The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI produced an incredible array of responses from Catholics, Christians, and non-Christians all around the world. After the initial shock (and sadness, appreciation, and/or bewilderment) wore off, the pope’s decision was described in a variety of ways, from admirable to destabilizing, cowardly to the epitome of humility.
The only things that eclipsed the commentary about now-Pope Emeritus Benedict’s historic decision was the voluminous material weighing in on who should be the next pope (or at least the characteristics that would be most eagerly welcomed) and now the avalanche of articles about his successor, Pope Francis.
It strikes me as strangely ironic that people who praised Benedict’s prayerful discernment and humility to place the good of the Church ahead of his own interests and those who are now expressing their approval for Pope Francis’ simplicity, humility, and proximity with the poor (all virtues I, too, am grateful to see in our new pope), would then turn around and assert their advice for the new pontiff. Assertions such as these stand in contrast to the act of faith, described by Avery Cardinal Dulles as incomplete without assent.
Assent, as Dulles describes it, is not a blind or ignorant leap into the dark but a “free, loving, and trustful commitment” of the self to the Church. The Church, Dulles clarifies, is “not so much an object believed as an extension of the believing subject. The faithful comprise the community of those who view the reality, under its religious aspects, through the eyes of the Church, convinced that in that way they will see more and see better than they otherwise would.”
This view from within the Church of 1.2 billion people and a tradition of nearly 2,000 years should remind us that before we start making claims about what the Church needs, we should be better listeners. And before that even, our first task is to pray. As Pope Francis begins his papacy, what the church needs more than anything is our steadfast prayer.
This posture of free, loving trust in the Holy Spirit is missing from voices like Paul Elie, who recently wrote in the New York Times that Catholics ought to consider giving up Catholicism as part of their Lenten fast. Elie charges that it has been “all bad news all the time” for the church since Benedict became pope in 2005 and suggests:
A temporary resignation would be a fitting Lenten observance. It would help believers to purify and deepen our faith in the light of our neighbors’ — “to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness,” as the American writer Flannery O’Connor put it. It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.
To be clear, I am not saying that the Church should be immune from critique, whether from within or beyond its membership. I do not deny Elie’s assessment of the Church (except for his overstatement about only bad news since Benedict became pope) so much as I reject his solution. If everyone who had a problem with the Church left, there wouldn’t be much of a church left to leave. Moreover, leaving the Church – even for a spell – means taking one’s voice and agency as well. This would only further enervate the Church, not bring it closer to being the sacrament of unity and salvation for humanity that it aspires to be.
There is no shortage of voices lamenting the state of crisis within the Church. In another New York Times piece, Bill Keller proposes that the solution lies in running the Church with more business savvy. Keller makes some fair points in spite of his premise:
Yes, the business of the church is saving souls, but it is nevertheless a business: a closely held conglomerate with a work force of more than a million, 1.2 billion more-or-less regular customers, 10 times as many outlets as Starbucks, more real estate than Donald Trump dreams of and lobbying clout to rival that of any secular industry.
No, the Church is not a business. It does not see increasing membership rolls or profits as its bottom line. It doesn’t answer to stockholders or allocate a percentage of its budget to PR or marketing against its “competition.” It is not charged with producing a good to be consumed (or disposed of, for that matter), despite his claim that the Church should decide between trying to be Nokia (affordable for all) or Apple (cutting-edge, elite).
The Church isn’t looking to hire a shrewd or charismatic CEO. What the church needs is a faithful shepherd to tend to the flock according to the “signs of the times” today. Its greatest gift and task is to evangelize, spreading the Good News in all times and all places.
Evangelization, according to Pope Paul VI, involves liberation. As Paul VI explains, the Church “has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization.”
For this reason, with all due respect to Millennial Editor Robert Christian, calling for a “21st Century Social Justice Pope” makes a distinction that shouldn’t exist in the first place. As the 1971 International Synod of Bishops made clear, action on behalf of justice is “a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.” The pope is always responsible for addressing the injustice that exists in the world.
Now, are there competing priorities and political views within the Holy See? It would be naïve to suggest otherwise. And while various subgroups or “camps” might have played a role in the selection of Pope Francis (groups that John Allen writes about here), this will by no means seal the fate of Pope Francis. No one had any idea that Angelo Roncalli would convene the Second Vatican Council (in fact, many believe he was elected precisely because his fellow cardinals expected he might’ve been the least likely to propose such a transformative event).
That doesn’t mean I’m hoping Pope Francis will call Vatican III. For one reason, that’s because I think the next Council should be held outside Rome and instead where the church is most vibrantly growing, represented by a city like Mexico City, São Paulo, or Nairobi. And secondly, it’s not my place to call for another Council. Voices like those of Elie and Keller espouse a provincialism that rather arrogantly ascribes an individualistic, North American, capitalist vantage point on a global church. The U.S. might be the most powerful nation on the planet, but American Catholics account for only 6% of the church. There are a lot of other important voices to be heard, as Michael Rossmann writes about here.
With that being said, the Church is not a democracy. Part of what it means to claim the title of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is to assent to the authority passed on through apostolic succession. That doesn’t mean that life in the Church is only about obedience to the Magisterium. On the contrary, the ecclesiology developed during the Second Vatican Council reinforced the church as the People of God, a pilgrim people attentive to the world, called forth for communion in mission (and mission in communion). Authority should be exercised collegially, seeking the unity of all Christians, respecting religious freedom, in dialogue with the world, and always open to reform. At once local and universal, the “Church” isn’t only a reference to the gathering of celibate men in Rome (although they were the only ones casting votes this week). We are the Church.
Truthfully, if asked for my take, I am encouraged by the cardinals’ selection and grateful to have a man as committed as Pope Francis to humility, holiness, and response to Jesus’ call to “rebuild by church.” But before we start asserting which problems and priorities should mark the early stages of Francis’ pontificate, we, the Church, should first listen to how the Holy Spirit is calling us all to participate in this rebuilding process in the same mode of humility and holiness.
Let us pray.