The troubled Catholic Church and its potential for renewal

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The puff of white smoke announcing that “we have a pope” (habemus papam) is less joyful this time, in spite of the exultation of the crowds in St. Peter’s square and the pealing of bells.

The Catholic Church is indeed at a very problematic and critical juncture. In the first place, the fact of Benedict XVI’s resignation, though mostly considered with respect, has been – for believers – a true shock, with troubling theological implications: if the Pope has a mandate not from the Cardinals, mere intermediaries, but from the Holy Spirit, how is it possible for a human being to renounce a divine mandate?

Moreover, in announcing his decision Josef Ratzinger, though with all the sophisticated indirectness a philosophically savvy cleric is capable of, was certainly not cryptic. He said that his advanced age and failing strength did not allow him to adequately perform his duties, but he also referred to the critical predicament that the Church finds itself in at this particular stage – one that is literally extraordinary.

Here one does not need to be a theologian to know what he was referring to: the double challenge of two major scandals involving pedophilia and murky financial dealings within the Vatican, with troubling repercussions on internal power struggles and power-motivated leaks (“Vatileaks”, as the press has dubbed them).

Apologists for the Church like to point out that the incidence of pedophilia cases within the Catholic clergy is not higher than that occurring in other institutions, from secular schools to the Boy Scouts; but this is of course a less than candid argument, in the sense that the Church, preaching to the world the highest moral standards, should be necessarily held to the highest standards in terms of moral behavior. Secondly, and much more important, is the fact that the real scandal is not only the abuse (which is bad enough in itself) but the institutional cover-up, leading to abominable decisions – particularly in cases in which instead of turning the culprits of child abuse over to the police and the courts, many bishops gave priority to preserving “reputation” and often moved the violators from one parish to the other, where they sometimes went on with their criminal behavior. The cover-up is the real scandal, and when one considers the most egregious of the cases, that of Father Maciel Degollado, Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, indignation turns into disbelief. We now know, thanks to the inquiries promoted by Pope Benedict XVI and thanks also to some reputable investigative reporting, that the pedophilic, incestuous, bigamist cleric – extremely skillful and powerful as a proselytist and a fund-raiser - was protected by Pope John Paul II in spite of substantial, and substantiated, denunciations of his outrageous behavior.

As for finances, the problems deriving from the operations of the Istituto Opere di Religione – IOR, the Vatican’s “bank” are certainly not new. It is enough to remember the real-life thriller involving characters such as Archbishop Paul Marcinkus and banker Roberto Calvi, who ended up, in the best film noir style, hanged under the Blackfriars Bridge in London after murky dealings that have never been totally disentangled, but which at least revealed a less than rigorous, and less than ethical, financial behavior on the part of those responsible for Vatican finances. IOR is still more than controversial (it has transpired that many Cardinals demanded to know more about its functioning before entering the Conclave), so much so that the Bank of Italy recently revoked the authorization to perform ATM services from Vatican territory given a lack of guarantees that anti-recycling norms are strictly applied there.

This is bad enough, one will say. And yet there is more to the problems the next pope will have to address than sexual or financial scandals. After all, the Church has historically survived worse crises and overcome worse contradictions. Its resilience and flexibility - for believers perhaps the most convincing proof of divine protection –  have prevailed over internal corruption and historical challenges such as the epochal struggle between Papacy and Empire and, more recently, the loss, from the entry into Rome of Italian troops in 1870 to the Mussolini Concordat of 1929, of its own territorial sovereignty.

The 20th Century has been characterized, for the Church, by the onslaught of two totalitarian alternatives to religious faith: Communism and Nazism. Theologically the Church was equally opposed to both, since they were equally godless, but there is no doubt that, politically-speaking, by far the main enemy was Communism. Pius XII was not “pro-Nazi”, but he was certainly pro-German, in the sense that he never lost the hope that German civilization, temporarily hijacked by politically violent, ideologically quasi-pagan myths, would eventually re-emerge on a sound, conservative, Christian basis. There was no such hope for Communism, as it was perceived as an irreconcilable and lethal enemy. The behavior of some parts of the Catholic clergy in helping several Nazi war criminals escape to South America in the post-war years is a proof of this asymmetry.

