Pope Benedict: An Assessment
Since everyone else is evaluating Benedict’s papacy in light of his decision to resign, I thought I should throw my hat into the ring. I’d like to think that this will also shed some light on a potential future for the Church.
1. Let’s start off on a negative note. It should have been completely obvious from the start but now it is even more obvious: If you are going to select someone to be the supreme pastor of the entire Church, you should probably look for someone with pastoral experience. As far as I know, Ratzinger never even had any experience with pastoral work at the parish level. As I hope to make clear, this lack of pastoral experience has affected nearly every single facet of his papacy. I am going to say he is brilliant, and that he has had some good ideas, but a pope with genius and good ideas is nothing if he doesn’t know how to be a pastor (which every pope must be).
Here is one way to think about this: Benedict never had to accept the papacy. In fact, he has said many times that he didn’t want to be pope. It is baffling to me why this has not outraged more Catholics. Imagine if your parish priest repeatedly said he didn’t want to be your pastor. This would be insulting, to say the least. I suspect the reason that this hasn’t been considered an outrage is that too many Catholics today consider cheerleading to be a sort of quasi-sacramental. No matter what, the pope and the rest of the hierarchy need our cheering on. A pope could devour a live cat in the middle of a shopping mall and I know Catholics who would, within minutes, start telling you what a great job he was doing as pope.
With an eye to the future, our next pope should be someone who has been with the people, who understands the issues facing Catholics at the family, social, parish and diocesan level. This will make him more effective. That’s a keyword: Effective. Even Benedict’s most ardent supporters haven’t been able to call Benedict effective.
2. Eventually we need a pope who realizes that the average person in the 21st century isn’t as gullible as the average person in the Middle Ages was. People today expect explanations. Benedict has been pretty unwilling to give them. This leads to people leaving the Church. Now Benedict would probably chalk that up to a lack of faith or secularization or some other scapegoat, but it is really just bad pastoral skills. In the New Testament it says we must always be ready to give an explanation and account.
Some examples: For some reason, women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Interestingly, no one seems to know why this is. And I’ve looked. Thomas Aquinas thought it was because women can’t tell other people what to do and no one would ever listen to them on account of their inferiority. Well, obviously no one is going to say that today. So then you have this document from the 1970′s called Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood which basically argues 1) We’ve never done it before, and 2) Even if we wanted to do it, women look nothing like Jesus, so we can’t.
Now most Catholics find reasons like this to be unpersuasive. And the problem isn’t that Benedict keeps repeating these arguments. The problem is that Benedict has encouraged a culture wherein anytime these questions get brought up the answer is usually something like “That’s already been decided so just live with it.” He’s essentially shut down the possibility of theological debate.
I happen to think Benedict might know this is a problem. He sort of hinted at it in his resignation speech. We need a pope and pastor willing to confront the issues and questions which face the Church in the 21st century. Simply declaring by unexplained fiat what people have to believe isn’t working anymore.
3) I think it is safe to say that Benedict has been truly revolutionary in bringing an environmental message to a great deal of his preaching. He has been unequivocal in stating the dangers of global warming and continued environmental destruction. For this he is to be commended. It is the point that I hope most his successor will pick up. However, his lack of pastoral skill is perhaps the reason this part of his papacy has been ignored by so many Catholics. In the United States, some of the most devout papal cheerleaders are the ones most willing to disregard global warming as a hoax to be ignored. This is unfortunate.
4) So about the elephant in the room: I think it is pretty undeniable that Benedict failed to do anything about the abuse scandal. If you disagree with this, ask yourself: What is the most important thing that should be done about the abuse scandal? And if your answer is something other than “combat the pervasive culture of clericalism” you might want to reconsider. That some priests abused people was pretty much inevitable: What could have been avoided was the repeat offenses and the cover-ups. A lot has been focused on the question: Why did priests commit abuse? And while that is a reasonable question, maybe we need to ask: Why did bishops cover it up? And the answer is clericalism. Or, perhaps, Hierarchism. At all costs the image of the Church hierarchy, from the level of priest up, had to be protected. Once again this was assisted by the Catholic Cheerleading Squad who from day one went to any extreme necessary to defend the bishops and everyone else in the Church and insist it was the liberal media’s fault that priests molested kids. But to most people, including the thousands of people who quit going to Mass because of this, the clericalism and Hierarchism just got to be too disgusting.
Now at this point someone is probably going to point out that Benedict made a comment or two about clericalism during his pontificate. He probable made these comments while also restoring some of the more ornate papal robes not seen since the high middle ages. Let’s be clear: The pope can’t say “To make my point about clericalism even clearer, I think I am going to wear an even more grandiose outfit than usual today.”
Plenty of recent surveys have shown clericalism on the rise amongst seminarians, too. Why shouldn’t it be when the pope keeps putting on more and more fancy clothes? Recently I told a seminarian friend that, when I was considering the priesthood, I would never wear a collar as a priest. He responded, and I suspect many seminarians would agree with him, that people should know when there is an alter Christus in the room.
Do you know what that means? That means people think the priest is another Christ. Now I know we are all called to be Jesus in the world for others, but I am pretty sure St. Paul said we are only supposed to have ONE Christ. If someone is going to think there is “another Christ” in the room, it should be from the way you behave with love and compassion, not because you are wearing a collar. Clericalism has descended into a kind of idolatry. If they guy who wears a collar is another Christ, then I guess if he molests a kid I should probably keep my mouth shut about it, right?
So, with an eye to the future, I hope the next Pope will take a stand against clericalism of the sort we haven’t seen since John XXIII and Paul VI. This alone can really help end the scandals (of many varieties) which are entangling the Church.
5) Caritas in Veritate: That was good stuff. I hope the next Pope will follow up with more things like that. People are hungry for that sort of active justice in the world from the Church today. The pope would do well to ask himself: What issues would Jesus be confronting today? Who would be the pharisees and power brokers that he would be challenging today?
6) I’ll conclude with this. For whatever I have said of Benedict, he has been, I think, deeply interested in the Jesus Christ of the Gospel. Now I think there is a lot to be still learned about the historical Jesus that we can’t always access through the Gospel, but obviously the guiding ideal for the Church and the Christian life must be the Gospel. This can be seen in the books Benedict has been writing about the life of Christ. And I hope the next pope will bring this same ideal to his papacy.