A Vatican Spring?

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That was Hans Kung’s hope before the recent Conclave. It seemed somewhat naive to me at the time – but naivete in the face of the workings of the Holy Spirit is a good thing for Catholics to have. And we will certainly have to wait some time before we can assess whether the signs of reform become reality in any tangible fashion.

But we can say this much: almost every single action and statement from the new pontiff signals a radical departure from the past 44 years of the Wojtila-Ratzinger church. My favorite unofficial story about the new Pope was relayed to me by hearsay. But at the moment before he was to appear as the new Pope, he was allegedly presented with the papal mozzetta – the big red cape his predecessor loved to wear and an increasing must for any aspiring priest of bishop for the last decade (it had seasonal variations). He turned to the Vatican official who tried to put it on him, waved him away with one hand and said, simply, “Carnevale e finito.” The carnival is over.

Is it? That is the question. Is the Wojtila-Ratzinger era of reaction coming to an end?

You can see the theoconservative religious project from 1979 – 2013 rather as you might the neoconservative political project in the same years. After a major and arguably necessary course correction in the 1980s, by the first decade of the new millennium, the two isms had ended where isms always do: on earth. The theoconservative project ended in a collapse of the church’s moral authority inside the beadazzled Liberace outfits of its intellectual architect, Joseph Ratzinger. The neoconservative project ended in the blood and sands of Mesopotamia.

Benedict claimed he’d bring Europe back to the faith using the sublime, pristine self-evidence of a “new” natural law and the total authority of the Bishop of Rome. But after global rock-star version of the papacy under John Paul II had faded, the increasingly extremist and fastidious orthodoxy that he and Ratzinger had innovated lost altitude fast. It had been propped up by charisma, an evanescent form of authority. And when the prissy Inquisitor, Benedict XVI – with no popular appeal – inherited this mess, he gradually, gaffe after gaffe, fashion accessory after fashion accessory, disappeared beneath his meticulous vast wardrobe. He resigned for reasons we may never fully know – but after an internal dossier on church abuse – financial and sexual – had laid out his failure in stark terms. But he had ceased exercising any moral authority for most Catholics long before that.

All of that project required re-establishing the papacy as something the Second Council had explicitly disavowed: a near-dictator in theological and political and social debate. Conversations were silenced; debates ended; theologians silenced. Vatican II’s insistence on equal authority for scripture and for the laity of the church alongside the papacy were slowly downplayed, while restoring the Pope as some kind of medieval queen – down to the ermine and jewels and over-starched lace – was the objective. In his early years, John Paul II carried all before him in a sweep of drama. But he was to the papacy what Diana was to the monarchy. In the end, he was a dazzling distraction from reality, not a reinvention of it. It was under John Paul II that the rape of children became truly endemic, the cover-up the worst.

The establishment of a global council of advisers – a kind of global cabinet to counteract the Vatican bureaucracy and take the Pope down a notch or two is, in that context, a huge move:

The Italian church historian Alberto Melloni, writing in the Corriere della Sera, called it the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries”. For the first time, a pope will be helped by a global panel of advisers who look certain to wrest power from the Roman Curia, the church’s central bureaucracy. Several of the group’s members will come to the job with a record of vigorous reform and outspoken criticism of the status quo. None has ever served in the Italian-dominated Curia in Rome and only one is an Italian: Giuseppe Bertello, the governor of the Vatican City State.

You need not have dramatic doctrinal change – and I don’t expect any on the issues that the Western laity has already moved on from. But you could have real institutional change. Here are my benchmarks: if Bergoglio closes or insists on total transparency for the Vatican Bank; if he defrocks leading bishops and cardinals who have been implicated in any way in the cover-up of child molestation, regardless of statutes of limitations; and if he allows the question of priestly celibacy to be revisited. He has chosen a collegial manner, but he is well known as a decisive man who makes up his own mind and exhibits few qualms about enforcing it.

All of this requires some patience and vigilance. But I fail to see how this new Pope could have more dramatically demonstrated that he intends to move the church away from the last forty years. Where he will lead it is anyone’s guess. But I’m merely relieved there seems to be a recognition that the Benedict path was, in many ways, a dead end. And the church must find new life again – in service to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned and the outsider. It must get out of itself and into the world. And it’s happening.

(Photo: Pope Francis stands in the pontiff’s library on April 11, 2013 at the Vatican. By Alessandro Di Meo/AFP/Getty Images.)