Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What next…

I’d planned to write another letter this week, began working on it Sunday even. Then I awoke to rare news Monday- that the current occupant of St. Peter’s See has decided to renounce his position as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI remains living, but will no longer be Pope. This hasn’t happened since the middle Middle Ages. Wild.

So my writing plan changed. I had questions, which may be answered once the news is no longer fresh. Will he return to being Joseph Ratzinger, or does a retired pope retain the title, like former Mr. Presidents? Will he have any leadership role once he descends the Apostolic Throne, or will he move to a monastery? Why did he do it? Is he dying? Is there unseen tension with the Vatican?

As a professional minister, these ponderings are my version of workplace gossip. Not as interesting to others, but I’m titillated! As a Protestant, though, in a church with some critical differences from Catholicism- ordination of women, noncelibate clergy, mistrust of hierarchy, rejection of creeds- maybe it shouldn’t matter to me. That’s their business, won’t affect mine.

The thing is Pope Benedict is the world’s most visible and influential Christian. Plus, not only does he head the planet’s largest religious organization, he’s also successor to history’s most enduring institution- the Papacy. Consider that the British monarchy’s not yet a thousand years old. The Dalai Lama began teaching in the late 14th century. Perhaps I’m forgetting other organizations or offices, but the Bishop of Rome seems unrivaled to me. Of course, some papal achievements may not be worth celebrating or still condoning. Novel ideas like holy war, the One True Church, infallibility weren’t the institution’s high points. Nevertheless, because of past popes’ efforts, whoever succeeds Benedict will instantly become Christianity’s most listened to voice. He may not be respected, or sought after, or wise, but when he speaks, people will pay attention. And many, Catholic or otherwise, will believe he represents all Jesus followers.

In other words, even Protestants have a stake in the Papacy’s direction. We don’t have a say in where it leads, obviously. But it’s still worthwhile to ponder its possible impact on us.

Suppose the new pope is a disaster; unapologetic about clergy abuse, treats other religions as enemies and not partners. The modern papacy retains trappings of medieval monarchs- thrones, palaces, near absolute authority, expensive regalia meant to project power- and some want a doubling down on that outmoded system. I think such decisions would further alienate modern folk from not just Catholicism, but all Christianity.

Then again, others advocate for a dramatic opening of the institution and church- celebrating Catholicism’s vibrant, multicultural growth in Africa and Asia, investing in its anti-poverty and social justice work that basically no one else does so well or has for so long. When Pope John Paul II visited concentration camps and met with other leaders of world religions, interfaith cooperation leapt forward in ways no one else could’ve achieved. I think such decisions could prove healing and invigorating for all Christians.

Now, I’m not a Benedict XVI scholar, but my feelings of him are mixed. Not as reactionary as I first worried, not as open as I’d choose. But this decision to step down, acknowledging his frailty and restrictions, the unique leadership demands the Papacy requires, it seems a decision of humility, of lifting the pope’s work above his prestige. If that’s right, I think it’s wise. For all the office’s grandiose aura, a flawed human inhabits it. And when the Papacy has failed worst is when a Pope acted as if he’s above normal human limitations. Perhaps by so publically acknowledging he can’t do it all, Benedict will re-energize the office’s humanistic elements. That may present other popes with more realistic expectations, open his church to newer ideas and leadership models. Who knows, it may lead non-Christians to reconsider the most attractive claims of Christian faith? That even flawed humans, broken and compromised, can connect fully with our merciful God, can make the world better, can find redemption, can channel divinity.

Just look at St. Peter. He did alright.

Grace and Peace,
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