[Editor's note: William L. Portier's and Richard R. Gaillardetz's are the final in a special series of stories we are posting as the cardinals gather for the conclave. All of the previous articles in this series appear below.]
William L. Portier
On Monday, February 11, my wife called me at 7:30 in the morning. “The pope resigned,” she said. “Who?” I replied.
Pope Benedict XVI surprised the whole world by announcing his resignation. As it turns out, he had been thinking about it for some time. Since the announcement, we have been reminded that, in a 2010 interview with the journalist Peter Seewald, Benedict mentioned the possibility of a papal resignation. And we’ve been reminded that he prayed at the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who resigned amid great turmoil in 1294. Benedict had witnessed the long decline of Pope John Paul II. By resigning, Benedict leaves to his successors an alternative to the example set by John Paul II, whose conscience did not permit him to leave the office to which he had been called by God. Benedict’s conscience led him in a different direction, and his decision will have increasing significance in the future, as further medical advances increase the likelihood of a pope living beyond the time when he can fulfill his duties. Theologians who lament the lack of constitutional checks on the papacy will welcome this more recent precedent. Whatever one thinks of Benedict’s papacy, his resignation is clearly an act of courage and humility—a gift of hope to the whole church. He reminded us that the papacy was about the church and not about him.
He leaves behind a mixed legacy. No pope in history—not even Leo the Great or Gregory the Great—was a better theologian in terms of breadth of knowledge and professional training, or according to the classic definition of the theologian as one who prays. Benedict’s encyclicals on love and hope strike the reader with their clarity and depth. Apparently we will not have an encyclical on faith to complete the triad of the theological virtues. In his February 11 statement, the sentence in which he admits that he no longer has the strength to fulfill his office begins with an observation about the prospects for faith in a world “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” We are left to wonder what more he might have said about these questions.
We do have Caritas in veritate. Written in the wake of 2008’s worldwide economic collapse, this encyclical is simply brilliant in bringing the resources of the tradition to bear on that crisis. It should be required reading for those who make economic-policy decisions that affect human well-being. Benedict writes in this encyclical of the “grammar of creation,” a phrase he applies to both natural law and the environment. His many interventions on environmental questions, especially climate change, and even the solar equipment he has had installed in the Vatican surely distinguish him as a “green pope.”
Pope Benedict’s three Jesus of Nazareth books, two of which I have used in graduate classes, grapple seriously with the present impasse between theology and exegesis, and offer signs of an approach to Scripture that is both theological and historical-critical. His Wednesday addresses on the saints and fathers of the church now run to three volumes and will be a lasting literary legacy
For the foreseeable future, Benedict’s 2005 interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, as neither rupture nor simple continuity but rather reform in continuity, remains the framework within which the council will be discussed and assessed. It also signals his passion for the unity of the church. On this front, he has made two controversial moves. First, his long-standing efforts to reconcile schismatic traditionalists to the church have included the introduction of the Extraordinary Rite of the Roman Liturgy. It is not clear whether this will have the effect he desired of leavening current liturgical practice with greater reverence and solemnity, or will instead just further polarize the church.
His creation of quasi-dioceses (ordinariates) for traditionalist Anglicans who wish to be in full communion with the church is another gamble whose long-term effects are not yet clear. The way this was carried out, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rather than the curial office for ecumenism, makes clear how dysfunctional the Roman curia has become—or at least how unresponsive to the pope’s wishes.
Sadly, we are still waiting for a pope who will publicly discipline the bishops complicit in the sexual abuse of children by priests.
Benedict chose as his own papal name that of the founder of Western monasticism. That choice reflects his preoccupation with Europe’s Christian roots and his concern for its re-evangelization. His successor will have to steer the church through the demographic transition of decline in Europe and North America and growth in the global South. The next pope could well be African or Latin American. The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has already laid down odds for the various papabili, but the Spirit blows where it will.
Richard R. Gaillardetz
As the Catholic Church awaits the election of a new pope, we might pause to consider the ecclesiological significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. As many have already suggested, the resignation itself is likely to constitute Benedict’s greatest legacy, at least as pope.
When Benedict became pope in 2005, it was commonly assumed that his would be a pontificate in substantial continuity with that of his predecessor. The assumption was understandable given the dominant role Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had played as prefect of the CDF throughout much of John Paul II’s pontificate. Any difference between the two pontificates, it was thought, would be subtle—more a matter of style than of substance. And certainly Benedict’s style and taste were different from those of his predecessor. When it came to the liturgy, for example, John Paul was far more open to inculturation, while Benedict preferred a more somber and traditional approach, one deeply influenced by his Bavarian piety. In retrospect, however, it was Benedict’s vision of the papacy itself that marked his most profound departure from his predecessor.
