A Punch List: Priorities for the next pope
Dedication to Dialogue
An eminent professor of history at Princeton University, Anthony Grafton, remarked in a short article in The New York Review of Books in 2010 that Pope Benedict XVI was probably “the greatest scholar to rule the church since Innocent III,” a pope whose reign covered the last years of the 12th century and the first years of the 13th century. Grafton meant those words in a laudatory sense, but they were double-edged. It is true that Innocent III made his reputation as a great canonist and church reformer in Europe, but he also claimed more than ecclesiastical authority over the princes in Europe.
Innocent also called for crusades against the Albigensians in the south of France as well as against the Muslims in both Spain and the Holy Land, even if he sometimes deplored the violence with which those campaigns were carried out. In 1187, 11 years before Innocent ascended the papal throne, most of the Holy Land had been wrested from the Crusaders by Saladin after 88 years of Crusader rule. Innocent saw that Crusader defeat as the result of the Crusaders’ sins. The Fourth Crusade, launched by Innocent III, was aimed at retrieving the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, from Muslim rule but somehow led instead to the pillaging of Eastern Christian Constantinople in the year 1204. The Greek Orthodox have neither forgotten nor forgiven this.
Great as he is, Pope Benedict has sometimes, like Innocent III, found himself in situations he never intended to create. His academic lecture in 2006 at the University of Regensburg aimed at underlining the importance of reason in a university setting and especially at raising “the question of God through the use of reason.” He began with a brief description of a dialogue supposedly held in 1391 between an anonymous Muslim scholar and the third-to-last Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos. During the dialogue the emperor claimed that Muslims, unlike Christians, had no respect for human reason: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as the command to spread by the sword that faith he preached.” Somehow, Pope Benedict and his advisers did not recognize ahead of time that this academic bijou could not but enrage Muslims. Most people had never heard of Manuel II Palaiologos before the address at Regensburg; furthermore, the emperor’s understanding of Islam did not, in my opinion, cry out to be included in a discussion of the relationship between faith and reason. It also ignored the long tradition of Muslim philosophical theology (kalam).
Pope Benedict’s intellectual humility manifested itself in the aftermath of the Regensburg imbroglio, and during his subsequent visits to Turkey, the Holy Land and Lebanon in recent years, he has tried more than once to overcome his bias. Pope Benedict’s successor will have to recognize that Hilaire Belloc’s famous dictum— “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe”—makes no sense today, even if it is still bandied about. The Catholics of Latin America, Asia and Africa account for two-thirds of the world’s Catholics today. That does not mean that the next pope should come from these areas. I know some Asian, Middle Eastern and African Catholics with even more negative attitudes toward Islam than those still trumpeted in Europe, North America and Oceania.
But any future pope needs to understand basic truths about Islam; even better, he should get to know some Muslims. Personal acquaintance can break down many barriers.
Patrick J. Ryan, S.J.
Mending Our Nets
The rapid secularization of Western societies, and their need to be evangelized anew, has been a major papal theme since Pope Paul VI. While a pope from Manila or São Paulo might not feel these issues quite so keenly as one from Milan or New York, they are unlikely to disappear from the church’s agenda anytime soon. In fact, there will almost certaintly be an early, major magisterial statement on the subject: an exhortation on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” responding to last October’s Synod of Bishops, will be high on our new Holy Father’s to-do list.
Given the scale and complexity of the task, the new evangelization can and must encompass a great many things, everything from Twitter to the theology of the body, from the Divine Mercy to the works of mercy. Our recent popes, of course, have guided the faithful—as teachers and witnesses—on each one of these (deliberately disparate) examples. Important as such undertakings are, however, there remains one fundamental issue that urgently needs to be addressed. If it is not, then—to put it bluntly—the new evangelization is doomed to abject failure.
