This has been on my mind since the first minor flurry of stories about Pope Francis’ openness to discussion on the topic, based on the recounting of a single remark shared by Bishop Erwin Krautler of the Territorial Prelature of Xingu, Brazil. So, it is a lot of musing, but enough to get some conversations started, I hope.
First, an aside about numbers. Most accounts, like the RNS article linked above, cite 27 priests serving 700,000 Catholics, meaning a ratio of 1:25,925, a staggering reality if accurate.
However, I am not sure where these numbers come from. According to the Annuario Pontificio 2012, there are only 250,000 Catholics there, being served by 27 priests (about half diocesan and half religious), and according to Catholic-hierarchy.org, there are 320,000 Catholics (but only as of 2004). This means a ration of either 1:8620 (AP) or 1:13,333 (CH).
Still a staggering reality when you consider as frame of reference the following: The Archdiocese of Seattle, my home diocese, currently lists 122 active diocesan priests, 87 religious priests, and 31 externs borrowed from other dioceses serving a Catholic population of 974,000. This makes a priest to Catholic ratio of 1:4058 (the US average is just under 1:2000).
The Vicariate of Rome, my current diocese, has nearly 11,000 priests and bishops present, counting religious, externs, and curial staff. They are at least sacramentally available to the 2.5 million Catholics here. This makes a ratio of 1:234.
(Since priests were the subject of the article, I have left out deacons, catechists, and lay ecclesial ministers, as well as non-clerical religious, though not to discount their great service to the Church, to be sure!)
Even with the most conservative estimate of Xingu, the priests there are stretched more than twice as thin as their Seattle counterparts and 36x the scope of their Roman brethren.
What has really been on my mind, though, and again in the light of Pope Francis’ comments yesterday that the ‘door is always open’ to this change in discipline, is the effect that a sudden shift in allowing for a married presbyterate would have on the diaconate.
Some refreshers on basic points of the general discussion:
- We are only talking about diocesan (sometimes called secular) clergy, not religious. The latter would remain celibate under their vow of chastity, but diocesan clergy do not take such vows.
- We already have some married Catholic priests. Almost all of the Eastern Catholic Churches allow for both married and monastic clergy, and even in the Latin Church (i.e., Roman Catholic Church) we have married priests who were ordained as Anglicans or Lutherans, later came into full communion, and have been incorporated into Catholic holy orders.
- We do have celibate deacons, though not many. I have long held we need more celibate deacons and more married priests in the west, for various reasons.
- Most likely we would be talking about admitting married men to orders, rather than allowing priests to marry after ordination. This is the ancient tradition of the Church, east and west, since the Council of Nicaea when it was offered as a compromise between some who wanted celibacy as the norm, and others who thought it should not matter whether marriage or orders come first. We still have both extreme practices present in the Church today, however, so it is not impossible that we should choose a different practice. Unlikely, but possible.
- The Latin Church has maintained celibacy as a norm for its diocesan clergy since about the 12th century, though historians argue whether it was universally enforced until as late as the 16th. There are rituals as late as the 13th allowing for a place in procession for the bishop’s wife.
- Technically, it is currently the norm for all diocesan clergy, and any exceptions, including married deacons, are exceptions. Which begs the question, if it is so easy to make these exceptions for deacons, why not for priests?
- The Byzantine tradition has long held that bishops come from the monastic (celibate) clergy, whereas the Latin tradition has long held that bishops come from the diocesan clergy – which means we had married bishops when we had married priests and deacons. Given the situation with the Anglican Ordinariate, there seems to be a reluctance to return to this tradition, but as it was part of our Roman patrimony for a millennium, it seems it should be at least considered.
- Finally, it is not actually clerical, or priestly, celibacy per se that is at issue, but the idea of requiring celibacy of those to be ordained. There will always be room in the church for celibate deacons, presbyters, and bishops, and these charisms will always be honored. As it should be.
With all that in mind, I finally get to my point.
Let us imagine, unlikely though it may be, that tomorrow Pope Francis announces we will no longer require celibacy of our candidates for orders – whether deacon, presbyter, or bishop. The most immediate effect and response of the faithful, and the press, will be about the change in the discipline of priestly celibacy.
