Like most Catholics, I was stunned this morning by the news that Benedict XVI has announced his resignation and will soon retire to the medieval woodcut from whence he came….
All kidding aside, I applaud Benedict for having the courage to take this step. As modern medicine prolongs our lives far past our vigor, anyone in a lifetime appointment should be open to retirement; still, power is hard to walk away from. God bless Benedict for making this difficult choice, and may he have a long and peaceful life in which to read and pray and relax.
That out of the way, what on earth is the Church going to do? (FAIR WARNING: I’m departing from my usual political bent here and speaking purely as a Catholic who struggles everyday with the tension between my faith and my abhorrence for the institution.) The cardinals are being given another chance to do this right, to move the church decisively towards either obsolescence or vitality. My gut tells me that political power-games and fear of the unknown will drive the church further right, towards a zealous fundamentalist nihilism… but maybe not. I don’t believe God can simply change the minds of men who don’t want to hear Him – but I do believe that these Cardinals will be praying, a LOT, and that if they are truly open to listening, we might just get a daring charismatic modern pope who can lead a vibrant church in our shared faith. I hope I hope I hope.
It won’t be an easy task. The Catholic Church is mangled on the racks of two very different, very sick sets of twisted ideas. The first is the deluded belief that admitting mistakes would end the church’s authority. There are many many people high up in this institution who feel that acknowledging sins and errors would weaken the church. As result, horrific abuses have been buried, ignored, painted over, in the name of preserving the church. Whether it’s altar boys in Boston or unwed mothers in Ireland, entirely too many innocent people have suffered at the hands of the clergy. If the church were willing to be transparent, to denounce these abuses quickly, to work with civil authorities, it would be so much more credible than it is in its “La-La-La I-Can’t-HEAR-You!” stance.
Admitting mistakes shouldn’t end with the abuses done in the church’s name (though it should start there). The church desperately needs to fundamentally rethink its stance on pretty much everything to do with sex. How can an institution that refuses to hear from women – or even from married men – possibly get these issues right?
This is the second massive stumbling block that has to be addressed before the church can be relevant or credible again. The church’s attitude toward sexuality is the product of two thousand years of perverted understanding of human nature (thanks St. Paul! And thanks, every single church leader who came later and didn’t set this straight!). How can we hope the church will ever recognize the validity – even sanctity – of homosexual love, when it can’t even comprehend the role of sex within heterosexual marriage? By pretending that human sexuality is only for procreation, the church twists what it means that we are made in God’s “image and likeness.” Sexuality is inherent in each one of us, and expresses itself differently in each one of us throughout our lives. It’s part of our identity, how we relate to one another and the greater world. It gives us shelter from the storm, and allows us to communicate far beyond mere words. It is essential to what makes us human, to what makes us children of God. And yet the church has suggested, time and again, that sexuality is at best a necessary evil, at worst, a sign of our depravity.
It seems like an incredibly long shot, but the right leadership could still turn this around. We could start to acknowledge that sexuality is part of the divinity in us. Maybe then the church can move past its fear of women, fear of gays, and fear of the human condition; maybe then it will get past its medieval preoccupation with sex, and focus on the true message of Christ – caring for the poor, the sick, and the least of us, moving into a new millenium with a healthy understanding of our shared humanity. Besides, Pope Simone has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?