The abdication of Pope Benedict XVI presents something of a watershed moment in my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, a bit of closure, really. That's because (as I wrote in opening this blog) I was raised and educated in the Roman Catholic Church in a section of Nassau County where RCs make up the great majority of the population, and set the tone for the community. Even though I went to public school through 7th grade, and had a year at St Paul's School in Garden City, my first brush with Episcopalianism, Roman Catholic values as taught in the late 60s and the 70s were the crucible in which my personality was formed, an outward-looking, intellectually curious church that confidently faced the Twentieth Century engaging with the best thought of the age. Also, guitar masses, but nothing's perfect, and, in any event, our church didn't go in for that sort of thing, really. When, in 1978, John Paul II became Pope, and then in 1981, when Josef Cardinal Ratzinger became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, roughly coinciding with my own move to a serious and disciplined Catholic high school, the atmosphere began to change. My own faith, including a nascent call to ordained ministry, was deeply shaken by the silencing of theologians such as Charles Curran and Hans Kung, the reining in of the Jesuits (with whom I studied in this time period), the halting of the trajectory toward greater freedom and recognition of women's gifts, and the sudden centrality of anti-abortion politics above all (see this snapshot of the John Paul II era). As prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger played a central role in all of these developments.
Now, I should add that of course the Roman Catholic Church has every right to set its own standards of doctrine and belief. It has every right to make the choices it did, and while some members are disaffected, their remedy is to leave. Indeed, Pope Benedict himself predicted, and appears to have endorsed, a smaller and purer church. (More here.) And go I went, as I felt ever increasingly marginalized within the Church of my youth.
I write all this not as an indictment of the Pope--as I say, he has the right, and indeed, the obligation, to teach the truth as he perceives it--but to confess that my view of him may be, indeed, almost certainly is, biased. With that said, is there anything useful I can say regarding his abdication?
Yes, I think so.
First, let me dust off Shakespeare and say that nothing in his [official] life became him like the leaving it; his abdication breaks the tradition of popes struggling on until death claims them and is a triumph of common sense in an era where we live ever longer lives, and in which debilitating illness is a reality that must be faced. I know that many found in the harrowing last years of his predecessor a poignant and powerful lesson--to borrow a phrase from Archbishop John Patrick Foley, "Pope John Paul II taught us how to live, how to suffer and how to die.” I confess that I found the spectacle terrible and not particularly edifying. Most of the failing elderly do not have anything like the resources the ailing Pope had to support him, and lack the freedom to choose how to respond to the last, greatest crisis that gave John Paul's struggle its meaning. Benedict's common sense letting go of ecclesiastical power, and handing over the reins swiftly has a humility that is sacrificial, and savors to me of servant ministry. Rather than exercise power to the last, he will diminish, in order that the work may pass to hands better able to carry the burden. I'm no admirer, but there is a powerful lesson there, as well as a precedent his church may need in future.
I'll leave to those who remain within the Catholic fold to evaluate his ministry as it applies to them; the articles above linked from the Washington Post and the New York Times sketch the controversies tolerably well. But there is one area where, having researched and explicated the topic at no doubt tedious length, I feel obliged to note that as Archbishop, as Cardinal, and, yes, as Pope, Benedict wreaked untold damage not just on the Roman Catholic Church but on Christianity writ large, and that is his role in the sex abuse crisis.
What is extraordinary about this abject failure to live his faith, exercise even reasonable prudence as a leader, and to be a pastor to his congregations is how inconsistent it is with his energetic enforcement of doctrinal orthodoxy. As Jason Berry, whose pioneering reportage of the sex abuse crisis dates back to the 1980s, said in response to the abdication, "As a cardinal, he was known for prosecuting theologians (who differed from church stances), but as pope, he recoiled from punishing cardinals who were responsible for the worst scandal in church history." That's a fair assessment--indeed, it's charitable, in view of Benedict's own failures as Archbishop and head of the CDF.
When I found the Episcopal Church, after some unchurched years, I had become aware of the first wave of the sex abuse crisis, the wave chronicled by Berry. In 2000, the wounds broke open again and then again in 2010. In each case, the lack of consequences for the ecclesiastical superiors who protected the abusers has been breathtaking. Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law was rewarded with a sinecure in the Vatican and has been reported to have "played a key role in the Vatican’s decision to tighten its grip on the largest association of Catholic nuns in the United States." Disgraced Cardinal Roger Mahony will help elect Benedict's successor.
The lesson I took from this was to cherish much of the Catholic theology, but to reject the ecclesiology. As I have lived in the Episcopal Church since the 1990s, my Anglo-Catholic positions--firm belief in sacraments, mysticism, the value of tradition--have been tempered by reason, and by a focus on the fruits doctrine and acts bear. But the impossible pressure and burden of a monarchical hierarchy--its inbuilt clericalism, its silencing of lay voices, and its tendency towards triumphalism and group think--these are flaws which I hope the Roman Catholic Church will begin to struggle with, even as we in TEC must continue our struggle with them. I hope that they can recognize that the Church on earth is fallible, and must be open to correction, than to hedge its governing structures within a protective wall, shutting out all other voices.
And I hope Benedict finds peace in his retirement.