If it is done that directly, it would be disastrous for the diaconate. Many men, I have no doubt, have been ordained to the diaconate simply because they or their bishops saw no alternative for someone called to both marriage and ordained ministry. Many may in fact be called to the presbyterate instead, and given the opportunity, ‘jump ship’ from one order to the other.
One can likewise imagine there are many currently in the presbyterate who are actually called to the diaconate, but they or their bishop saw no reason for not ordaining them to the presbyterate because they were called to celibacy as well. I have heard many a bishop say something along the lines of, ‘why be ordained a celibate deacon? If you can be a priest, we need that more!’
Without completing the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order, and a better understanding of both orders separated out from the question of marriage/celibacy, what will happen is a return to the ‘omnivorous priesthood’ and an ecclesiology of only one super-ministry. Rather than a plethora of gifts and ministries as envisioned in the Scriptures, lived in the early church, and tantalizingly promised at Vatican II, everyone would flock to the presbyterate and we would have set back some aspects of ecclesiological reform half a century.
Rather than simply a change to the discipline of clerical celibacy, what is needed is a comprehensive reform of ministry in the Church. Tomorrow Pope Francis could say, instead, ‘Let’s open the conversation. Over the next three years, we will look at the diaconate and the presbyterate, lay ecclesial ministry and the episcopate, and we will consider the question of celibacy in this context. At the end of this study period, a synod on ministry.’
What I would hope to come out of this would be first a separation of two distinct vocational questions that have for too long been intertwined: ecclesial ministry on one hand and relationships on the other. We have been mixing apples and oranges for too long, but priesthood or diaconate is an apple questions, and marriage or celibacy is an orange question.
The deacons, traditionally, are the strong right arm of the bishop. Make it clear that deanery, diocesan, and diplomatic tasks (and the Roman curia for that matter) are diaconal offices. In need, a qualified lay person could step in, or rarely a presbyter, but these are normatively for deacons. This also makes it obvious why we need more celibate deacons, such as in the case of the papal diplomatic corps. They tend to be younger and more itinerant, needed wherever the bishop sends them.
Presbyters are traditionally parish pastors and advisors of, rather than assistants to, the bishop. As the deacon is sent by the bishop, the pastor ought to be chosen from and by the people he serves.. He should be a shepherd who smells like his sheep, right? How exactly this looks can take various forms, to be sure the bishop cannot be excluded, but the balance of ministerial relationships should show clearly that the presbyter is more advisor to the bishop and minister among the people he is called to serve, and the deacon is the agent of the bishop. At least one should not be ordained until there is an office to which he is called which requires his ordination This also makes it obvious why presbyters can, and often are in other churches, married. They tend to be more stable and older.
The minimum age for ordination should be the same for both orders, regardless of marriage or celibacy, and in general one can imagine that deacons would be younger than presbyters. Let the elders be older, indeed!
Some deacons may even find, later in life, reason or office to transition to the presbyterate, but otherwise there should be no such thing as a transitional diaconate. Candidates for both orders should spend at least five years, perhaps more, in lay ecclesial ministry, before being ordained, as long as this does not reduce lay ministry to a transitional step only, as a similar move did to the diaconate all those centuries ago!
Bishops could be chosen from either order, and be either married or celibate. Indeed, celibacy should be rejoined with the rest of the monastic ideal, and there should be no such thing as a celibate without a community. It need not be a community of other permanent celibates or of other clergy – there are some great examples, such as the Emmanuel Community in France, who have found ways for celibate priests to live in an intentional Christian community that includes young single people, deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, etc.
Bottom line, if it is just a conversation about priesthood, as much as mandatory celibacy needs to be discussed openly and without taboo, it is not enough. It must be a holistic discussion about ministry, and the diaconate has a special place in this conversation given its recent history and current experience. We have such a deep and broad Tradition from which to draw, why would we not dive in to find ancient practices to suggest modern solutions?
