benedict, contemplation and action could again meet in the endless effort of Church reform. There is much to be done, since, in some respects, the Church stopped being interested in self-purification and reform sometime around the time I entered adolescence, as if the whole idea had been a failed experiment of the 70s and 80s rather than a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Enter Pope Francis, who genuinely seems to be setting about to reform the Church, perhaps (we can hope) on as grand a scale as Gregory I or VII, Pius V, or John XXIII. Some will call anything he accomplishes too little, too late; others will denounce it as too much, too fast. I would instinctively err on the side of the former, considering how many centuries it often takes to resolve problems in this institution, but in the last year it has been hard even to keep up with the constant flow of good news. I continue to pray for deep, genuine, and theological reform of the Church, and I have hope that it is coming. The Church is, after all, called to be holy, too, not just the people in it! 

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