A charismatic figure comfortable on the public stage, John Paul II took full advantage of the symbolic power of the papacy in a media age. Even though he wrote more pages of ecclesiastical text than any pope in history, for many of us his pontificate was reflected less in his papal teaching than in a series of symbolic events: his meeting with leaders of world religions to pray for peace in Assisi, his prayer with the chief rabbi at the synagogue in Rome, the joint recitation with the ecumenical patriarch of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed in Greek (excluding the filioque!). All of us can call to mind photos of John Paul II praying in a room with his would-be assassin, kissing the ground of a country he was visiting for the first time, wagging his finger at Ernesto Cardenal during a visit to Nicaragua, and, finally, hunched over in a tableau of pain and physical incapacity during his final days.
Pope Benedict, the introverted theologian-pope, demonstrated little of his predecessor’s aptitude for the compelling image. This was more than a difference in personality; Benedict had a more circumscribed view of the papacy from the very beginning. John Paul II saw his papacy as providential, even more so after the attempted assassination: he was convinced that the Blessed Mother had averted his death. He explicitly rejected the possibility of resignation as an unconscionable repudiation of his divine calling. By contrast, long before his election Ratzinger had frankly admitted that the Holy Spirit could be said to have only a limited and indirect role in the choice of a pope. He wryly noted that there had been too may popes who clearly were not the choice of the Spirit.
Benedict’s resignation is consistent with this more modest view of the papacy. He understands well what was too often forgotten over the course of the second millennium—namely, that a pope is pope only because he is bishop of the local church of Rome. Consequently, a papal resignation is, in principal, no different from any bishop’s resignation or retirement from office. Benedict’s resignation can be understood as a salutary reminder that the papacy is essentially an episcopal office, not a personal apotheosis.
But there is more that can be gleaned from his decision. Benedict resigned because his declining health meant that he could no longer fulfill the obligations of his office. Catholic teaching holds that all bishops—and in a preeminent way the bishop of Rome—are given the assistance of the Holy Spirit for the exercise of their office. Benedict’s decision reflects a healthy theological anthropology, one according to which the assistance of the Holy Spirit is mediated in and through our human capabilities. As such, it is also inhibited by our human frailties and failings. The Holy Spirit’s assistance does not simply override the diminishment of our created human capacities. Of course the applicability of this insight can be extended beyond the question of physical infirmity. The assistance of the Holy Spirit also does not magically overcome ignorance, an obstinate refusal to give proper attention to a difficult pastoral or doctrinal issue, or a failure to consult the wisdom of others
Finally, Benedict’s resignation invites a further question. Is the papacy, as currently configured, simply more than one person can handle? Even many who have been ideologically disposed to both Benedict and his predecessor have acknowledged dangerous blind spots in their administration of the church. John Paul II could not accept the obvious culpability of Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing young boys and apparently fathered several children. Indeed, John Paul II harbored an uncritical enthusiasm for a wide array of new lay movements such as Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare, and Communion and Liberation. For his part, Benedict XVI made a series of blunders in public statements on Islam, condoms, clerical sexual abuse, and other topics. Eager to heal the schism with the Society of Pius X, Benedict prematurely removed the excommunications of four schismatic bishops, including one who had made outrageous anti-Semitic statements. Neither pope was known for particularly shrewd episcopal appointments, and many of those made by John Paul II were simply abysmal. Neither showed any interest in, or aptitude for, the administration or reform of the Vatican’s bureaucracy.
Given the character of a global church with well over a billion members, Benedict’s resignation invites us to consider whether it is time to reverse the centralization of papal authority that began in the early nineteenth century. At Vatican II, the church made a substantial effort to reverse the universalist ecclesiology of the preconciliar period and to recover an ancient understanding of the church as a communio ecclesiarum—a communion of churches. Local churches were no longer to be viewed as mere branch offices of a transnational organization; they were the church of Jesus Christ in that place. Bishops, it followed, were not vicars of the pope but the ordinary pastors of those churches. The council further recognized that all the bishops, as members of a college of which the bishop of Rome is both head and member, shared leadership responsibility for the universal church.