The Centro Pro Unione in Rome is the ecumenical center for the Eternal City, and the main library for the ecumenical section of the theology faculty at the Angelicum. Housed in the Collegio Innocenziano overlooking Piazza Navona, it was once one of several ecumenically oriented institutions in the building, including the Lay Centre, Casa Foyer Unitas, and Taize. It is the site of the Thursday debriefing during the Council for ecumenical observers, who were staying upstairs as Foyer Unitas at the time.
Its director, Prof. James Puglisi, SA, is also director of the ecumenical section at the Angelicum, and has started a blog here: Ecumenism Around the World: http://atonement-ecumenism.blogspot.it/
From the American branch of the Society of the Atonement, based at Graymoor, NY, comes the monthly publication Ecumenical Trends and the homonymous blog, http://ecumenicaltrends.blogspot.it/
What I like most about Pope Francis is probably his integrity. Honesty and humility wrapped up with transparency. This is exactly what some people seem to find most frustrating – the off-the-cuff remarks, open to interpretation, or occasionally without all the details in place. The WYSIWYG Pope (What You See Is What You Get). But that is precisely the charm. And a much needed breath of fresh air. Just as Benedict XVI was a different kind of fresh air after the long lingering of John Paul II, and his theological acumen and teaching gifts a welcome change from the poetic philosophy of our most recent sainted bishop of Rome, the straight-shooter Francis is a welcome change from the meticulously careful German academic.
I am still unpacking all the ecumenical and interreligious activity of the weekend, but some small examples suffice as well. During his interview on the plane, Papa Francesco again responded to questions about celibacy, stating ‘nothing new’ when he said that the door is (theoretically) open, as required celibacy for diocesan priests is a discipline and not doctrine or dogma. Many have said it before and anyone who has studied Church history or understands the hierarchy of truths knows this and is probably thinking, “Just words… I’ll believe it when I see it.”
But whether he is talking about celibacy, or clericalism, or retiring popes, he is willing to speak directly on subjects that have been largely taboo for the rest of us for the last generation. I am not talking about ‘liberal’ issues like changing church moral teaching, ordaining women, or embracing New Age spirituality as a replacement for the rosary. I am talking about centrist, orthodox, reform issues like creative responses to our ministry problems drawn from the Tradition of the Church. This is about healing wounds caused by scandal and sex abuse, and demolishing systems that promoted or allowed such to happen, and build up in their place living adaptations of even more ancient ecclesiological structures.
Pope Francis is willing to name these problems, and at least open them up for discussion. Hopefully that attitude will trickle down, like a bad economic model (or perhaps, like the dewfall), to the rank and file church leadership, and we will have a vibrant discussion on how best to support our priests, bishops and deacons without enabling clericalism; how to support celibacy as a charism without foisting it on anyone with a call to ecclesial ministry and leadership; and how to accept that the bishop of Rome is not a monarch for life by divine right, but a diakonos of the diakonoi of God.
For the next few weeks, I will be perched in a loft suite in what was once the Monastery of St. Andrew, founded by Pope St. Gregory the Great. For its more recent history (a mere millennium or so), it has been under the care of the Camaldolese Benedictine monks.
Working with both US and Roman academic systems once again, several of my jobs have finished for the year – undergrad professor, TA, and residence manager – while others continue for a few weeks: seminary professor, John Paul II Center graduate assistant. With no more undergrads in residence to manage, I have had a week to clean up and vacate myself. For the intervening few weeks while finishing other tasks, this view is mine. Then plans for a little travel in Italy, a three week seminar on Orthodox theology in Thessaloniki, and a few stops in North America before coming back for a new semester in late August.
When I opened my draft file for the blog, I found 15,000 words in notes waiting for me. I should be so inspired on my doctorate! (The oldest is a half written post about the feast of St. Agnes, well known for the blessing of the lambs to be shorn for wool used in the making of the pallium – the unique vestment of metropolitan archbishops everywhere. A friend once asked the sisters responsible for the shearing about their fate, these blessed and cared-for critters, “Que successo?” “Al forno!”)
I will see what I can do about resurrecting a few of the choicer bits, but I really ought to be grading a few last papers anyway. I am keeping a file of funny answers, too, for late publication (along the lines of “Vatican II is the pope’s summer residence, right?”)
