From Commissar to Commandant: The Recent Papacy

When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, a Jesuit friend of mine in Rome telephoned me to say that the assembled cardinals had elected “the best of the commissars”. The subsequent twenty-seven years proved him to be right on target. The impetus of the Second Vatican Council died with John XXIII. Paul VI had neither the vision nor the courage to move forward. He failed to meet three of the great challenges brought to the Council: the birth control issue,the legal requirement of clerical celibacy, and the denial of the sacrament of holy orders to women. Those three unaddressed issues continue to haunt the church today, rendering its voice largely irrelevant to thinking people anywhere in the world.

John Paul II stated in an early interview that he felt that God had chosen him for the papacy because of his ideas and that, therefore, to change his ideas would be to betray God’s choice. This, of course, was a tragic misconception and it led to the stagnancy of his pontificate. Families continued to suffer by his failure to see the basic sanity of family planning through birth control. The clergy continued to disintegrate through the absurd requirement that they all be celibate males. Every study to date shows the failure of the law of clerical celibacy. The recent work of Elizabeth Abbott indicates that 40% of the priests in America had regular sexual partners, about 50% different sex and about 50% same sex. Another 15% had occasional sexual partners. The whole scandalous attempt by the American bishops to hush up the rampant sex scandals within the clergy finally exploded on to the world stage. These were bureaucrats who loved the facade of the Church more than they loved its children. The news came as no surprise to anyone who knew what went on behind the closed doors of ecclesiastical power. And women, of course, remained outside the structure, even though it was they who did most of the real work of the Church.

It’s an interesting study to contrast this stagnant leadership of John Paul II with the dynamic leadership of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama moves easily beyond tradition to the real need of the moment. When asked, for example, about homosexuality, he stated that it was traditionally seen as wrong in Buddhism but then went on to say that his own experience with the homosexual community today led him to see that the tradition needs to be changed. This was the kind of leadership that John Paul II could not imagine, let alone embody. Within his static framework he was, of course, a good and holy man and he did whatever could be done as long as he could avoid the reality of a changing world. In this he proved to be a good commissar.

Ratzinger brings a new style to the papacy. Like his immediate predecessors, he has chosen to be a conservative. In other words, he has chosen to defend the fortress Church that had existed prior to John XXIII and was quickly rebuilt after that great saint’s demise. It’s important to understand that the conservative posture of the Catholic hierarcy today is a choice. Cardinal George said in a recent interview: “We tried liberalism and it failed”. The conservative bishops at the Second Vatican Council were largely ignorant men, often corrupt men. Their conservatism was not a choice but a mere circumstance of their human limitations. These new conservatives are highly intelligent men. Benedict XVI may well be the most intelligent pope in centuries. Cardinal George was the chair of a philosophy department at a Jesuit University. Their conservatism does not stem from ignorance but from choice. They have decided that a prophetic Church (the kind envisaged by John XXIII) is simply too dangerous and that it is safer to keep the windows closed that John XXIII tried to open.

A theologian who attended a recent ordination ceremony remarked that these were good young men but that there was not a prophet among them. The vision of a collegial Church that guided Vatican II has been replaced by a bureaucratic Church, one that follows orders and is more than willing to be a rubber stamp for anything Rome decides. It is a safe Church and one that will offer security to the many Catholics who don’t want to wrestle with the complexity of a real world. It is a nostalgic Church that will offer solace to the many Catholics who don’t want to face the challenges of our times. As one of Ratzinger’s biographers wrote, the new Pope’s goal is to maintain a Church that will be familiar and comfortable for the inhabitants of the little Bavarian town that he calls home.

There will be a change, however, with this new papacy. Whereas the Slavic world has a way of letting things slide, the Germanic world tends to be thorough. Grundlichkeit or “thorougness” is an important German value. I found it interesting that in building the bunker set for the movie “Downfall” an exact duplicate of Hitler’s bunker was built, including rooms that would not be used in making the film. Unless you know the German mindset, a fact like that is difficult to grasp. Benedict XVI will bring micro-management to a new level. He will not tolerate ambiguity, compromise, or laxness. John Paul II might have let some things slide but this new pope will be an enforcer.

Where will this all end? This backlash will eventually weaken. The wisdom of family planning and population control will prevail. Married people (both those in heterosexual and homosexual unions) will be admitted to the clergy. Women and homosexuals will have an equal and recognized place at the table. Dialogue will replace exclusivism. The last vestiges of the old imperial Church will disappear and a collegial community of faith will emerge. The timetable for all of this? As Jesus said, “No one knows that, not even the Son, but only the Father/Mother of us all.”

By Ron Miller – September 8, 2005

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