Here is something that any incoming pope needs to know: While we are pretty good at attracting new people, we are terrible at keeping those we already have. Consider this: One in 40 American adults is a Catholic convert, but one in 10 Americans is a Catholic “deconvert”—that is, was brought up Catholic but now no longer self-identifies as such, according to the 2008 Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey. To put those figures in some kind of perspective, American Catholic parishes, schools, colleges, mission groups, television stations and families have together reeled in almost six million new Catholic converts, an impressive catch by any fisher of men’s standards. And yet, at exactly the same time, those who got away number over 23 million.
All in all, according to a 2008 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, American Catholicism’s dropout rate is somewhere around 30 percent. A similar, or worse, rate can be found in many other Western countries (in my own, Britain, it is 40 percent). This is a genuine crisis of transmission and retention, and no realistic amount of bringing in the newly evangelized—and I say this as one myself—can even hope to offset it.
As the first apostles well knew, broken nets lose more fish than they bring in. Though he is the successor of Peter, the new pope might point here to the example of James and John: mending their nets first, before heeding Christ’s call to become fishers of men (Mt 4:21-22). Unfortunately, that is more easily said than done. Our decades-long breakdown of transmission needs first to be fully diagnosed before we can hope to start putting it right. Encouraging Catholic social scientists to explore the subject in greater detail would thus be an excellent first step. What little research there has been already hints that religious practice in the home (or the lack of it) might well be one key influence on retaining our cradle Catholics. If so, then our new pope might fruitfully lay greater stress on the family—”the domestic church”—as both the object, and agent, of the new evangelization.
Ultimately, however, responsibility for the church’s mission rests not with the bishop of Rome, but collectively with us all. The most a pope can really do, through teaching and example, is guide and inspire. Let us pray then—and where applicable, all together as a family (see above)—that our next pope does both as effectively as his predecessor.
Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation has opened the floodgates of speculation about the future. While some commentators seek to create a papacy and a church according to their particular agenda or favorite ecclesiastical personality, others ask fundamental questions about the future of the church itself that are well worth considering. Pope Benedict’s courageous and charismatic gesture has lifted the veil on a number of unresolved issues of governance that urgently need looking at. This is particularly true when it comes to the question of authority and its exercise among the people of God.
The Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” made clear that the lines of authority continue to lie where they always have. The church places its trust in the Holy Spirit, speaking through the successors of Peter and the apostles at global, national and local levels. But the Holy Spirit also speaks through the faithful, invested through the sacrament of baptism with a universal call to holiness. Blessed John Henry Newman’s controversial article “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” was largely vindicated by the Second Vatican Council. In his critique of the “extreme centralization” of the church of his time he challenged the notion of the Holy See as the regulator of every doctrinal question, instead seeing it as “the court of ultimate appeal.” While the council documents imply a mandate for a more localized and consultative model of governance based on lived, local realities, the inevitable ambiguities of constitutions formulated by committee have prevented the effective realization of this mandate. Instead we have a model that has become more hierarchical, clericalized and too removed from the life and concerns of many of the governed.
Among St. Augustine’s three categories of inflamed passion are the rage for controlling, libido dominandi, and for knowing, libido sciendi. A structure of governance that seeks rigidly to control the processes by which the church comes to develop its understanding of the truth is not one where the Spirit can flourish. St. Augustine sees that in “the desire to control” we lose the capacity to value the gift of ourselves and of others, which are part of the gift of God’s own self to us. Within the church as the body of Christ, we give ourselves to God and to one another in our journey of faith, both the leaders and the led, as loved and forgiven sinners. This is what lies at the heart of a eucharistic model of the church.