What a year it has been, too! I remember a monsignorial staffer under JPII once claiming that the curia were constantly “out of breath” trying to keep up with the then-tireless pontiff. Communications fiascos notwithstanding, one begins to think the Benedict years were something of a breather for them. Now, each week brings something new and interesting for the vaticanisti and the ecclesiology wonks.
Pope Francis is not quite my idea of a perfect pope, but he is the pope I think I have been waiting for, for most of my life. A colleague asked me recently what I thought about him, and opened by suggesting she thought I might be more of a Pope Benedict fan.
It is true, in many ways: my personality is more similar to Ratzinger than either Wojtyła or Bergoglio. I appreciated Ratzinger’s profound theological acumen and ecumenical commitment, his ability to listen, his collaborative style and loyalty to his close collaborators. A lot of pastors and bishops could learn from that example.
He was the first real theologian-pope in a couple of centuries, and in terms of prolificacy, stands among the greats. His sensitive, introverted, and bookish personality made me think that, if I had to choose a kindred spirit from among the three pontiffs which I can remember during my lifetime, it would be Ratzinger. (I was born in the last months of Paul VI, and still in diapers when John Paul I had his brief time on the Chair of Peter).But, the Church is in need of reform. It is always in need of reform, always in need of purification. While John Paul II and Benedict both lead certain areas of reform forward, certain ecclesiological and very practical issues have remained untouched.
The Roman curia and its communications stagnated under John Paul II, the quality and confidence of bishops and bishops’ conferences waned, and a centralized ultramontanist ecclesiology crept back in – really, had never quite been rooted out – but both were overshadowed by the sheer volume of his personality. Under Benedict, many of the inherited flaws began to show through, and he unfairly got much of the blame for issues that went without redress under his saintly predecessor. The sex abuse scandal sits at the top of the heap, finances next, but the whole Vatican communications apparatus was not far behind. Pope Benedict got the ball rolling in many cases – on sex abuse, on finances, on Vatican personnel – but these successes were frequently given short shrift compared to the communications and competence fiascoes. The biggest distraction was unfortunately his ecumenical effort at reintegrating traditionalist sects into the Church via a re-introduction of the Tridentine liturgy on a mass scale [pun intended].
I think I understand Ratzinger’s concern with the abrupt changes to the liturgy in the late sixties. One of his main themes has been about a reintegration, an informing of each other, of the old Tridentine Rite (what he called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Mass of Pius VI (1570), Revised in 1962) and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite (the Mass of Paul VI, Missal of 1970, last revised in 2002). Aside from the fact that this seems to make Ratzinger a champion of the hermeneutic of discontinuity that he otherwise preached against, for many people the revival of the baroque bling in liturgy was a distraction at best, and a sign of a return to the disastrous ecclesiolatry of the late 19th and early 20th century at worst. Not without reason, for too many people in the Church, the high baroque trappings, the traditionalist interpretation of liturgy, the lace and the maniple et al. all go hand in hand with precisely the forms of clericalism and institutional navel-gazing that allowed the scourge of pedophilia to fester and actually promoted the kind of bishops who would cover up the worst cases.
This association is not one Ratzinger could make, and it is his papacy that convinced me it is not an entirely fair association, either. To him and to many of his fans, there was a certain kind of reverence lost after 1968 that had to be retrieved, and his own personal piety found its comfort zone, like most of us, in the mode of expression he was familiar with in the innocence of childhood. Indeed, in my first few years in Rome, many curial officials bemoaned the ‘crisis of 1968’ as if everyone should know what it was, and somehow never seemed to understand why I (and many of my peers) found it shocking that someone who lived through 1938 could think that 1968 better represented the downfall of moral society!
The real problem was that he was trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak, forty years too late. It might have been a better way to go immediately after the council, to have a slower, longer transition period, maybe with both forms of the rite for a period of time. But now, given the state of the church he inherited, and indeed had some responsibility for, what the Church needed was, and is, great reform. And it needs to be seen making this reform with urgency and integrity. Pope Benedict started some much needed reform, but more attention was given to the moves that seemed to be contrary to reform – even if that was not entirely his intent. It is Francis who is seen to mean it, without qualification and without pining for a long lost ideal that was not nearly so ideal as it seems now, to some. And he has the energy to engage it full-on. If only he were twenty years younger!
