We've been using that word to describe the goings on in the Catholic Church a lot lately. First a Los Angeles archbishop publicly rebuked his predecessor for a history of protecting pedophile priests. And now the pope has abdicated. These are seismic changes in one of the most hidebound institutions in the world.
While much has been written about the fact that this is the first papal resignation in 600 years, that ignores how truly revolutionary this decision is. The handful of resignations in the ancient history of the Church have been due to extraordinary circumstances -- not the common-place occurrence of growing old. While nearly every account I've read has been treating this as a surprising but wise decision, what few having been willing to address is that it stands Catholic belief and tradition on its head.
In a single moment, the pope has removed some of the aura of the papacy, the idea that it was a vocation rather than a ministry, something that cannot be abandoned without somehow affronting the Holy Spirit. Today, the pope indicated that the Petrine ministry is a ministry, a very specific ministry to be sure, but more of a job than a vow.
Maybe that's how the papacy should be viewed, but throughout history it hasn't been. This decision marks the very conservative Pope Benedict XVI, as one of the Church's greatest potential reformers.
Benedict’s “grand refusal,” unlike that of Celestine, modifies customs rather than solidifying them. It is not an unrepeatable exception, or an accident to avoid, but could become an example to follow. It essentially changes the material constitution of the Church and introduces a precedent that any successor from now on will have to face, without the shelter of tradition.
After Monday, it will be difficult for any “old” pope to avoid scrutiny of his age in this era of global leadership and exercise of 24-hour global responsibility, which increases with each passing year. Benedict's choice offers a broad-reaching reform and reveals, ultimately, a conservative mind.
Now, I have referred to Pope Benedict as a reformer before, but I was being somewhat ironic. In an environment where taking any action at all on the sex abuse crisis is radical, his glacial movements stand in sharp relief. One doesn't get to be pope without knowing when to be cautious and politic, but somehow such careful calculus seems out of place in a spiritual leader facing an epidemic of child rape.
Outside of the sex abuse issue he's proved conservative to the point of being regressive.
Pope Benedict is regarded as a conservative theologian who has asserted that Catholicism is the “true” religion that is in competition with Islam, has repeatedly spoken out against same-sex relationships, and “restated the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women priests.” During his annual Christmas speech to the Vatican, the pontiff called same-sex marriage a “manipulation of nature” to be deplored and an attack on the “essence of the human creature.” He claimed that attempts to pass marriage equality “harm and help to destabilize marriage” and present “serious harm to justice and peace.”
Who could forget his remarkable pronouncement equating the sexual abuse of children with the ordination of women?
No. Until yesterday, no one could have accused this pope of making progressive change in the Church. He was however, very proactive in his conservatism. His ideological influence should be felt for some time to come, because in that regard as well, his political calculus has come to the fore. He has, throughout his reign, quietly laid the architecture to protect his legacy and conservative agenda and will be taking his leave while that groundwork remains intact.
While Benedict won't be directly involved in his successor's selection, his influence will undoubtedly be felt. He appointed 67 of the 117 cardinals that -- as of Monday -- are set to make the decision.
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CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen said that means the next pope, no matter where he is from, will probably continue in Benedict's conservative tradition, which has seen the church take a firm line on issues such as abortion, birth control and divorce.
Some of the names are disturbingly familiar because they've appeared on this blog before. We have Timothy Dolan whose battle with President Obama's birth control mandate resulted in brain pretzeling rhetoric about religious freedom as the right to stuff his beliefs down everybody's throat. The fact that he paid off pedophile priests is also fairly sickening. There's William Levada whose weak-kneed apologia for abusive priests -- he blames society -- and for the toothless, incremental policies of the Vatican, has long kept us amused. And, of course, there's Roger Mahony who spent years deliberately shuffling abusive priests out of state to protect them from prosecution and then spent more years and millions of dollars to try to hide that fact. Mahony's relief from all regional responsibilities and very public spat with his successor Archbishop Jose Gomez was also unprecedented.