Benedict’s Farewell


Am I wrong to see in this an invocation of the Second Vatican Council’s insistence that the Church is not its hierarchy but the people of God?

It’s true that I receive letters from the world’s greatest figures – from the Heads of State, religious leaders, representatives of the world of culture and so on. I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and let me feel their affection, which is born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write me as one might write, for example, to a prince or a great figure one does not know. They write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties. Here, one can touch what the Church is – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and almost be able to touch with one’s hands the power of His truth and His love, is a source of joy, in a time in which many speak of its decline.

Benedict is a brilliant writer and thinker, one of the original architects, alongside Hans Kung, of the opening of the church fearlessly to the world. And it was his assumption of power, in my view, first as Rome’s doctrinal enforcer, then as its chief investigator of the ubiquitous abuse and rape of children (which must be counted, in my view, as a success in establishing new safeguards but as a terrible failure of accountability and responsibility for the past), and then as its Pope. He pledged to re-convert Europe with a newly authoritarian papacy, a rigid doctrinal discipline, and a purer, older form of Catholicism. He did not just fail; his papacy has been a rolling disaster for the Church in the West.

He lost Ireland, for Pete’s sake, if you’ll pardon the expression. His version of Catholicism entered the public square and has been overwhelmingly refuted, rejected, and spurned by not just those outside the Western church but by so many within it. And in his inability to rise to the occasion of unthinkable evil in the child-rape conspiracy – to clean house by removing every cardinal and every bishop and every priest implicated in any way with it – he has presided over the global destruction of the church’s moral authority. By his refusal to face the fact of huge hypocrisy in the church over homosexuality – indeed to double down on the stigmatization of gay people, reversing previous gradual movement toward acceptance – he has consigned the church to what might well become an institutional tragedy.

I think he knows this and knows he has not the strength to persevere through it. This passage moved me deeply:

I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink.

The Lord seemed to sleep! He’s blaming the failures of his papacy on God Almighty. But notice the metaphor: the church is a sinkable ship, when left in human hands – in his hands – taking in the water of corruption, hypocrisy, denial, rigidity and above everything else, fear.

If we do not conquer that fear, if we do not rid ourselves of these corrupt old men, and their refusal to listen or converse, if we do not allow priests to know conjugal love and fatherhood, and to bring women to full and equal membership in the church – as Jesus clearly did – then I fear the ship that is the institutional church will sink.

But because we are the church, and every act of love in Jesus’ name is the church, and every sacrifice for another is the church, the actual church can never sink. It is, in his Holiness’s words a “community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ.” It lives on – in the lives of so many, lay and priests and sisters and brothers alike, men and women who have been betrayed by their nominal leaders, even as they witness to Jesus every day of their lives.

This church, whoever is elected Pope, will rise again. It will rise because in a world of such potential destruction, the message of non-violence and peace is more vital than at any time in the history of humankind. It will rise because the global capitalist system, while bringing so many out of poverty, is also now creating vast inequalities and straining the planet’s eco-system with a frenzy that we have an absolute duty to slow and control again. It will rise because the supreme values of the current West – money, power, fame, materialism – are spreading everywhere. And they lead us not to some future hell but to a very present one, in which the human soul becomes a means, not an end, in which human life is regarded as disposable not sacred, in which even the more enlightened countries, such as the US, legitimize the evil of torture and pre-emptive warfare.

We are the second generation of humankind capable of destroying the entire planet with weaponry. We are the first capable of destroying its very eco-system with greed. We need the Gospels more powerfully now than ever – because the stakes have become so great and humankind’s hubris so vast and expansive.

Yes, as a Catholic, I pray for a new Pope who sees this and can speak truth to the power of the world. But as a Catholic, I also know this will change nothing unless we begin that renewal from the ground-up.

(Painting: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt.)