Beyond Benedict

papal seal

I think that I’m in agreement with Fr Ray’s conceit that our outgoing Pope has left us a legacy of concepts, as follows:

  • the idea that there is a correct and incorrect interpretation of Vatican II,

  • he has gone along way to reconciling the Church’s present to its past, Summorum Pontificum is an important part of this

  • he has gone along to dismantling the political notions of left and right, liberal and conservative (the media hasn’t caught on to this yet) and restoring the notion of Catholic orthodoxy.

  • he has re-presented the idea that Pope is the Bishop of Rome – certainly first amongst equals – (I’ll explore this at a later stage but I think this important).

  • that “Unity” in terms of ecumenism is about looking to those who share (substantially) the catholic faith – hence Ordinariates and looking towards the Orthodox

It’s certainly true that Joseph Ratzinger has done much to reinforce the concept that biblical Christianity does not fit neatly into the left/right praxis of Western democracy, which is why whilst few media commentators have been ignorant enough to label him as a right-wing or Republican type, neither have they picked up on many of his speeches which have a distinctly left-wing bent. This speech on selfish economic models and the value of the family farm was never widely disseminated for example, and neither was his concept of the ecology of mankind, reclaiming territory from the Greens, ever explored nor were his environmentally friendly credentials ever acknowledged or welcomed by the Green party, only being belatedly dredged up by the Guardian who were trying to find something positive to say to balance out their one-sided coverage of the papal resignation which would fit in with their agenda. It begs the question as to when the watermelons are going to cotton on to the environmental effects of their contraceptive comfort blanket.

But Fr Ray, is correct in his identification that Benedict, like his predecessor, has left us a variety of concepts which now need practical application. In both John Paul II and Benedict XVI we have had two towering intellectual giants, two great teaching popes who were both members and architects of the Second Vatican Council, who both understood what the reforms were supposed to achieve, watched their misapplication with dismay and who both unpicked, communicated and attempted to sow the seeds of the genuine spirit and renewal of the church that Vatican II was supposed to engender. Both John Paul II and Benedict left behind great gifts to the church in terms of their theological and academic writings – notably John Paul II’s theology of the body, which will continue to be studied and relevant for many generations to come, and Joseph Ratzinger’s vast body of literary contributions, apostolic letters and speeches out of which it is difficult to chose any of being of most merit, so consistently high is the quality, but my money is on Deus Caritus Est and his biographies of Jesus, which was groundbreaking in that a Pope made complex theological concepts and the historicity of the gospels accessible to the general public for the first time in modern history.

So what next? Is the Pope one of the last intellectuals and is this really such a bad thing? It’s fair to say that whoever is chosen, they are hardly going to be a dullard in the cerebral stakes, given that canon law proscribes that all bishops must either have a doctorate or a licentiate (i.e. a lesser degree than a doctorate but a qualification that enables them to teach in seminaries). The unfortunately titled piece on Catholic Light, (Does the Pope have an S.T.D) gives a comprehensive summary of cardinals’ degrees.

But all Catholics need to be wary of the cult of the intellect, which can lead us astray in terms of admiring people or wishing to elevate them on the basis of intellect alone. Whilst it is vital that those in positions of leadership must have a thorough formation, I don’t think we can discount candidates on the basis that they don’t possess the extraordinary intellectual abilities and gifts of the previous two popes, which were unique and rare gifts. How many people can really count themselves in the same intellectual league as Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger? St Peter wasn’t to be found earnestly studying the laws in minute detail in the synagogue though I think we can safely assume that he knew them well. Being an intellectual powerhouse is no guarantee of spiritual greatness or a burning and passionate desire to spread the good news and safely lead the flock. Being in possession of a great intellect must be tempered with a corresponding humility otherwise the gift takes on a destructive nature. Give me the humble priest who tends to the sick, who feeds the hungry and homeless, comforts the distressed, fights for the oppressed and walks with the outcast as opposed to the remote bookish intellect any day. Some of the most inspirational Catholics in my daily life are not those with the highfaluting terminology, but those who witness simply through their daily lives and everyday words of wisdom and encouragement.

We have been incredibly fortunate in that we’ve had two popes who have bequeathed us so much in terms of intellectual wisdom and insight, my feeling is that it’s now time to pause, take stock, we have to digest and now apply the messages and teachings of our two previous Popes. I think we need some intellectual breathing space, in which we can begin to absorb and apply what we have learnt.

The new pope, whoever it might be, needs to hopefully have something of the showmanship of Karol Wojtyla intermingled with the thoughtfulness and radicalism of Pope Benedict XVI. He must continue to reform the Vatican in terms of how it communicates with the outside world, the Pope’s twitter account has been an excellent start as has the engagement with Catholic bloggers and the redesign of the Vatican portal but these are cosmetic changes, there needs to be a concerted attempt to ensure that it uses the new tools at its disposal for the New Evangelisation. The new pontiff must also possess the courage and vision to be able to give the Curia a red-slippered kick up the backside, it would appear that it needs root and branch reform to bring its admin processes into the twenty-first century and it’s staff need to be brought into line – there should be no time for petty factionalisms and jealousy. Though whoever is appointed will undoubtedly possess intellect, it will not need to be the defining quality of this new papacy. We need, for want of a better word, an applicator and enforcer, someone who will widely disseminate, reinforce and apply the work of the past pontificates.

It’s a shame that due to the nature of global politics that we are unlikely to see Cardinal Dolan (although never say never, the frontrunners in a conclave almost never emerge as the successor), the world is not ready for an American pope and it is unlikely that we will see one for as long as the USA remains as a (albeit declining) global superpower – it would not be good to have a Vatican that Americans could claim as being theirs. Besides which America needs Cardinal Dolan, though no-one will be more delighted than me if I am proven wrong in a few weeks time and I am in sympathy with Fr Lucie-Smith, nationality should not disbar an otherwise ideal candidate. I’m nurturing outrageous secret fantasies, given that the Pope doesn’t technically need to be from among the college of Cardinals, about how wonderful it would be if the Holy Spirit were to whisper the Word on Fire amongst the cardinals in the conclave. Or what if our new Bishop of Portsmouth or Shrewsbury were to have the fastest promotion in ecclesial history?!

At this moment in time, regardless of whether or not he is our last pope (the evidence would indicate otherwise), the successor of Peter does undoubtedly need to feed his flock during a period of transition and flux, which is seeing an end to a society based upon Christian values and ideals. Now is a time to put the words and the intellect of others into action.

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