Can the Church Move to the Centre?
Pope Benedict’s decision to resign on 28 February has put the church on the front pages of the media and raised speculation about who the next pope will be and which cardinal has a good chance to succeed him. After a Polish and a German pope, will the Italians “take back the papacy”? Is it the turn of someone from Latin America or Africa or Asia?
We can be sure that the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave are engaged in “conversations” via email, texts and phone calls. The Vatican has been described as a “small Italian village” and so rumours are rife.
The thirty-four years plus papacies of John Paul II and Benedict moved the Catholic Church to the far right. When Karol Wojtyla was elected in October 1978 Vatican II had closed only thirteen years previously and the openness and freedom of the Council still permeated the Church. This began to change since first John Paul and then Benedict moved the Church from a left-centre position to a far right position.
Both popes had a minimalist interpretation of Vatican II, stressing “continuity” which meant that nothing really new happened. At Vatican II Archbishop Karol Wojtyla voted against the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) because he considered it too optimistic about the world.
These two papacies have been characterized by open initiatives to the “right” and silencing of the “left”. For example, overtures to the traditionalist St Pius X Society which rejects Vatican II have been constant, with ways being devised to tell them that they do not have to accept all the Council’s teachings. But actions against theologians who have tried to interpret the Gospel in ways that can speak to postmodern Catholics have been marked by censure and excommunication. The list is long: Jacques Dupuis, Tissa Balasiriya, Leonardo Boff, Margaret Farley Roger Haight, Elizabeth Johnson, Peter Phan and others. American sisters who took Vatican II more seriously than any other group in the Church have had to endure an “apostolic visitation” and the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The issue of women’s ordination is considered closed forever and is a litmus test for any prospective bishop.
Excommunication and threats of excommunication have marked these years. For example, the women who have been ordained in various parts of the world have been excommunicated on the day of their ordination. One cannot imagine Pope John XXII excommunicating anyone for anything. These years have been marked by fear and control, which are not signs of the Spirit of God.
And during all these years the sexual abuse scandal has consumed the Church. Beginning in the early 80s and gathering momentum in 2002 when the Boston Globe exposed the extent of the cover up and transfer of priests who had abused children, the scandal has led to widespread loss of Church membership in North America and Europe. Exposure of such crimes in Africa has been minimal, but abuse has happened and continues to happen.
Episcopal and papal response has been to defend clerical privilege. For example, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston fled to the Vatican to escape arrest (the Vatican has no extradition treaty with the United States) and has enjoyed a high profile position at St Mary Major Basilica and continues to influence the appointment of US bishops. It has been recognized that the scandal has two dimensions: the evil acts of sexual abuse and the cover-ups to maintain clerical privilege. As Joseph Ratzinger and then Benedict XVI it took him a long time to recognise the seriousness of the scandal. And while he has apologized, there have not been any sanctions against the bishops whose cover-ups were at the heart of the scandal.
When the cardinals meet in conclave in March, will they look around and ask “Who amongst us is like Benedict? Who can ‘hold the line’, enforce orthodoxy and punish any deviance?” Or will they recognise that these two papacies have put the Church badly off balance with its centre of gravity now far to the right? Almost all the cardinals who will be voting were named by these two popes and share their conservative mind-set. Is it possible that they can find one amongst them who can lead from the centre?
Archbishop Denis Hurley’s episcopal motto was “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Let us pray for that freedom of Spirit to once again be the heart of the life of the Church.