A recent article in Time magazine has placed the current trials of Pope Benedict XVI in several important contexts: as the inevitable result of the poor administration of the RC church by his predecessor, John Paul II; as that of a theologian with a retiring nature coming up against ruthless ecclesiastical politicians adept at getting their way and stifling reform (it's 48 years since a Pope outwitted the Vatican apparatchiks); and as possibly the end-game of the hitherto almost mythical world-historical power of the Roman Magisterium, which no longer commands the automatic assent of the faithful:
"As the crisis grew in March and went on into April, many in the Vatican worried about the effect it would have on the papal magisterium — the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God. Vatican officials are concerned that a mea culpa would diminish the magisterium, which has been integral to the papacy's ability to project power in the world throughout its history, from the humiliation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in the 11th century to the humbling of Soviet power in Poland in the 20th. It plays a key role in the doctrine of papal infallibility, which declares that the Pope is never in error when he issues teachings ex cathedra — that is, elucidating dogma from the throne of St. Peter. It is tied up in the traditional prerogatives of that Apostle, to whom was given the power "to bind and loose" in heaven and on earth — in rough terms, the church's ability to open the gates of heaven to you or damn you to hell because it will always be holier than thou.
A truly successful mea culpa and penance for the abuse scandal must preserve the magisterium while dealing with these facts: Ratzinger, both in his role as the local bishop in Munich from 1977 to 1981 and as the overseer of universal doctrine in Rome, was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century. An effective mea culpa must assuage the faithful but still be couched in such a way that the shortcomings of the prepapal administrative record of Ratzinger are admitted and atoned for separately from the deeds of Benedict XVI, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. In that regard, the letter to the Irish faithful, while a model, has limited utility. The Pope was merely apologizing for errors committed by the hierarchy of Ireland, not for anything he or, indeed, the Holy See may have done, much less the mystical entity called the Church, the bride of Christ. Presented with the scenario of a personal apology by the human embodiment of the church, a well-placed Vatican official sighed as he weighed the theological and historical implications. "It's dangerous," he said. "It's dangerous." "
Whatever one may think of Roman Catholicism, this is a crisis of historical proportions playing out before our eyes, and it makes for fascinating observation.
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