At the council, many bishops had discovered the value of meeting with brother bishops from the same region, and this sparked new interest in episcopal conferences as real, if only partial, expressions of episcopal collegiality. A number of council fathers enthusiastically supported the creation of a standing synod of bishops, of the kind common in Eastern Christianity, as a means of allowing bishops to share with the pope the exercise of universal pastoral leadership. But in a markedly uncollegial move, Pope Paul VI acted on his own authority, while the council was still in session, to create a synod of bishops that was a cheap facsimile of what the council fathers had envisioned. Instead of a standing synod exercising deliberative authority, the synod Pope Paul created was merely consultative and would meet only occasionally.
In the first decades after the council, episcopal conferences bore much fruit as an expression of collegiality. However, leading figures in the Roman Curia, including Cardinal Ratzinger, would soon challenge their status, leading eventually to the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II, Apostolos suos, which dramatically restricted the conferences’ authority.
Is it time to unburden the papacy by applying the principle of subsidiarity to the church? If so, then we might consider revivifying intermediate structures of authority, including those of metropolitans, new patriarchates (a possibility once championed by Ratzinger himself), and episcopal conferences, all functioning at levels between the papacy and the local diocese. Do we need to admit that the current authority granted to the curia is inherently dysfunctional and fundamentally at odds with the council’s teaching on episcopal collegiality? If so, would we do better to redirect much of the authority currently residing in the curia toward a properly episcopal structure such as a standing synod? Finally, in light of Pope Benedict’s honest and courageous action, we must ask ourselves whether there is something to learn from a more ancient time in the church when the pope was not so much the vicar of Christ as the vicar of Peter; not chief theologian, but court of final appeal; not monarch, but pontifex—literally, bridge-builder.
My mother was still very much herself when she turned eighty-five—in possession of her “faculties,” as the characters in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori say. Within a few months, though, that began to change, and month by month dementia tightened its grip on her.
When I heard the news about Benedict, I was finishing a book by J. I. Packer (whom I greatly admire), Puritan Portraits. I had been reading about Richard Baxter and the “good death”: the notion that, in dying, a faithful Christian should demonstrate the authenticity of his faith. I thought about my mother—who was ninety years old last December—and other faithful Christians I have known whose minds have been broken long before they died. God has promised that he will never abandon his children, and I believe him. But he has not promised us a “good death.”
In stepping down from the papacy, Benedict acknowledged his frailty. He did not elaborate, and there was no need for him to do so—nor for us to speculate. The church he has served with great devotion will elect a new pope. As with his predecessor, John Paul II, there has been a tendency, both among Benedict's hagiographers and among the church's fiercest critics, to credit him with an influence far exceeding what he has done or could possibly have done. Benedict himself knows better.
From my standpoint as an evangelical Protestant who has gained much from the Catholic tradition, and from Benedict in particular, I am baffled by the criticism of his decision from writers I respect (including, not least, my dear friend Jody Bottum in the Weekly Standard). The notion, for example, that the existence of a former pope (devoting himself to prayer and reflection) might well pose a serious threat to the administration of his successor sounds like something from The Daily Show.
Before long, of course, attention will shift from Benedict to the upcoming papal conclave. I have no idea who the next pope will be. He will inherit a terrible mess—and a powerful witness to the God who created the universe and sustains it, the God who promises the restoration of all things: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Roman Catholic Church is in desperate need of reform. So too the Orthodox Church, and evangelicalism, and what used to be called “the mainline,” and Pentecostalism...and so it has always been, from the first century on.
I don't write that blithely, as if (for instance) the scandal of abuse perpetrated by priests and covered up by their superiors is to be waved away or somehow cancelled out by reference to the long history of egregious wrongdoing that all honest Christians must own up to. But if what we say when we join our voices in the Apostles’ Creed is anything like the truth, there is a lot more to the story.
Mary C. Boys
In early January a beloved friend of mine died. A serious student of Vatican II, she was a passionate advocate for women's voices in the church. The night I received word of her death, a phrase came to me in a dream: “strategic perseverance.” When I awoke, those two words, which I had never before juxtaposed, stayed with me. I regard them as my friend's wise counsel, particularly with regard to living in the Roman Catholic Church today.
