The changing of the guards in the Vatican and Benedict's farewell address yesterday are producing a torrent of commentary about the current state of the Catholic church and its possible paths to the future. In what follows, I'd like to offer readers some excerpts from statements hot off the press that seem to me eminently worth reading:
At Enlightened Catholicism, Colleen Baker notes that John Paul II's and Benedict's "reform of the reform" "set a series of expectations in motion that have finally over pressured the entire Catholic system," and have been especially grueling for priests. She writes:
I spent a part of my life working for a gold mine in which I had to baby sit what were essentially huge pressure cookers. There was an optimum amount of pressure at which the extraction of gold from the concentrate worked best. Part of my job was to monitor that pressure. If the pressure got too high a 'pop off' valve would burst and we would have a huge mess. The only thing we could do was shut down the pumps and wait for the pressure to blow off. Since part of the process involved cyanide, depending on where the condensed steam dropped, we would have to evacuate the plant which in turn meant shutting down the mills. Needless to say, no body appreciated it when one of us working that part of the plant lost control of our pressure cookers. It seems to me the Vatican under the last two popes have created a monstrous pressure cooker and have lost control, the pop off valve has blown, and the evacuations are commencing.
At National Catholic Reporter, Tom Roberts also looks at the clerical system as it has functioned under Benedict and his predecessor, and how it has grown more and more secretive and insular, jealous of its power--with dire consequences for the entire church:
The churches of Europe are empty. The churches in the United States are emptying. Immigration and the growth of the church in the Southern Hemisphere are enough at the moment to balance the demographic nightmare and the effects of the ongoing scandal. If past is prologue, however, we know where this tale is headed. There is little reason to believe that the flawed template that has emptied the churches of the global North -- a model so dependent on accumulation of power, exclusion of women and laymen, and an ever more insular clerical culture -- will work differently in Africa, Asia or Latin America. One need not look long or far for the signs pointing toward a future unraveling of the institution in those places.
The horrid truth, most vividly exemplified in the priest sex abuse scandal and cover-up, is that church leaders have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the natural instinct of the clerical culture is to protect itself at all costs. That abuse occurs elsewhere, from homes to Boy Scout troops to schools and even other faith groups, may be consolation to some. As an institution, however, the church has shown itself to be singular in its determination and its elaborate schemes designed to hide so much sin and crime from so many for so long.
In a statement in the New York Times this morning that is a version of his remarks to Spiegel reporter Peter Wensierski about which I blogged recently, Swiss theologian Hans Küng laments the "fatal return to the church’s old monarchical habits" that has occurred under this pope and his predecessor. The result of this turn? A "coldly ossified church," Küng thinks, leading to a "fundamental crisis" in the Catholic church:
There’s no way to ignore the church’s desperate needs. There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into “internal emigration,” especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church.
And as the church faces its present "fundamental crisis," as Terry Weldon points out at Queering the Church, the people who most desperately need to acknowledge and address that crisis (or crises, Terry rightly insists)--the men who will be electing a new pope--seem capable only of offering simplistic and bland prescriptions that put Terry in mind of Hilaire Belloc's warning to the common cormorant about the dangers courted by unobservant birds:
It seems that everywhere I look these days, I’m finding excellent analyses of the crises facing the Catholic Church (and yes, "crises" is deliberately in the plural). Everywhere, that is, except where we really ought to find such thoughtful, intelligent reflections – by the very men who will shortly entrusted with the task of choosing one from among them, entrusted to lead us out of the darkness. When I come across their simplistic, bland prescriptions, I’m reminded of that devoted Catholic Hilaire Belloc, and his common cormorant, and have a strong desire to shout at them – "Remember those unobservant birds!"
Ordinarily, the prelates of the Roman Catholic Church like a good spectacle. If you’ve ever witnessed the pomp and regalia of a bishops’ procession, you know what I mean: the robes rendered in luxurious fabrics, the exotic millinery, the swinging brass chancer billowing clouds of fragrant smoke. But as the cardinals assemble this week in Rome to begin the task of choosing a pope to replace the retiring Benedict XVI, the convergence of men in red hats and ankle-length cassocks is less a glorious display than a spectacle of scandal.
And here’s a question: if every Cardinal who had a cover-up of child-rape and abuse under his authority or had had sex with another man were barred from the Conclave, how many would be left?
The election Conclave has been carefully orchestrated by octogenerian Vatican power brokers whose perspectives were formed early under Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Franco.
For Mike McShea at This Cultural Christian, Benedict's decision to renounce power now might point a way to the leaders of the church to do the same--for the good of the entire church:
Right now my personal advice to Benedict XVI is to stop trying to be a rockstar. Tear down the Rockstar Audience Theatre and go back to being a Pope in a photograph on the wall or a holy card in the missal of all good and faithful Catholics. Keep your mouth shut or at least have twenty bureaucrats review your remarks before releasing them to the public.
Wise words from many wise, observant, creative, and deep-hearted people: a church that finds itself tremendously "over pressured" due to the unwise decision of its leaders to aggregate more and more power in a privileged, secretive, closed hieratic caste; the cold ossification of an institution that predictably happens due to such unwise decisions on the part of its leaders, precipitating fundamental institutional crisis; and the quandary of making much-needed changes in an institution when the very people who benefit from that aggregation of power--who hold their positions precisely due to their service to the privileged, secretive, closed hieratic caste that has precipitated institutional crisis--are the ones charged with correcting the institution's course.