I have been thinking of Benedict's resignation all day. As a dissenting Catholic with strong views on the subject, allow me a few serious thoughts (even though I too have been joking all day):
1) As is always the case with a conclave, this is a rare opportunity for the Church leadership to examine itself closely - I believe it should be a moment of spiritual catharsis, a confession of sins, so to speak. Though it has countless times throughout the centuries been used as a tool for bribery and manipulation, the sacrament of reconciliation is in many ways the most appealing radical element of Catholic faith - the opportunity to quietly face your demons, accept responsibility for your role in their domination over your life, and to take the necessary penitent steps to reform yourself. It's more than just "say 12 Hail Marys and call me in the morning." It is: I have sinned. These are the circumstances of my sin. I shall now implement this action plan to rectify the wrong I have done and become a better person and therefore closer to God. It is grace through faith and deeds, never only faith.
The last time this was attempted was with Vatican II and Pope John XXIII (also known as the only Pope I revere other than St. Peter).
2) A genuine moment of reconciliation within the Church has to begin with the insidious culture of child rape. I am not going to water it down and call it mere "sexual abuse." It is rape. To varying degrees of course, but as Todd Akin had to learn the hard way - rape is rape. The highest ranks of the Church hierarchy are responsible for allowing it to occur, going back years. One need only look to the stories coming out of Ireland to understand how far-reaching and systematic this rape was. Other stories are emerging: Germany (where many allege that Ratzinger himself covered up crimes), Fr. Maciel and the Legion of Christ in Mexico; and of course we are aware of the stories in the U.S, from Boston (where Cardinal Law was promptly shipped to a plum assignment in the Vatican) to L.A. (where the moral corruption of Cardinal Mahony has recently been exposed).
Nothing else cuts to the heart of the leity's lack of faith and trust in their Church's institutions more than this. If you cannot let your son or daughter become an alter-server without thinking twice, then the institution is broken. If the servants of God are shielded from the law of man - then you are dealing with a moral corruption similar to and in fact deeper than a mafia family's attempts to make its own rules.
No amount of financial settlement can come close to truly addressing the problem - a public papal full confession is the only place it can start. And then the penance must be longed, and absolution earned from deeds and good faith.
3) From there the Church could then begin to address some of the underlying root causes. Syndicated columnist and former priest James Carroll identifies the fear of and subjugation of sex as a major one. By pushing natural biological sexual urges into the closet, into the realm of shame, they marginalize the people they seek to have authority over. And no one suffers more as a consequence than the ones who must remain celibate. With very rare biological exceptions (some people are indeed asexual), sexual urges are as natural as waking up in the morning. It borders on cruelty to force these individuals to restrain themselves, and heightens the possibility of those urges being acted out in unhealthy ways.
I don't expect the Church to come all the way over to my beliefs about women's reproductive rights, sexual orientation, or even the role of women in the Church overnight (though the longstanding history of the Church's treatment of women is part of their dysfunction). But they at the very least could give ground on contraception - as they have allowed their scientific understand to evolve over time. And they should remove the celibacy requirement, and allow priests to marry. Just about every other religion allows their pastoral leaders to marry, including the Eastern Orthodox Christian faiths (which only force bishops and the upper echelon to remain celibate). It helps reduce the degree of of the most overwhelming crisis in the church, and it would solve a practical crisis the Church has in recruiting young men into the priesthood.
4) I don't expect any of this to happen, sadly. After all, at least 90% of the Cardinals were appointed by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. For all of the popularity of John Paul II, and all of the credit he deserves for confronting totalitarianism (both in the forms of Nazism and Soviet Communism) and for healing the Church's relationship with the Jewish community, his true legacy is in dismantling all of the promising reforms of Vatican II. He crushed dissent (especially the left-wing liberation theologists) and through his personal Luca Brasi, Joseph Ratzinger, enforced a rigid conservative dogma (and a stranger more mystical tendency to make everyone and their mother a saint). For all the ways in which the Church will be praised as forward-thinking if Conclave chooses a non-white pope, that Pope will almost certainly be as rigidly conservative as his two predecessors.
5) There was, however, one aspect of Benedict's announcement that is underplayed in it's radicalism. While everyone focuses on the fact that almost 700 years has passed since a pope last abdicated (and that was a political move at the conclusion of the Great Schism), that alone is not the reason why Benedict's decision is radical. No, it's radical because the only intellectually honest way it can be viewed is as a repudiation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Whether he meant it to be or not, we may never know. After all, his thought process may well have been more immediate: he's old, he's tired, and he doesn't want to do it anymore. But even that is a blunt admission of the Pope as a mere mortal. It is a giant crack in the surface of papal infallibility, a doctrine that arose in the 1800s as a political ploy to increase the Vatican's power. It may take another 20-30 years to realize the next step of it, but if the next pope nears age 85 and sees himself as too old, too tired, and too sick to be Pope, it is another clear admission that these men are mortals, not the closest thing to God incarnate on Earth.
After flip-flopping back and forth on Catholicism and even my faith in God through the years, I still don't know where I land, or even why I still consider myself an adherant of an organization that is so fundamentally corrupt (and that has acted out great evil through the years) that it may not be reformable. But whatever the greater truth of the great beyond is (and I actually do not want to know and do not want to even discuss it), religious institutions are the most influential force in the world at governing human relations. If we want more freedom in the world (and real freedom, not false Rand Paul freedom), we need to reform religious institutions.
And that alone makes the soul of the Catholic Church worth fighting for, even if those who proclaim to stand for it refuse to fight for it themselves.
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