For my part I persevere in the Catholic tradition because that tradition is rich, deep, and broad; I am edified by its spirituality and sacramental life, including the witness of so many who walk the Way of Jesus. I persevere, because the Petrine ministry is vital for the unity of the church. Yet one must be strategic in dealing with a ministry exercised as an absolute monarchy governed exclusively by men—one moreover, that, in too often exercising its authority in a punitive manner, alienates those it judges. Strategic, because working in the interreligious realm and belonging to a woman's religious community in the United States today requires us to be, in the words of Matthew 10:6, “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
That “strategic perseverance” has become my watchword offers a hint of my mixed feelings about Pope Benedict XVI. The promulgation of Dominus Iesus in 2000, when the future Benedict was the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, foreshadowed his complicated legacy in ecumenical and interreligious relations. Authoritarian in tone, that declaration surveyed the religious landscape from a position of omniscience. Subsequently, as pope, Benedict ignited controversy with a poorly articulated claim about Islam in a lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006. A month later, when thirty-eight Muslim religious authorities and scholars issued an “Open Letter to the Pope,” Benedict showed openness to their response, and his visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in November 2006 partly quelled the protest. On the first anniversary of the open letter, 138 Muslim religious leaders published A Common Word between Us and You, and the numerous conferences that followed in its wake have included Vatican involvement.
In the sphere of Catholic-Jewish relations, Benedict committed himself to honoring the remarkable legacy of his predecessor, indicating in an address in June 2005 his resolve to “continue on the path of improving relations” with Jews. Yet he has been less successful in striking the right dialogical tone. His May 2009 visit to Israel notably failed to escape the shadow of John Paul II’s memorable visit there in 2003. Like John Paul before him, Benedict gave an address in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to victims of the Holocaust—a speech that was dispassionate and detached, in stark contrast to his predecessor's personal, even visceral address.
More unsettling was Benedict's lack of candor with regard to the church’s role in the Holocaust. In Israel, he spoke of the brutal extermination of Jews “by a godless regime that propagated an ideology of antisemitism and hatred.” Such phrases—“the Nazi reign of terror,” an “insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism”—typify Benedict's characterization of the Holocaust. Rarely does he admit to any degree of ecclesial complicity; and when he does, he seriously understates it, via such contorted formulations as “it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by the inherited anti-Judaism in the hearts of not a few Christians.” The failure to grapple with disturbing truths about the church in relation to the Holocaust, together with his pursuing the canonization of Pope Pius XII, suggest a reluctance to gaze into the tarnished mirror of history.
Benedict's patient pursuit of reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X and other traditionalist groups has also complicated relations with Jews—most notoriously in his removal of the ban of excommunication from the Lefebvrist Bishop Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust (and misogynistic social views) were apparently unknown to the pope. More consequential was the prayer for Jews Benedict composed for the Good Friday liturgy in the Tridentine Rite. Released in February 2008 under the title “Pro Conversione Iudaeorum,” it petitioned Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the savior of all. Given the church's long history of denigrating Judaism, particularly the Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious” Jews from the Roman Missal of 1570 that prevailed until 1960, the pope's formulation was seen as contentious. Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council for Religious Relations with the Jews, intervened in the ensuing controversy to argue for an eschatological interpretation. While Kasper’s intervention alleviated some of the tension, the reality remains that the Catholic Church now sanctions two versions—the 1970 prayer in the Roman Missal and the pope's composition for the Tridentine Rite—that are at theological odds.
If Benedict’s papacy is ambiguous in its relations with Jews, its treatment of American women's religious congregations reflects a more coherent—and hostile—posture. Two investigations were initiated under Benedict's watch: the “Apostolic Visitation” of religious institutes in the United States, launched in 2008 under the auspices of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life with the stated purpose of assessing the “quality of life” in these congregations; and the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The result of the visitation, although completed in January 2012, has yet to be announced. The outcome of the doctrinal assessment, meanwhile, was announced last April. In it the CDF accused the LCWR of advocating “radical theses incompatible with the Catholic faith,” and of advocating for economic justice, while insufficiently supporting magisterial teaching against homosexuality and abortion. The CDF appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to supervise changes in the LCWR’s statutes, programs, and affiliations in order to align them more closely with the church’s “teachings and discipline.”
Personally, I view these investigations as disturbing and deeply ironic symbols of a dysfunctional church. It should be noted that some of the Vatican officials who championed the investigations are among those most complicit in the sexual-abuse scandal. But more fundamentally disheartening is the revelation that the church that champions human rights across the globe denies them to those members it deems deviant. Externally, the church expresses a commitment to dialogue with the religious other. Internally, however, no such commitment is evident. In Benedict's eyes women religious apparently are not capable of being dialogue partners; rather, we are treated like children, told what to think and how to behave.