The most commonly spoken fear in Rome, these days, is that Francis will be assassinated (a la Godfather III) before his reforms can take effect. It is mostly said jokingly, in a moment of black humour.
The real fear and the reason that even a year after his election there is only a subdued hope and enthusiasm is this: We had a Council. We had every bishop in the world come together and call for reform; for greater synodality and collegiality; for a renewal of the diaconate and appreciation for the vocational contribution of the laity; for uncompromising commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; and commitment to being in, if not of, the modern world; for a renewed and constantly renewing liturgy that called forth full, conscious, and active participation.
Yet, at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the opening of Vatican II in Rome, one participant quipped ‘it seems as if I have come to a funeral, rather than a celebration. Are we here to honor the Council, or bury it?’ Everyone one of the reforms I mentioned was floundering or at least seemed to be unpopular in the halls of power and in the seminaries. “Ecumenism?” I heard one priest say, “They will never make you bishop doing your license in ecumenism. Try dogma or canon law. Ecumenism is a failed experiment anyway.” Within a couple decades of the largest and most comprehensive ecumenical council the Church has ever seen, some of its central acts were being re-interpreted in ways to make them less like reform and more like reinforcement of the old status-quo.
Many reforms remain half-executed. Just by way of example, take the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order – while we now have permanent deacons, we still have transitional ones as well. The cursus honorem of the seminaries, in the minor orders, though officially abolished, has since the early 80’s has been effectively revived with nothing more than different names and rites. Most people think the major difference between deacons and presbyters is marriage and celibacy, meaning there is no shortage of men called to the diaconate being ordained priests, and men called to priesthood being ordained deacons. And nobody agrees on just what a deacon IS, though too many people assume they are subordinate to priests. Yet there has been very little official movement, and not even the possibility of discussing ordination and marriage in the same sentence, in fifty years. It has even become en vogue to revive the befuddled medieval thought that deacons are not really clergy anyway, since they are not ordained to the priesthood, as such.
If the Council could not achieve a comprehensive lasting reform in all of the intended areas, the thought goes, how can one pope? Especially one who may serve for a decade or less? Will he not so disturb some of the powers-that-be, that when his successor is elected, they will seek to balance the ‘fast-moving’ years of Francis with another caretaker pope? People talk of pendulum swings as if John Paul II and Benedict were conservative and Francis liberal, when in fact Francis is just the middle ground where the pendulum should come to stop and rest.
If we have a century of popes in the mode of Francis (and John Paul I, I suspect), we might be able to fully receive the Council without the continued polarization of the Church in the last five decades. We might be able to fully live out the reforms called for, without undue excess or burdensome reticence, and collectively take joy in being the Church again.
As one of my students recently said, “Pope Francis made it cool to be Catholic.” For her, it was the first time in a lifetime of faith that this was the case; when I shared this with an older student later, he simply smiled and added, “…again.”
In talking about the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as bishop of Rome, a recent online discussion got a bit heated and one of the commentators balked at the idea that there was really any traditionalist backlash against the Roman pontiff, and that they were all basically good Catholics. Some are, to be sure. But, a selection of quotes from conversations immediately in the days after his election show what most of us know – there are people who really want the papacy to be some kind of royal institution – in the secular sense-, whose purpose is pageantry and a prop for self-righteousness.
As the quotes are generally a year old and taken mostly from message boards and facebook posts, i chose not to record the authors. It is not meant as an academic source after all, just a sampling of the kind of negative reaction, and some more reasoned responses, that one still hears in Rome, though rather more quietly than before. All quotes are taken from self-described traditionalists, aficionados of the Tridentine Rite/Extraordinary Form and often members of the Ratzinger Fan Club; the New Liturgical Movement; associated with or at least sympathetic to the Society of St. Pius X.
