Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

A few rash thoughts on the elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to the Papacy.

What I know of Ratzinger, I know from the last few days. But it certainly appears that his elevation is a signal that the reaction to massive social change that began in the 1960's in America and Europe, has crested. I just heard Tariq Ali and Laura Flanders on the local (Houston) Pacifica station, where they were being interviewed. They agreed on the principal of: "The worse the better," meaning, as I took it, the more harshly Ratzinger tries to centralize control, the more likely he is to fail, and that attempt at "returning to normal" will finally be boiled in its own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through its heart.

I speak metaphorically, of course.

I was actually thinking of this while writing the post below, but I was distracted by other thoughts. Looking strictly from the outside, and understanding somewhat the desire to consolidate whatever power your position of responsibility assigns you, with whatever power you can accrue, the urge to consolidate power is powerful. However, where there is a center of power, there are always margins, and nowhere more than in an international institution like the Roman Catholic church. The irony, of course, is that the modern age which has made skepticism and apostasy so widespread and acceptable, has also fostered the illusion that, through communication one can exert control. The Roman church originally placed substantial control in the Bishops, the episcopacy of the church, who had to make decisions "on the ground" with little or no opportunity to communicate with the Papacy, except on the most fundamental and boundary setting issues. As communication has grown, so has grown the perception that if it can be heard, it can be directed; and if it can be directed, it can be enforced. But what can be directed and enforced, is not necessarily what should be.

The other problem is that we have world cultures now, not one culture. This has always been true, of course, but the single culture of Europe has lost almost all control over "indigenous" cultures. This, too, is a consequence of communications technology as much as it is changed perceptions about cultures and "superiority." And yet we all see more clearly that the culture we grew up with, does not necessarily provide the answers for another culture a world away. Consider Karol Wojtyla, raised under the authoritarian regime of Poland, trying as Pope to understand the liberation theology of the Jesuits in Central America. Centralized authority appeals to the Pope culturally, spiritually, and ecclesiastically. But the authority from Rome has no concept of the situation in Latin America. Liberation theology, ironically, is probably the best response to the "health and wealth gospel" of America, which easily travels south, and easily insinuates itself with its promises that God not only cares about you, but cares about how many material goods you can amass. Ironically, for reasons unclear to me from so far away, the spiritual Pope misses the spiritual power of liberation theology, and moreover wholly misses the material appeal of the "health and wealth gospel." We get too soon old, and too late smart.

And still the further away from the margins the center of power is, the less able it is to hear the cries of God's people. But perhaps that is simply the Protestant in me. [N.B. left rev.'s comment pointed out my egregious error in this sentence, i.e., it made no sense; and now it has been corrected. Gratias.]

What will Pope Benedict XVI do? It is difficult to imagine he will change anything done under John Paul II. It is not difficult to imagine he will extend John Paul's most restrictive, most reactionary policies. Which, again, is an institutional problem. Except institutional problems create spiritual, and even political, problems.

As John Fowles said: "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation." We can only pray for the new Pope, and for ourselves, and for each other: that our sight may be whole, and so God's will be done.

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