The bitter irony is that in diversifying their programs, mission, and way of living in the world, women have merely obeyed what was asked of us. In the early 1960s the Belgian Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens urged that women’s religious congregations utilize their “latent capacities” and enlarge their vocation by opening new dimensions. In his influential 1963 book The Nun in the Modern World, Suenens observed that women religious “[appear] to the faithful to be out of touch with the world as it is, an anachronism.” Women religious, he recommended, must jettison outdated customs and costumes and “continually adapt to the demands of the moment.” In October 1965 Vatican II issued Perfectae caritatis, the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, recommending that religious communities examine the “manner of life, of prayer, and of work” and see to it that “their members have a proper understanding of the conditions of the times and the needs of the church” in order to “help humanity more effectively.”
And so we did. Contrary to hierarchs who charge that we have been misled by “radical feminism,” we have in fact been led by our experiences among those with whom we live and work—people whose lives may be at variance with official teachings, yet who nonetheless strive to live with integrity and love of neighbor. As Sr. Margaret A. Farley said in regard to her book Just Love—a book harshly denounced by the CDF—“I wrote it because people are suffering.” It is dismaying to have to point out to those hierarchs (or to any alert Christian) that the process of entering into the experience of suffering people opens new perspectives. The truth is that women religious did not set out to challenge church doctrine or governance; much more simply, our experiences have affected us, giving us new lenses on the world. We have learned more than we can bear about the unspeakable violence done to women worldwide through rape, sex trafficking, “honor” killings, and acid attacks. And we are faulted for not being more outspoken against contraception?
When the cardinal electors meet in the Sistine Chapel, will they elect a pope with sympathy for women’s experiences in and outside the church? Likely not. That is why I’m keeping in mind the counsel that St. Vincent de Paul gave to his Daughters of Charity: to act in the church with “holy cunning.” And to that I will add, thanks to my late friend, that we must act with “strategic perseverance” as well.
It may be the last time a surprise is announced in Latin. But as soon as I heard about the pope’s unexpected retirement, the conspiracy theories were not far behind. Was he bailing out one step ahead of a whole new scandal? Was this some sinister plot to appoint his own successor? Scarier still were reports that canon law requires a resigning pope to be of sound mind and acting freely. So a pope of unsound mind can’t resign or be forced out? Then lightning struck St. Peter’s.
Doubtless there have been medical issues we hadn’t heard about, but I think it’s obvious why Benedict XVI is retiring. It was he, as Cardinal Ratzinger, who labored to hold the Vatican together during the long, slow decline of John Paul II, so differently chronicled in Stanislaw Dziwisz’s Let Me Go to the Father’s House and John Cornwell’s The Pontiff in Winter. Back then, rumors were rife about Vatican factions pushing pet causes and jockeying for advantage in the next papal election. It was said that John Paul had met with the archbishop of Canterbury without knowing who he was. It was rumored that a secret cabal of curial cardinals was planning to keep John Paul in a permanent vegetative state, so they could indefinitely issue encyclicals in his name—brain-dead but still infallible. There were jokes about John Paul’s successor taking the name George Ringo, in a dramatic gesture to world youth. Even Ratzinger’s election failed to stop it all: the secrets his butler got in trouble for revealing were partly about people positioning their cronies for the conclave that is now upon us. Clearly our Holy Father was right to spare the church another long decline. Better to get out of the way so a younger pope can fully take charge.
But what sort of pope will we get? The American liberal media thinks it has already figured that one out. Coverage on CNN and the in New York Times tends to strike a note of pessimism: Don’t get your hopes up for a pope who will endorse the Democratic Party’s social platform—all the cardinal electors were appointed by the last two popes, and will surely continue the same old tired agendas. For once, the folks at Fox News hope the Times is right.
I don’t believe that terms derived from politics, like “liberal” and “conservative,” offer the best vocabulary for talking about tensions in the church. And I don’t believe we can predict the new pope’s policies on such issues as Vatican finances, women in the church, the pedophilia cover-up. Half the popes I lived through were surprises: John XXIII, John Paul I and II. When the man some people had called “God’s Rottweiler” was elected Benedict XVI, lots of Catholics on both sides thought they could hear the knives being sharpened for a long-anticipated bloodbath. What we got instead was an encyclical called “God Is Love.” I am eager to be surprised again.