The council also taught us to open up a dialogue with the world. We rightly critique those aspects of the secular world that are unjust, idolatrous and unreflective of ultimate meaning. But the world also has much to teach us in terms of the value of transparency and accountability in governance. Even to many within the church, the structures of governance often appear opaque and unaccountable. Such structures serve only to foster a climate of secrets: secret deliberations, condemnations without meaningful power of appeal, attempts to cover up without due process scandals that harm God’s people. When honest critique and faithful exploration of the boundaries of doctrine and pastoral practice are treated as straightforward dissent, to be outlawed or punished, while at the same time the sexual abuse of minors and of women religious by priests and others and practices such as clerical concubinage in some parts of the world appear to continue without effective challenge, then the church is grievously wounded. When communication is largely one way, so that too little lay participation informs the voice of governance or doctrinal development, then we have domination rather than leadership. The increasing rate of attrition among disillusioned Catholics cannot go on being ignored.
We have had much excellent teaching from the last two popes that has enriched both the church and the world. But there is a crisis of credibility both inside and outside the church that cries out for our attention. We have it within us to be a major voice of wisdom in world affairs. But for us to be heard, we must first put our own house in order.
Gemma Simmonds, C.J.
Of Safety and Assessment
It is appropriate, as we reflect on the role of the papacy in the church, to do so during the Lenten season, which leans heavily toward repentance. This theme coincides with what I believe should be a major focus of the new pope: the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children by clergy. How appropriate the passage from the Book of Joel: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning; rend your hearts and not your garments” (Jl 2:12).
Among the urgent duties that the new pope will face, perhaps none will be more vexing than dealing with the abuse scandal. Following regular expressions of sorrow for the sexual abuse of children by clergy, he should take direct action by intensifying effective ongoing programs and proposing new initiatives. While, in a certain sense, this tragic matter will never be brought to final resolution, striving to lessen the suffering of those who were abused must be one of the outcomes sought after under the new papacy. Toward that end, I offer three suggestions.
Time and again church leaders have expressed repentance, addressing those who were sexually abused and those affected by abuse, voicing regret over what has happened. This message cannot be repeated often enough and should remain a high priority for the new pope. True repentance requires admission of wrongdoing, acts of penance, a change of heart and sincere efforts to reform. Frequently, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the personal priest to Pope Benedict XVI, and the pope himself, have called for a day of fasting and penance to express the church’s solidarity with the victims of clerical abuse. During Lent, this advice seems particularly timely.
Second, the importance of enhancing effective programs that help reduce sexual abuse is self-evident. The new pope should insist that the policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other bishops’ conferences be diligently observed. What has the church in the United States done to stem the problem? Although critics would say “too little, too late,” the fact is that many constructive actions have created a vastly different climate in the church.
For example, in 1992 the bishops’ conference adopted a formal policy, “Five Principles,” to guide the response of bishops to sexual abuse. In short, they require prompt response to allegations, relieving offenders from ministry, complying with obligations of civil law, reaching out to victims and families and dealing as openly as possible with members of the communities affected.
From 2002 onward, an eruption of activity ensued: the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” national studies on the “Nature and Scope” and “Causes and Context” of sexual abuse, the establishment of an Office of Child and Youth Protection and review boards at national and diocesan levels.
In addition, the new pope should monitor all bishops’ conferences in the world to judge how well Pope Benedict XVI’s mandate to them to develop similar culturally appropriate policies is being followed. Each diocese should be required to prepare a public, annual report describing compliance with existing policies. Oversight and evaluation of these policies must be intense and violations handled promptly.
Finally, going forward, new initiatives are essential; in particular the new pope should create an independent Vatican office charged with monitoring every diocese as to their compliance with the strictest guidelines to prevent sexual abuse. Ample resources should be available to that office so that they can judge the effectiveness of each diocesan program; then they must create norms for the removal of noncomplying authorities and for remedies to the problems. The devil will be in the details as to what will constitute adequate policies, but the goal must be the protection of children and young people from abuse. The pope should see to it that the church gets at the root of the problem, creating mechanisms that deal with church leaders who display insensitivity to or denial of clerical sexual abuse. A climate of assessment must prevail.
Following the teaching and witness of Jesus, the new pope should above all set an example by insisting on respect for the dignity of each person.
Katarina Schuth, O.S.F.