Hope for the future of the church

2013-02-12 00:00

THE resignation of Benedict XVI is an act of courage. He realised that his failing health did not enable him to fulfil his duties as a pope any longer and he handed in his resignation.

There was nothing in the law of the church that prevented him from doing so. But the Catholic Church is naturally conservative. The last resignation of a pope, that of Gregory XII, happened in 1415: he had been asked to resign by the Council of Constance to put an end to a schism that threatened the very existence of the church. Since then no pope had resigned, not even Pope John Paul II during his months-long terminal illness.

The Catholic Church is a complex institution that needs a strong and resourceful person at the helm. There is no doubt that Benedict XVI resigned out of concern for the church. He knew he could not be a good leader any longer.

Benedict will be remembered as a good theologian and a man of prayer, but also as an extremely conservative church leader who saw the modern world more as a risk than an opportunity, and favoured a minimalist interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). His most controversial decision was to encourage at all costs the reintegration of the Lefebvrists, a reactionary movement that was deeply opposed to the spirit and the letter of the Council. This caused uncertainty and confusion among the faithful.

Benedict’s eight years as a pope were clouded by the worldwide scandal of paedophile priests. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had contributed to the scandal by maintaining, along with numerous church officials, a heavy silence in a few cases. But as a pope he took responsibility for the problem. Even though certain ambiguities remained, he must be saluted for his lucidity in this matter.

The retiring pope lived in his own world. This explains the many blunders he made — for instance on Islam in his Regensburg speech or on Aids and condoms in the plane to Cameroon — when talking to the media. He did not have a feel for public opinion.

Some people liked him because of his anti-liberal stance. But being conservative does not necessarily mean being a good leader. The Catholic Church needed to be managed better. It remains to be seen if the next pope will do better.

Is there hope? One is tempted to think that Benedict was so conservative that it will be difficult to find a candidate more conservative than him. At the same time, the selection process is such that no real surprise can be expected. The great majority of the 120 or so cardinals who will elect Benedict’s successor in March were chosen by him. Most of them share his ideological, pastoral and theological ideas. But we never know.

In 1958, after the death of Pope Pius XXIII, another anti-modern pope, everybody expected John XXIII, a 77-year-old man, to be just a caretaker. Instead, he took the unprecedented step of calling a council that would bring an unheard of spirit of renewal in the Catholic Church. Today we face a similar situation. Let us have faith.

Philippe Denis is professor of

History of Christianity at UKZN and a member of the Dominican Order.

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