Still there are some things I think we can safely predict about the next pope. First, he will probably be the first pope ordained as a priest in the Vatican II era. He won’t remember the preconciliar church, and may not even know Latin. That, frankly, worries me. There’s way too much amnesia already. Our disputes about liturgy, models of leadership, the church’s role in society would be far less painful if the most vocal partisans on every side knew more history. We need a “hermeneutic of continuity” now more than ever before. You can’t know who you are if you don’t know who you were.
On the other hand, the new pope will have grown up in a church that has always wrestled with the challenges of ecumenism, modern culture, liturgical renewal, the vocation shortage. He will know that these things are not temporary detours on our way home to the golden age: they are where we live now, and where he has lived all along. I don’t know what vision he will offer of where we need to go, but I am hopeful he will recognize that we need to do some regrouping and reshuffling to face our challenges head on.
The next pope will take office in the middle of the Year of Faith, which is dedicated to promoting the New Evangelization. Despite some reported wistfulness about a smaller and purer church, Pope Benedict recognizes that, by definition, no church-of-the-few could ever be the Catholic Church. Smaller and fewer is what we’re getting, though, as historic European edifices empty out, ancient communities flee the Middle East, Latin America goes Pentecostal. Rather than accept this shrinkage with relief or resignation, the pope’s response has been to call back the lost sheep with a New Evangelization.
What exactly is a “New Evangelization”? Probably the best guide would be the documents generated by the Synod of Bishops that opened the Year of Faith. Unfortunately the most important of them are available only in unofficial translations, since the official Latin texts are confidential. That is because the synod since its inception has had only “the function of providing information and offering advice” to the pope, who may or may not use the synod’s report to compose an Apostolic Exhortation. Benedict himself, in the homily at the opening Eucharist, said the New Evangelization was aimed “principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the church and live without reference to the Christian life.” One could see this as an unrealistic, even reactionary desire to somehow reverse the recent history of formerly Catholic countries. But rather than giving him a political label, I would say Pope Benedict is the kind of Catholic who sees particularly clearly the immutable, transcendent Truth to which all of us need to conform ourselves—the Christ who, when lifted up, draws all people to himself. The Catholics who don’t feel drawn to his kind of leadership tend to be those who see more clearly the immanent truth hidden in creation, the Spirit who blows like the wind, the Son of Man who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The New Evangelization should draw these perspectives back together in a kind of binocular vision, revealing the one Truth as a unity of wholeness, not a unity of exclusion.
Indeed, the unofficial “Final List of Propositions” published on the Vatican website is no jeremiad about rescuing a sinking Europe. Inculturation is one of the first things they mention. Globalization is paired with secularism as “challenges of our time.” The church should “welcome migrants and promote their human dignity,” recognize the charisms and “dynamism of the new ecclesiastical movements and new communities,” “be present in all fields of art.” The bishops also recommend “greater attention to the church’s social doctrine,” rendering liturgical celebrations “relevant to the urban context” of city life, “changes in the dynamics of pastoral structures which no longer respond to the evangelical demands of the current time.” “The preferential option for the poor” means that “they are both recipients and actors in the New Evangelization.” And “the synod acknowledges that today, women (lay and religious) together with men contribute to theological reflection at all levels and share pastoral responsibilities in new ways.”
One of the next pope’s responsibilities will be to decide what to do with the synod’s propositions; he could do a lot more than write another Apostolic Exhortation. And, given the challenges of evangelizing a world that is more interconnected and complicated than ever, he will need all the help he can get. We should take seriously what Benedict’s resignation statement had to say about the burdens of being pope “in today’s world.”
This brings me to the last prediction I feel I can make with certainty: The next pope won’t be me. But, just for the sake of discussion, I’ll tell you what I would do. The first thing I would do is deliver the traditional blessing of the crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square. The second thing I would do is announce the theme for the next Synod of Bishops. They are to begin discussing how to shape a transitional process for making the synod itself a more deliberative and legislative body, which will operate in union with the national episcopal conferences and St. Peter’s successor. This would help fulfill the desire Pope Paul VI expressed in the synod’s founding document, “for a continuance after the council of the great abundance of benefits that We have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people...as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops.” And it would confirm his observation that “This synod...like all human institutions, can be improved upon with the passing of time.” John Paul’s and Benedict’s appointees do not all think alike, and the worldwide pastoral experience of all the bishops will be crucial in addressing every problem we face now. When the Spirit speaks to the church, we should listen with all ears.
About the Author
William L. Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton.