Papal Task of Catching up with Spirit of the Times
By Chris McGillion
Sydney Morning Herald
March 15, 2004
Yesterday John Paul II chalked up another milestone by becoming the third-longest-serving pope in the near-2000-year history of the Catholic Church. Only Pius IX, who reigned in the 19th century for 31 years and seven months, and St Peter who, tradition has it, was bishop of Rome for between 34 and 37 years, have held the keys to the kingdom for longer.
John Paul was elected Pope just over 25 years and five months ago, on October 16, 1978. For an entire generation of Catholics, he and the office he holds have become virtually indistinguishable.
In many ways, it remains a vibrant papacy. Despite his age (83) and infirmities (Parkinson's disease chief among them), John Paul maintains a busy schedule of meetings - and trips - and continues to offer thoughtful comments and reflections.
In other ways, however, the church he heads is not a church he leads. Day-to-day decisions - including, close observers suspect, even decisions about major appointments involving bishops - have been delegated. The Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, is known to have published speeches supposedly given by the Pope when, in fact, he has been too ill to deliver them, and has reported meetings with him that never took place.
Then there is the growing speculation - or, more accurately, the deepening anticipation - surrounding the succession. How many church initiatives this has put on hold no one can say, but it is fair to assume that many senior clerics would choose not to rock the boat - or risk their careers - by taking bold steps so close to the end of a papal era.
Indeed, as callous as it might seem, the best thing John Paul could now do is die, and so allow a successor to bring new momentum and fresh vitality to the church.
Who the next pope will be depends in large part on what the cardinals whose responsibility it will be to elect him decide are the most pressing issues facing the church. Writing in The Washington Post last month, the Pope's biographer, George Weigel, suggested that those issues are unlikely to be the ones many ordinary Catholics would identify: the church's ban on artificial contraception, abortion, homosexual practice and the ordination of women to the priesthood, for example. On these matters, Weigel argued, John Paul has not been expressing his personal opinions but Catholic doctrine, and such doctrine is not about to change because popes are its servants, not its masters.
Anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the history of the papacy might regard that statement as a little too cut and dried. But he has a point: what appears to be most pressing from the perspective of the pew is not necessarily the view one would have from Rome.
Weigel claims that three matters of global consequence "are shaping the pre-conclave discussions among key cardinal electors". These, he says, are the collapse of Catholicism in Europe, the challenge from radical Islam and the debate about the emerging possibilities of biotechnology.
These are important issues to be sure - for the cultural health of the West, for international peace and civility, and for the future of humanity. But to suggest that they are uppermost in the minds of those who will elect the next pope is to confidently assume that the church remains in a position to do something about each if only the right man is chosen. In fact, the church in the West is still reeling from the loss of moral credibility it suffered over the clerical sex abuse scandal.
Earlier this month, researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the US issued a major report on clerical sex abuse between 1950 and 2002 in which they found that a "credible" accusation of abuse was made against 4 per cent of all priests in the US during this period. While this is still relatively small it is four times the number that most people inside and outside the church were hitherto prepared to concede.
The church has yet to demonstrate that it has learnt the lessons of this scandal - lessons about transparency, accountability and the factors within the clerical culture that contribute to abusive situations. In Australia, for instance, a landmark 1999 report on the last of these, Towards Understanding: A study of the factors specific to the Catholic Church which might lead to sexual abuse by priests and religious, has never been released for public discussion. Indeed, the report is now never referred to by the bishops even though they commissioned it as a key part of the "adequate response" they promised in the wake of clerical abuse revelations that emerged during the Wood royal commission into police corruption.
In non-Western countries, church leaders have been stifled in their attempts to adapt the faith to cultures and conditions. This was clearly evident at the 1994 Synod for Africa and the 1998 Synod for Asia. Before these it was apparent in the way the Latin American bishops' conference was purged of its radical social gospel and thus left with little of substance to meet the needs of the majority who will never benefit from the continent's characteristic kleptocracies.
As successful as it has been in repositioning the church as an important political and intellectual actor in world affairs, the pontificate of John Paul II will also leave it with a crisis of governance. Both the centralising tendencies of the past 25 years and the cult of personality that has developed around this Pope have undermined the freedom of action, authority and hence effectiveness of local church leaders.
Australian Catholics who remember how their bishops were railroaded into signing, at the Vatican's insistence, the so-called Statement of Conclusions - a blueprint for their church so markedly at odds with the concerns and suggestions raised at the Synod for Oceania in 1998 - know this only too well.
Whoever he might be - liberal or conservative, European, African or Latin American - the most urgent task awaiting the next pope is to find a way to release the creative energies of his church and mobilise its members once again in a collective enterprise in which they trust.
Then, and only then, can the church hope to begin to address the problems of a world in need
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.