I don’t drink the Cool Aid, and never have. In recent days I have received a series of emails from old friends in Rome about the passing parade inside the Vatican, and could not help but draw comparisons to the mind-set that was Jim Jones and Jones Town. The triumphalistic fantasy world some good friends still trumpet never ceases to astound me. So much of it is romantic fantasy wilfully blind to dysfunction and corruption. How long before the Wall falls, and that indeed is a good comparison. Remember 1989 and how it all just seemed to happen and who among us had any idea it would crumble as quickly as it did? I do not mean to offend the uber orthodox among you, so please understand that it is not the Church of Jesus the Christ that I reference, but that absolute monarchical structure introduced by Pope Gregory VII many hundreds of years ago, a structure that did not exist in the first 1000 years of Christianity. I am one of those “Bad Weeds’ who thinks it is high time that we move beyond Downton Abbey.
I enclose a recent New York Times article by Hans Kung, one of the pre-eminent religious scholars in the world, and the man who helped the emeritus Benedict obtain his original position at Tubingen University. Alas Benedict returned the favour by not allowing Kung to teach Theology. I have already earlier referenced how much I treasure Kung, and how I sometimes wish I had accepted his invitation and acceptance to do doctoral work under his tutelage. So, I am biased and declare it openly.
Do take a moment and read what Hans Kung writes. His scholarship is beyond repute and his history accurate.
From The New York Times:
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR: A Vatican Spring?
How to save the church.
A Vatican Spring?
THE Arab Spring has shaken a whole series of autocratic regimes. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, might not something like that be possible in the Roman Catholic Church as well — a Vatican Spring?
Of course, the system of the Catholic Church doesn’t resemble Tunisia or Egypt so much as an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. In both places there are no genuine reforms, just minor concessions. In both, tradition is invoked to oppose reform. In Saudi Arabia tradition goes back only two centuries; in the case of the papacy, 20 centuries.
Yet is that tradition true? In fact, the church got along for a millennium without a monarchist-absolutist papacy of the kind we’re familiar with today.
It was not until the 11th century that a “revolution from above,” the “Gregorian Reform” started by Pope Gregory VII, left us with the three enduring features of the Roman system: a centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy.
The efforts of the reform councils in the 15th century, the reformers in the 16th century, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries and the liberalism of the 19th century met with only partial success. Even the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of the reformers and modern critics, was thwarted by the power of the Curia, the church’s governing body, and managed to implement only some of the demanded changes.
To this day the Curia, which in its current form is likewise a product of the 11th century, is the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches and world religions, and to any critical, constructive attitude toward the modern world.
Under the two most recent popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a fatal return to the church’s old monarchical habits.
In 2005, in one of Benedict’s few bold actions, he held an amicable four-hour conversation with me at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Rome. I had been his colleague at the University of Tübingen and also his harshest critic. For 22 years, thanks to the revocation of my ecclesiastical teaching license for having criticized papal infallibility, we hadn’t had the slightest private contact.
Before the meeting, we decided to set aside our differences and discuss topics on which we might find agreement: the positive relationship between Christian faith and science, the dialogue among religions and civilizations, and the ethical consensus across faiths and ideologies.
For me, and indeed for the whole Catholic world, the meeting was a sign of hope. But sadly Benedict’s pontificate was marked by breakdowns and bad decisions. He irritated the Protestant churches, Jews, Muslims, the Indians of Latin America, women, reform-minded theologians and all pro-reform Catholics.
The major scandals during his papacy are known: there was Benedict’s recognition of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s arch-conservative Society of St. Pius X, which is bitterly opposed to the Second Vatican Council, as well as of a Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson.
There was the widespread sexual abuse of children and youths by clergymen, which the pope was largely responsible for covering up when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And there was the “Vatileaks” affair, which revealed a horrendous amount of intrigue, power struggles, corruption and sexual lapses in the Curia, and which seems to be a main reason Benedict has decided to resign.
This first papal resignation in nearly 600 years makes clear the fundamental crisis that has long been looming over a coldly ossified church. And now the whole world is asking: might the next pope, despite everything, inaugurate a new spring for the Catholic Church?
There’s no way to ignore the church’s desperate needs. There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into “internal emigration,” especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church.
Hans Küng is a professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen and the author of the forthcoming book “Can the Church Still Be Saved?” This essay was translated by Peter Heinegg from the German.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 1, 2013
An Op-Ed essay on Thursday about Benedict XVI’s legacy misstated the last time a pope resigned. It was nearly 600 years ago, not nearly 700.