Feb 28, 2013


Whatever one's thoughts about Pope Benedict and the man Joseph Ratzinger behind the Petrine Office, the sight of his final leave taking from the Vatican today was a deeply moving experience. His beloved secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, was in tears and no doubt the relationship between them is a tender one. I don't begrudge Benedict the comfort of this personal, intimate friend in his declining years. What I object to is the glaring contradiction of a deeply repressed gay man in an evident (chaste) homoerotic relationship with a younger companion who has expended so much energy attacking gays within and without the Church. In the past the couple has been the object of campy gay jokes, quite understandable in light of the fact Benedict exhibits many of the characteristics of a  gay man in profound denial. However, now is not the time for derision or sarcasm, the situation is simply too sad for words. Instead the departure scene today struck me as the final unfolding of a tragedy, both a personal one for the man behind the office and a universal one for the church as a whole. How did we get this far and what will happen now, we wonder, as we wait for the next turn of events. One feels an unbearable sadness for the never ending cycle of denial and self deception that seem to mark the Vatican culture surrounding the office of the Papacy. One accepts this situation in a spirit of faith, that the Spirit knows what she is about in purifying the church through one contradictory trial after another. Yet we long for respite and for some sign of hope for the institution that carries the Catholic Christian mystical tradition. 

I have little sympathy for those who call for an end to the papacy itself, 'no more popes', if by that call one means a rejection of the charism of the Petrine Office, rather than a dismantling of the medieval structure of kingship that now enshrines it . Part of the gift of the Catholic faith should include an intuitive perception of the holiness of the office itself, no matter how grossly distorted it has become over the centuries. Just as part of the Catholic vocation includes a mystical awareness of the mystery of the 'Real Prescence' within the Eucharist, no matter how clumsy and incomprehensible may be our theological explanations. Watching Benedict's frailty today and contemplating his own disturbing obsession with attacking gay people worldwide, I was only made more conscious of the profound holiness of the office he has just rescinded, a necessary mystical sign of unity that still shines beneath the distortions and weaknesses of the office holder. "The Pope needs to be put in his place," one of my revered theology professors said some years ago (Father Edward Malatesta S.J.). But by that phrase he did not mean the obliteration of the office altogether.

And so we wait - to see what the Holy Spirit has in store with the next figure to fill the Petrine Office. And we wait as persons of faith, not simply as journalists observing a bizarre sociological phenomenon, determined solely by the machinations and conniving of ambitious, duplicitous men.  What message will be conveyed from the Spirit by the next chosen Pope? That the time of trials and purifications are far from over, that we need to cease to look to the central office for any sign of change and renewal, that rigid ideological positions regarding women and gays and sexual morality are too entrenched to be changed or recognized by those at the top. Or will the Spirit surprise us by the selection of a man who will be humble enough to continue the process of demythologizing the office of the Papacy begun so spectacularly by Benedict's resignation. Someone who knows his place, as a humble servant of the whole church, whose voice can only be heard as the spokesperson of the 'sensus fidelium', listening, discerning, respecting and following the guidance of the Spirit expressed through the many currents of change in the church today. In any event, what is most important to remember is that the Spirit began a painful process of purification of our Catholic 'addiction' to the Papacy as a false idol of adoration some time ago, a process that is still underway, and whose turnings will still surprise us.

However, appeal to the Holy Spirit can quickly turn into a mechanism of denial and involve us in abstractions that obscure the real dynamics at work behind the scenes. As Ivone Gabara makes clear in a superb article at Igelsia Descalza's blog:

In the context of the first news reports, what struck me was something small and insignificant at first sight for analysts who deal with Vatican affairs. It was the way some of the priests who were interviewed or those who are TV show hosts responded when asked about who would be the new Pope by going off on a tangent. They referred to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- or its will -- as being the element on which the election of the Roman pontiff depended. Nothing about thinking of specific people to respond to the challenging world situations, nothing about stimulating reflection in the community, nothing about talking about the current issues in the church that have led to a significant slump, nothing about listening to the cries of the Catholic community for the democratization of the anachronistic structures that support the institutional church.

The theological training of these priest-communicators doesn't let them get away from a well known trivial and abstract discourse, an argument that keeps having recourse, as an explanation, to occult powers, and so, in a certain way, confirming their own power. The continual reference to the Holy Spirit from a mysterious hierarchical model is a way of camouflaging the real problems of the Church and a form of religious rhetoric to avoid revealing the internal conflicts experienced by the institution.

The theology of the Holy Spirit continues to be magic for them, expressing explanations that can no longer speak to the hearts and consciences of many people who appreciate the legacy of the movement of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a theology that is causing the passivity of the faithful in the face of many forms of domination, including the religious kind. They continue to repeat formulas as if the latter would satisfy most people.

I include these comments as a necessary corrective to a too facile dependance upon 'the Holy Spirit,' without abrogating my faith in the ultimate power of Providence working in and through, behind and above the practical considerations and decisions of fallible women and men - or in this case, fallible elderly men secreted in conclave without any accountability to the whole church. Yet even in such a secretive place, the Holy Spirit lives and confounds.

Whatever the choice and whether we consider the choice momentous or irrelevant, we must ask the Lord of the Church, "What would you have us do? Show us the way ahead? How are we best to serve the church we so love and move it forward towards that goal of being a shining city on a hill? O Lord Jesus Crucified and Resurrected, show us the way."


Philomena Ewing said...

Thanks for this great article Jayden.
I find myself agreeing with much of it. But re- the invocation of the Holy Spirit, I know it is something I tend to do when there are profound moments that I can't articulate in words, but also when I need to honour the mystery of faith and grace.

I think what you say here about the necessary debate that is often given scant attention, does contain elements of denial too. But it is also complex because of the emotional ties many Catholics feel towards what you call the charism of the Petrine office and apostolic succession.

I think there is a time and place for pause out of respect for the end days of Pope Benedict. I too felt sad today too, although I was not a fan of Benedict's papacy. Some of the media articles and blogs I have seen these past few days certainly have not avoided the discussions that are needed. I am pretty sure that there will be a mighty resurgence of debate shortly. Blessings

PrickliestPear said...

Re: the role of the Holy Spirit in the selection of a pope, I think Ratzinger's near-minimalist approach makes a lot of sense. This is from an article by John L. Allen, Jr. that was posted online a few days before Ratzinger was elected pope:

[Ratzinger] was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected pope, and this was his response: "I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. ... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."

Then the clincher: "There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked."

Jayden Cameron said...

Well, Phlomena, I included the article by Ivone Gabara as a check to myself, since my dearest friends have accused me sometimes of being too 'ethereal and whispy whispy,' when it comes to speaking of the Holy Spirit. Well, OK, point taken, but truthfully I thought Gabara also went too far in ascribing such sentiments to magical thinking.
very interesting quote, Prickliest Pear, which seems sensible and rather humble as well. I'm a bit more of a 'fatalist' however in this matter and believe there are no accidents, even with unsavory popes the Holy Spirit might "obviously not have picked." It is a deep mystery where human freedom (and folly) intersect with divine intentionality. I believe there is a pattern and a purpose to the trials of the church - ever since the dramatic death of Pope John I, whom I'm convinced was murdered. A deep mystery is working itself out before our eyes, but this does not exonerate the human decisions made from culpability. Now we wait in silence and prayer for the next turn of events. And life goes on.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jayden, thank you for a wonderful article. It is very thoughtful.

Mark zysist 208