- ‘Bishop of Rome’?? What is wrong with this guy? Doesn’t he know his job is bigger than that?!
- Non placet. The only thing more expensive than poverty is humility, and that lump around his neck looks like the logo of a “pietosa ong”, not like a Christian crucifix.
- People in his position drive around in big cars because the Italian Prime Minster was kidnapped and murdered after his car was shot up by terrorists in the streets. How does a man who lived through Argentina’s Dirty War forget something like that? People have been shot dead in the streets by the Red Brigades, the organization that murdered Aldo Moro, within the last 10 years.
- Pope Francis did not ask for the blessing of the faithful precisely; he asked the faithful to pray that he be blessed. Unsurprisingly, it has taken less than 48 hours to distort this into yet another act of subversion of the hierarchical nature of the Church. Christ instituted the priestly hierarchy to be the means by which He would bless the faithful, not to be blessed by the faithful. “for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”
- Such carefully stage managed ‘humility’…
- There’s personal humility and then there is the Petrine Office. If a pope does not show proper respect for the Petrine Office, then that weakens the Petrine Office and the most important ecclesial lynchpin for Catholic unity. It’s nice that Former Cardinal Bergoglio wanted to get on the bus with his brother bishops, but it’s not nice that Pope Francis has undercut his Office. Papacy is not supposed to be a cult of personality. Look at how well Elizabeth Windsor has respected HER Office! (And how those ridiculous busses [sic] for minor royals really lowered the tone of the last Royal Wedding.)
- The phrasing of your objection [basically, that the Church does not need all that baroque and renaissance 'bling'] is an example of the other ideological extreme. it has no basis in fact or history. it’s inverted snobby, theology of the factory worker who considers himself morally superior to the privileged because he is underprivileged. go in to a peasant home and you will see lots of lace and baroque. its kitsch but it’s very “of the people” as opposed to the ersatz primitism of left-wing intellectual effete elite (which almost always costs more than the kitsch). I’m not promoting the particulars of the article, My point is that these small things acted as triggers that caused flashbacks in an abused group. I believe Benedict’s revival of some of the old was to bring back a neglected area. He also wore modern vestments. All of this was to show that neither one nor the other, on their own, are the way. The Church has room for all.
- nononono… Shut up! Somebody shut him up! No more phone calls, no more tweets, no more off-script remarks! Doesn’t he know how to pope?! Enough already…
- Something I have been reflecting on these days, which has been misjudged by all sides. Part of the negative reaction to Pope Francis is leftover frustration from the abdication of Benedict. There is also more to the “fear” aspect. Traditional Catholics were wounded animals who snap because they have been abused, often by legitimate authority. Their fear is real because neo-cons and liberals, seeking to defend The Pope, have turned on them with in the past few days. Alas, some of this has been silly traddies knee-jerk reactions of the worst kind. But some of it has been the latent misconception and actual dislike of their position by cons and libs. More understanding all around.
I found this quote in my notes without a link. If anyone knows the source, I will happily correct it. Also, it is second-hand, so take it with the same grain of salt as that interview that ‘reconstructed from memory’ the ‘sense’ of the conversation. Still, this sums up what i have been hearing from many in the communications world of the Vatican for a year.
[UPDATED: From the New Yorker, and no apparent comment from Lombardi on the conversation].
James Carroll reports a conversation with Lombardi:
I met Lombardi in a spartan room in a grand Mussolini-era building just outside St. Peter’s Square. Lombardi is a dark-eyed, silver-haired man of seventy-one, who looks as if he could be an Italian film director. I asked what his life had been like since Benedict stepped down. Lombardi broke into a broad smile. Then he said, “We experienced for years—and for good reason, also—that the Church said, ‘No! This is not the right way! This is against the commandments of God!’ The negative aspect of the announcement . . . this was in my personal experience one of the problems.” Father Lombardi and I are almost the same age. In his earnest good will and kindliness, he struck me as the priest I would have liked to become. He said, “The people thought I always had a negative message for them. I am very happy that, with Francis, the situation has changed.” He laughed. “Now I am at the service of a message . . . of love and mercy.” He laughed again.
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.
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!