Sunday, May 06, 2007

Christopher Pearson: Amassing cause for change

[An interesting commentary by Christopher Pearson bringing up a variety of issues, from the dilemmas and resistance Benedict faces, the issue of liturgical reform and the role of the internet in modern Catholic communications. It's an opinion piece of course, so read with a critical eye. I think there are some exaggerated statements, but also some pertinent insights.]

by Christopher Pearson, May 05, 2007

IN theory, Pope Benedict XVI is the world's last remaining absolute monarch. He is a head of state, presiding over the Vatican territories. More significantly, he is the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, with universal jurisdiction. For those who acknowledge his authority, his word is quite literally law.

In reality, he's rather a frail old man who can sometimes barely manage to get his way in the day-to-day running of his own cathedral, let alone impose his will on unruly bishops and clergy on the other side of the world. We can be confident he deplores the fact so many South American priests are Marxists living in unabashed concubinage, that Buddha is solemnly invoked in some Japanese masses or that hardly anyone in the English-speaking world preaches what Rome teaches on anything that pertains to sex. Unlike most of his predecessors, there's not much he can do about it.

Until the 1960s, popes used to wear the triple tiara to signify their temporal and spiritual kingship. By then the Caesaro-Papist symbolism had become anachronistic and, as Benedict himself remarked, tended to provoke derision. To the surprise of some, this very traditionally minded man declined to be crowned when he assumed the papacy and banished the triple tiara from his coat of arms, replacing it with a bishop's mitre.

When he became Pope, the Catholic Church was in a particularly parlous condition. Its moral authority, especially in the First World, had been compromised by pedophile clerics and evidence of the systematic concealment of their depredations. Its teaching authority had been abused almost everywhere by fashionable heretics and ideologues posing as theologians. Those put in charge of appointing the world's bishops had created a generation of clerical yes-men, seldom noted for piety, wit, scholarship or orthodoxy. John Paul II's attention had largely been directed outside the church, on geopolitics and especially on the Eastern bloc. A few weeks before his election, Benedict spoke of "the barque of Peter, a ship overwhelmed by tempests and forever on the verge of sinking".

When he took charge, he asked well-wishers to pray that he might "withstand the wolves", by which he very pointedly meant a number of cardinals in his own court, rather than snipers' bullets. His opening gambit was to renew pro tem all the leading curial appointments of the previous reign, giving himself time to take stock, consider new candidates and implement an unhurried scaling down of the Vatican bureaucracy.

It must have long been obvious to him that a pope has a fair amount of control over preferments and episcopal promotions, and that otherwise he rules not by decree but by winning people over to his way of doing things, by moral suasion and setting an example. John Paul II discovered the hard way that he could release all the documents and decisions he liked, but that if individual bishops or national churches decided not to implement his instructions it was well-nigh impossible to intimidate them into obedience, let alone remove them from office.

Benedict, who'd always been rather formal and reserved, surprised most observers. By the second anniversary of his reign he had outshone the actor-pope he succeeded as a performer on the public stage.

It's often said that the masses came to see John Paul II but now they come to hear Benedict, and in even greater numbers. It helps that he is a theologian of the first rank who can put complex ideas in simple terms and that he has a mildly self-deprecatory sense of humour. The Polish pope was a philosopher and often his discourse was dry, technical and heavy going.

Another surprise, from someone whose time as archbishop of Munich wasn't an unqualified pastoral success, is that he should prove capable of such rapport with young people. His appearance at World Youth Day in Cologne was nothing short of a triumph. He has a patriarchal presence combined with charm and directness that has vast crowds hanging on his every word. Attendance at regular Wednesday audiences has never been larger. The fierce Panzerkardinal the "progressive" magazines loved to demonise has turned into a benign father figure.

Very few contemporary churchmen, no matter how lucid or saintly, have any sort of personal following. Benedict is skilfully using his office and authority to reach out to a global audience over the heads of bishops and the clergy. Partly this is a matter of the Petrine ministry. It is also a matter of building a constituency for change and a return to orthodoxy in the church. He may have been the outstanding candidate when elected, but not very many in the college of cardinals wholeheartedly shared his theological positions or his views on ecclesiastical reform.

