They wait on his word
A recent trend I’ve noticed in the Catholic blogosphere is a
fascination—sometimes bordering on obsession—with the public pronouncements of
Pope Benedict. The global reach of the
Internet has allowed every homily, Angelus address, speech, or off-the-cuff
remark to be quickly translated and disseminated.
There is no denying that Pope Benedict is a man of unique
spiritual and intellectual gifts. As a
friend of mine wrote to me recently, “Benedict leads me to prayer. When I read
his writings, I find myself praying and being opened up.” My friend recounted a story about
then-Professor Ratzinger’s 8am lectures in
came to listen on their way to work.
When the lectures ended, many would remain in their seats praying.
So it seems almost churlish to question whether this
fascination with the Pope’s public statements is a good thing. But question it I shall. Because the problem is not the Pope, but
rather the lack of any other Catholic voices of comparable stature.
I was thinking of this the other day when I was preparing my
post on St. John Chrysostom. When one
looks back at the 4th and 5th centuries, one is struck by
the number of bishops who had the kind of public profile—albeit on a smaller scale—that
Benedict has today: Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of
Nazianzus, John Chrysostom. To be Bishop
of Rome in those days was not to be the sun around which lesser bodies merely revolved. As Eamon Duffy once observed, it is not the normal state of things for the
pope to be the Church’s chief theologian, evangelist and legislator all rolled
One of the clear intentions of the Council Fathers at
Vatican II was to reaffirm the centrality of the episcopate in Catholic ecclesiology
after several decades (one might even say several centuries) of papal maximalism.
But 40 years after the Council, the pope remains something of a solitary
figure, floating above the episcopal college rather than firmly embedded in it.
The reasons for this are varied and even those who agree on
the problem may disagree about the cause.
Some point to the poor quality of episcopal appointments made during the
last pontificate and the impact of the sexual abuse scandals on public
perception of bishops. Others argue that
the national episcopal conferences have made it harder for individual bishops
to develop distinctive voices. Still
others note that the fascination with the pope is a result of forces within the
mass media over which the Church has limited control. There are many fine bishops who preach and
inspire their flocks, but who do not make the news.
I don’t know what the answer is. Surely it is not that Pope Benedict should
hesitate to share the fruits of his prayer and reflection with us. We would be the poorer for that. But as my aforementioned friend put it, “My
hope is that Benedict can provide a distinctive voice that allows other
distinctive voices to flourish.” That will be my prayer as well.