Pope Benedict: Hamba kahle, or good riddance?

2013-02-17 10:00

Pope Benedict’s dignified exit does not necessarily equate to a dignified existence, writes Farid Esack.

Few departure notes in the annals of history can compare to that of Cardinal Ratzinger’s – better known as Pope Benedict XVI – for its grace, humility and elegance.

It was a reminder to all of us of our vulnerability – that regardless of the power we wield, every moment of life is stalked by death and the journey towards it.

All over, we are surrounded by leaders who we secretly – and not so secretly – hope could or would make such similar dignified exits.

A dignified exit though, does not equate to a dignified existence and a dignified existence does not necessarily imply contributing to a dignified life for all.

It is curious how the mainstream media and liberal Western governments throughout the world are joining in the chorus of fawning lamentation over the departure of this very dignified and spiritual father of (however, erudite, learned and pious) religious obscurantism.

He was a fundamentalist.

In Mali we will send in our armies to finish them off; in Afghanistan we will send our marines to save the local women from them; in The Netherlands we will examine the incoming barbarians from the Muslim world to test them for their gay-friendliness.

And we will turn them back if they are not gay-friendly enough.

Here, however, in the heart of a post-Enlightenment Europe, we live in an all-male state – albeit not entirely straight. It may be led by a fundamentalist, but he is “our fundamentalist” and we will mourn his departure.

Vatican Council II, in a simple yet profound – even revolutionary – statement, affirmed that the “church is the community of the people of God”.

The statement was revolutionary because it also affirmed that the church was not just the Vatican, the cardinals, bishops, priests and religious orders.

Benedict XVI used all the power at his disposal as pope to counter this and to ensure that the people, especially the most marginalised – women, single mothers, those living with HIV, those sexually “different” and those who were desperate to look at scripture through the eyes of poor – remained where an all-male hierarchy wanted them: contained on the margins.

Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest and one of those silenced (at least inside the church) by Benedict, understandably describes his departure – the first pope in nearly 700 years to resign – as “a breath of fresh air”.

While others focus on the dignity of his departure, Fox reminds us of Benedict’s attacks, as head of the “Office of the Holy Inquisition”, on “theologians the world over who dared to do their job, which is to think”.

“He denounced, fired and hounded at least 105 theologians”, not only as head of the Inquisition, when he was known as “God’s Rottweiler”, but also as pope.

While it was his predecessors who brought back the Inquisition, it was under his watch as Cardinal Ratzinger that it was re-energised and extended, in a move desperate to quash theology by reducing it to a catechism and to affirming whatever the pope (or his curia) decreed.

Benedict XVI waged unrelenting attacks on base communities and Liberation Theology, even though this movement was the most Christ-like one for democracy, justice and freedom in centuries.

In South Africa, more than in many other countries, we experienced the value that this theology played in our country’s liberation struggle.

Benedict XVI was fierce in his affirmation of a moralism – not morality – of sexism (“no women priests ever”) and of homophobia.

He stuck by his “no condoms” policy even in an age of Aids and even in a society as ravaged by it as ours. Sex, he insisted, should only ever be for procreation, never for enjoyment.

So what do I say? Hamba kahle, or good riddance?

I have enough integrity to withhold the former, but not enough courage to offer the latter.

»?Professor Esack is head of the department of Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg

Who will be the next pope?

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement sets the stage for a succession battle to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mould, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe the church can broaden its appeal by allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or by loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent Aids.

Many Vatican watchers suspect the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict.

While most of the world’s Catholics live outside Europe, most of the cardinals come from Europe, pointing to a central tension: while the Vatican is a global organisation, it is often run like an Italian village.

Benedict was seen as a weak manager and his papacy was troubled by debilitating scandals, including a conflict with Islam at the start of his incumbency.

His successor will have to contend with a range of staggering practical challenges, including a perennial shortage of priests and nuns worldwide, as well as a sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the church’s moral authority, especially in Germany and the English-speaking countries, where it has been most aggressively exposed.

Cardinal Timothy M Dolan of New York. During the Cold War it would have been a long shot, but there’s now talk an American could be a pope.

His conservatism and folksy charisma make him popular at a time when the church is focused on “new evangelisation”.

Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson of Ghana, the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Justice, is seen as the most likely African contender for the papacy.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a dogmatic theologian and a Canadian, is widely seen as a favourite of Benedict.

Critics in his native Quebec said he was out of step with the province’s more progressive bishops, but that is not necessarily a drawback in today’s church.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, the powerful Archbishop of Milan, is seen as the strongest Italian contender.

Vatican experts laud his popular touch, even if his writings are often opaque.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect for the Congregation for Eastern Churches, is Argentinian, which would excite the Latin American wing of the church.

He is also a skilful Vatican insider who served in the Secretariat of State under John Paul II.

– New York Times

How a new pope is elected

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