Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 01:02
Last Monday, I awoke to the news that Pope Benedict XVI would become the first pontiff in history to resign his post for reasons of health. This unprecedented resignation has reenergized the ongoing discussion about the direction of the Church in the modern era and sparked a debate about what Benedict’s legacy as pope will be. Plagued by scandal and controversy, Benedict’s papacy will perhaps be remembered more for its ending than its substance, but his exit has ironically offered the Church an opportunity to atone for the sins of its leaders and to chart for itself a forward-looking course.
There has been much discussion in the past week regarding Benedict’s decision and its ramifications for the papacy as an institution. While I think there is legitimate and important debate to be had about the precedent set by this action, it is abundantly clear that Benedict’s resignation is good for the Church. Benedict is 85 years old, and the prospect of a JP2-esque decline, an old man confined to a bed, unable to effectively execute his duties as the Vicar of Christ, was very real. Benedict has been declared medically unable to fly, taking him off the global scene when the Church most needs a global face. At a moment in the Church’s history when she is dealing with multiple crises, internal and external, the need for a competent, engaged pontiff has perhaps never been greater. Put simply, the Church is in dire need of true, meaningful reform, reform that will require strong spiritual and political leadership from a capable steward.
The most fundamental obstacle to reform stems from a basic flaw of organizations whose legitimacy is dependent upon a set of principles: they don’t like to admit it when they’re wrong, for fear that change could compromise their most basic, foundational values. But change is good—change would allow the Church, an organization with important messages to share with the world, to be truly effective in spreading goodwill, peace, and justice. Of course, some aspects of the Church can never change—the belief, for example, that Jesus was the Son of God. But surely, church leaders could step forward and say, for example, that contraception is not morally objectionable or that women should perhaps be ordained as priests, without threatening the sacred principles of love and justice upon which the Church was founded. Indeed, prudent measures like the retraction of Humanae Vitae, which most Catholics don’t follow anyway, and the ordination of women would lend the Church credibility in the eyes of believers and observers alike without altering the timeless theological structure that has profoundly defined the lives of billions. But more importantly, simply admitting the need for reform will bring the Church into the 21st century and allow it to spread its core message effectively.
I don’t expect these changes to happen under the next pontiff. But surely, the next pope can admit that the Church made a gravely consequential error in covering up rampant sex abuse allegations and protecting nefarious characters like Marciel Maciel Degollado. Surely, the next pope can seriously continue dialogue with Islam, echoing the words of Nostra Aetate to, “work sincerely for mutual understanding and … social justice.” Surely, the next pope can more effectively define the true duty of the Church as serving the poor, the true meaning of Christ’s command to “take up the cross” of discipleship.
Moreover, the next pope should affect a shift in the Church’s message from controversial social issues to fundamental theological duties of service to the poor. The Church’s conservative positions on social issues have lead to a widespread perception that Catholicism is little more than a short list of purity laws: Go to church, don’t be gay, don’t get abortions. Jesus, however, not only eschews entirely the subject of sexual propriety, but indeed condemns the contemporary Gallilean establishment for an undue emphasis on purity at the expense of justice. Catholicism is about social justice, not moral superiority. It’s about saving the poor here on Earth as much as it is about getting ourselves to Heaven—the next pope should make this clear. The next pope should talk less about eradicating condoms and more about eradicating poverty, less about the evils of abortion and more about the evils of economic and political injustice. The next pope should recast in modern terms the parable of the rich man found in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10: responding to a man who has smugly asked how to inherit eternal life, Jesus lists several easily followed commandments (haven’t killed anyone? Salvation for you!), before casually adding one last stipulation: “Sell all you have,” Jesus says, “and give to the poor.” The message is clear: Christianity isn’t about rules or arcane behavioral codes, it’s about service. It’s not about being saved by God but about saving His children from injustice and strife. The next pope should be a traveler and extrovert in the mode of John Paul II, crossing the globe delivering precisely this message.
The College of Cardinals stands, now as ever, at the precipice of history—it could very well fail to rise to the task. It could easily elect a pope who will continue to lead the Church down a road of corruption, crisis, and failing confidence. But I have hope that the Cardinals will put forth a fresh face, a steward able to see the writing on the wall and lead the Church out of a historic rut. Now more than ever, the Church needs a bold leader to reemphasize her founding principles of service and love, to shift its focus toward social justice. Benedict XVI was not this leader—his papacy has failed to meaningfully combat the internal and external problems leading the Church into error. But with his resignation, he has afforded the Church an opportunity to make a bold change and meaningfully pursue the arduous but necessary task of reform.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.