Monday, 18 February 2013
End of the 'Catholic Moment': The Paradox of the Roman Church in the Postmodern World
A large contributing factor in its snuffing out is undoubtedly the world-wide clergy sex abuse cover up scandals, as New York Times columnist and conservative Roman Catholic commentator Ross Douthat admits, "Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion. " But further to this, Benedict's resignation, appeals to ill-health notwithstanding (and fwiw, we wish him well in his retirement), seems to be an admission of defeat in his attempts to reform various facets of the Roman church, including its diplomatic and financial offices as well as its priesthood, from the position of its highest office. These efforts, according to various informed commentators, have been scuttled by the self-interest and vicious inter-personal rivalries of highly placed cardinals within the Vatican curia. This reminds me of the comment of Ronald Knox, an English Catholic theologian of an earlier generation: "He who would travel in the barque of St Peter had best not look in the engine room".
As if that wasn't concerning enough, surely more perplexing for devout Roman Catholics is the reporting that these rivalries are not merely personal - they also reflect the long standing and ongoing post-Vatican II division of the Roman church into conservative and liberal camps. The crucial battle in this war has recently been fought over control of the powerful Vatican diplomatic corps, which not only represents the Vatican to the world but crucially also represents the world to the Vatican, thus serving as the main conduit for information on potential candidates for the episcopate, which largely determines what sort of church Roman Catholics get 'on the ground' in each diocese. This, it seems, is a battle Benedict has lost and with that he has surrendered his attempt to unify the Roman church under his authority as the successor of St Peter (as Rome conceives the Papacy). The most significant aspect of this development for Lutherans is that the continuing division of the Roman church into liberal and conservative camps means that the historic Lutheran proposals for reform will continue to be sidelined; shunned by conservatives with other fish to fry and misrepresented by liberals in the service of their own agenda (a liberal Catholic doth not a Lutheran make!).
Many confessional Lutherans, including the author, may feel human sympathy for Benedict, who was personally a humble man who at times had brilliant theological insights - after all, if there must be a Pope, at least let him be a good one. But we must also note with disappointment that in many ways the tenor of his reign moved the Roman church further from a place where Lutheran proposals for reform on the table since the Reformation could gain a sympathetic hearing and towards to a renewal of Tridentine-style Catholicism, replete with the Latin Mass and the partial rehabilitation of Traditionalist bishops formerly under doctrinal discipline. However, the Pope's efforts to address declining attendance and apathy among Catholics in the West have borne little fruit while his handling of doctrinal dissent among bishops has further alienated sections of the remaining faithful.
Now, instead of the Catholic renaissance Neuhaus envisaged in his 1987 book, the next Pope seems poised to preside over continuing decline without and dysfunction within the Vatican. Lutherans will not be surprised or unduly disturbed by this - our ecclesiology, although it is an unfinished work, disavows identifying the church of Christ with any particular church body and thereby endowing that body with a divine imprimatur that can be tarnished by the all too human failings of those who lead her. This leads us to the problematic question of Roman Catholicism's plausibility in the postmodern world, which demands "authenticity" above all else - a basic congruence between the "talk" and the "walk". A church with such an over-realised ecclesiology yet such an underwhelming actuality positively invites scepticism as to its claims. Now that really is, to borrow Neuhaus's sub-title, "the paradox of the (Roman church) in the postmodern world".