Domenico Bartolucci, a musician of the old school and former director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, was sacked, despite the then cardinal Ratzinger's objections, because of his preference for plain-chant and renaissance polyphony over the pop we associate with televised papal masses. Bartolucci understands more clearly than most the Pope's religious and cultural agenda, especially the restoration of traditional music and liturgical renewal, last year describing him as "a Napoleon without generals".

He was summarising the predicament the Pope found himself in during the worldwide Bishops' Synod on the Eucharist. During its deliberations, despite his well-known views on the subject, the issue of broader use of the old Latin rite was barely mentioned and there was a clear consensus that there was no need for concessions to the traditionalists or any form of liturgical renewal.

Bartolucci was posing vexed questions. What use are new documents on the divinity of Christ or the real presence and the sacrifice of the mass, no matter how eloquent, if half the bishops no longer altogether believe in those doctrines and would be at a loss to know how to expound them? [NLM note: this is the exaggeration of which I spoke above. That there are issues that the Holy Father faces with certain members of the episcopacy -- let alone the priests, religious and laity -- is surely beyond doubt, but, on the divinity of Christ, it is my perception that, for all the weaknesses that might be present in our day, the predominant majority of bishops would not deny such.] When the liturgy no longer shapes the spirituality of the clergy in the integral way it once did, how can meaningful liturgical reform be implemented?

Liturgy is a subject that bores or baffles most people who don't go to church and even many who do. Yet it has been a core concern of Benedict's since his school days and looks set to become the defining issue of his reign. In his first speech to the cardinals after his election, he said: "The Eucharist is the heart of Christian life." Back in 1978 he wrote: "I am convinced that the crisis in the church we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy." He was also the first cardinal to talk openly about the need for "a reform of the reform" in the '80s, when the prevailing view was that the changes which followed the Second Vatican Council had been a triumphant success.

Conscious of his lack of generals, the Pope has taken a much more hands-on approach to the appointment of new bishops and the brisk replacement of proven failures. But top-down reform will take more time than someone who is 80 can be sure of, and there is also an entrenched class of lay employees of the church, mostly wedded to the priorities of the clerical Left, with plenty of opportunity for structural subversion of the papal agenda.

Benedict is enough of a modern man to understand how the internet has transformed communications. One of its advantages is that it democratises the flow of information, so that Rome doesn't need to rely on official channels and is instantly aware when anything is amiss. An uncontrollable medium also gives a voice to the people regional hierarchies most often want to silence or marginalise. So it's not surprising, in the ballooning multilingual Catholic blogosphere, that the advocates of liturgical renewal have the numbers as well as the weight of scholarly argument.

From his inauguration mass, when he pointedly departed from the new rite's rubrics, to his restoration of traditional papal garb and broad hints in speeches, Benedict has been using television, podcasting and the internet to signal his intentions and create a sense of inevitability over his next move. Four drafts of the long-expected document to liberalise the use of the classical Roman rite have come and gone unpublished, and on all four occasions the traditionalists' and the progressivists' blogs and comment boxes have been convulsed for weeks.

When previously I wrote on the subject it was to note that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, had confirmed that the publication of the document was imminent. Further confirmation came from the ultra-progressivist camp last week. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, wrote to a group who professed to be worried about the old rite's prayers for the conversion of Jews causing offence. He told them: "While I do not know what the Pope intends to state in his final text, it is clear that the decision that has been made cannot now be changed."

The BBC and the American journal of the Left, the National Catholic Reporter, began at once to canvass the theme that the old rite incarnated an anti-Semitic mentality. There was much gnashing of teeth on both sides of the Atlantic. The fact that every major religion asserts the primacy of its own truth-claims and most pray for the conversion of people of other faiths was conveniently sidestepped. There were predictable segues to Benedict's German nationality, membership of the Hitler Youth and Panzerkardinal reputation. It was a last, desperate attempt to contaminate the old rite by association and to pre-empt the Pope, but even those who at first seized upon it now seem to have concluded it's a damp squib.

Source: Christopher Pearson: Amassing cause for change (The Australian)

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