And yet, though the Church as an institution was at times less than wholehearted in its opposition to Nazism (in particular as a consequence of the priority given to anti-Communism), individual Catholics, both priests and lay people, often played a superb, moving humanitarian role, and in some cases even participated in the anti-authoritarian movements. Here, indeed, is the strength of the Church as ecclesia, i.e. not as an institution but as the community of the faithful, often capable of finding the right moral path even when their pastors waver or blunder.

It is a fact that both bloody utopias, the One Thousand Year Reich and Communism, have gone to the dustbin of history, whereas the Church is still there, in spite of all the contradictions and the problems.

So far so good, one might say. But, as both John Paul and Benedict were lucidly aware of, today’s menace to the Church, to its message, is much more devious, more dangerous, more powerful, than any totalitarianism ever was. The Church is still there, apparently still formidable, capable, intellectually gifted, organized. Its message, however, seems to be fading in the face of the corrosive effect of modernity (or post-modernity). It is not an exaggeration to argue that for the Church, consumerism might turn out to be more subversive than Communism, that self-indulgent sexuality could be more difficult to resist than anticlerical persecution. One should go back to the Gospels and in particular to the temptations of Christ, and imagine Satan equipped with today’s powerful toolbox of advertising, television, internet - Satan inviting everyone to enjoy, to follow one’s instincts and every whim.

All this, while authority as such (not only that of the Church but also that of the traditional family) is being dramatically undermined, and while the dominant psychological mode seems to be that of self-indulgence and narcissism.

The significant conservatism of the two latest Popes can be better understood in the context of this fear and the gloomy scenario of a Church that, after centuries of resisting persecution, internal corruption, totalitarian challenge, ends up being eroded by self-indulgence and narcissistic hedonism. This, and certainly not a merely philosophical debate, is what lies behind the systematic attack conducted by the highest Catholic authority against “relativism” over the past three decades.

But, if the challenge is real, can fear and conservative retrenchment be the only reply? One should instead quote, and abide by, John Paul’s powerful, vigorous call “Non abbiate paura – Don’t be afraid”. How could, indeed, relativism be fought by a fearful, and hopeless, attempt to reinstate dogma and authority?

The Catholic Church has shown, in the past, to be capable of another path, the path of hope, of confidence in humanity, and in itself. This was evident in the heady days of Pope John XXIII and of his Council, which tried to embrace modernity in order to steer it toward the moral and eschatological goals of the Church. But, as is always the case when an opening of spaces, a flowing of new air, irrupts into a closed environment, some centrifugal forces were unleashed, discipline was challenged, a “hundred flowers” (some of them disquieting for the leadership of the Church) bloomed. As a consequence, fear again prevailed (it is significant that Ratzinger was in his younger years a progressive, and not a conservative theologian). All this, with important consequences that are also political. One case is especially significant: the appearance, in Latin America, of “Liberation Theology”, a message in favor of the humble and against establishments that St. Francis would have loved, but which scared the Church and increased its conservative retrenchment. (A reaction that is part of the explanation for the success of Pentecostals in Latin America: more popular, less hierarchical, less theological).

And yet, in spite of the fact that the last two popes have filled the ranks of Cardinals with mostly conservative personalities, it is not ruled out that under a new pope – probably not because of progressive ideas, but of wisdom - optimism will prevail over fear. This would be the same spirit of hope and acceptance of humanity in its entirety (body and soul) that characterized Cardinal Martini, a man of great faith, great theological knowledge but also unsurpassed humanity and spirit of dialogue.

The Catholic faithful, but even non- believers, need to be able to count on a renewed, non-fearful, non-retrenched Church; for the secular world this would be a partner in the difficult struggle to save moral values from the degrading, debasing effect of idiotic hedonism, self-indulgent narcissism, deaf anomie, and of an economy which has turned from means to an end in itself. Believers and non-believers can certainly share the substantial task of building a more humane, more peaceful, more compassionate world.