morto un papa se ne fa un altro

I nearly underwent the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation in the mid-nineties, after spending a few months ravenously devouring all the information on Catholicism I could find, both good and bad. I had become convinced that Catholicism, after a few fits and starts may have got it right after all. The social issues that concerned me, like the prohibitions against married priests and female clergy, appeared to be later developments, not essential to the faith, nor articles of belief. Indeed, after reading the catehcism and a couple of summaries on Canon Law, I realized that they could, and would eventually, likely be changed. Also, after reading Politi’s fantastic His Holiness, a biography of JP II, I became a grudging admirer of the former Pontiff.

Moreover, the Church’s wonderful syncretistic character – essentially gobbling up and reserving the faiths it encountered as it envangelized, even in Europe, met some of my rather pagan religious inclinations. As I am generally pro-life, and enjoy a good drag show as much as anyone else, I saw no need to quibble with the Church’s stand on life issues, nor did I see much difference between person who’d taken a vow of poverty wearing obstreperous, priceless, clerical vestments and the sequined gown of a 300 pound Marilyn Monroe impersonator. All good.

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, esteemed Miami University Professor of Religion and also an extremely reasonable Evangelical Christian, steered my ad hoc bibliography in another direction, and suggested I read a critique of the Church called The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, which, essentially, argued that the cannibalesque doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the wine and bread are actually, really and wholly the body and blood of Christ) had no hope of survival in the age of science, and that, at best, believers whose minds, as well as hearts, are open, were better off as Protestants until the Church could be reunited in intellect as well as soul.

Seeing as how (Sepoy may disagree, as we both sat under Yamauchi’s lectern) Edwin is the shizzle fo rizzle, I let his through-a-reading-suggestion advice weigh heavily in my decision matrix. I have not regretted my decision to remain a Protestant; however, I am thankful to have received an understanding of the Church that most of my brethren, especially evangelicals and fundies, do not have.

And thus, in a great Ecumenical spirit, I watched this papal election eagerly, keening as most of you did, for a non-European Pope, and, against hope I’ll admit, a Vatican II style throwing up of hands, leading to some giving of ground that might heal what has become a damaged priesthood, a brittle dogma, and an increasingly irritating but essentially irrelevant – at least in the developed world – stance on issues relating to sex, marriage and Saturday-night at 3 am matters of personal conscience and dawnlight regret.

Came Ratzinger [via Cliopatria].

All but two of the College electing JP II’s heir were Cardinals of his own choosing, and most of them, after receiving their august right to wear red, mirrored the former Pope’s philosophical adherence to many of Catholicism’s more rigid strictures. JP II has sent us all a posthumous message: in a deluge of love for the man, we are not to forget the man’s message: the Church does not change, for society, society should change for the Church. Speculation that it would be anyone but the German theologian, in hindsight, was silly. The only positive aspect, from a perspective like mine, is Benedict XVI’s age. A three decade Pontificate is unthinkable.

The Vatican appears to be girding itself for war on two fronts: the first, an attack on the materialist consumer culture of the American-European world; on the second, a drive to secure religious liberty in places where the Church cannot operate freely. From both campaigns, good things could and likely will emerge; but I wonder, given that the world – not just many Catholics and some Protestants and some Orthodox – were pining for a restorative, progressive force to helm Peter’s boat, what does it say that His Holiness, who understandably abandoned the Hitler Youth [also see this reading], but maintains a distinctly Teutonic impulse to order and hierarchy, has assumed that position?

I believe the messages are these:

The ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, and the JP II Pontificate as it were, are likely paused.

Interfaith dialogue, may not be conducted with the same diplomatic finesse that marked JP II’s reign – will unyielding, JP II’s charisma allowed for hard issues to be discussed in good faith, where under Benedict XVI’s possible terms of debate, sit-downs themselves might be out of the question.

American influence in Europe, and European cooperation with American foreign policy, are no longer Vatican rubbers-stamps. (Though JP II made a stand on Iraq, the CIA and the Vatican intelligence service were good buddies for most of the Cold War).

The pederasty scandals in the US and Europe, which figure foremost in the mind’s of many in those populations, will be deemphasized; Benedict XVI is on record as believeing they have been blown out of proportion.

Other issues, birth control, gay rights, women priests, etc., will likely remain static, to the frustration of the Catholics trying to change those rules. As an ironic result, the priesthood will grow gayer, third world Catholics will have more children than they can support, gifted female pastors will continue their secondary roles, and Western Catholics will continue to wear their faith as a badge of culture, and wholly ignore its most vaunted non-sacramental precepts, further marginalizing the power of the clergy, and weakening the Church’s role in the west.

Finally, we should not rush to make a folk hero of the dead Pope; Ratzinger was his chief theologian, and what we may see in the coming years is nothing more than the culmination of JP II’s core beliefs, without the softening power of his smile. Let us bury the man in truth – he was like a grandfather; most loved him, but he held some antiquated ideas about how the world ought to work, and as a result many did, and will, suffer needlessly.

I hope I’m wrong, and I’m watching with great interest. Benedict XVI’s early pronouncements sound positive. Perhaps he realizes that history does not often offer times like these – when people look on at the Church with almost carte-blanche good will, when a new leader can make change, and when the whole world, not just Catholics, are in desperate want of it.

3 Replies to “morto un papa se ne fa un altro”

  1. From friends at my alma mater (Jesuit uni), I hear that Ratzinger’s appointment has led to mass rage and a massive increase in the number of locally-produced voodoo dolls. Can’t say I blame them. The man’s pretty scummy.

  2. Great post. As a Catholic who has struggled to reconcile personal faith/beliefs with Church doctrine, I’ve found myself thinking frequently about the past and future Church over the last few weeks. No grand conclusions as of yet, but your post echoed sentiments of my own and also gave me a few more things to mull over. I’m sending the link to other friends that I know have been watching the Church with anticipation and interest these past few weeks. Kudos.

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