For those of us who seek to understand the enduring Catholic Church and all its modern challenges, it is best to take the long view and to remember that the church, a religious entity, is also fundamentally a political – small “p” political – institution.
Any institution that has survived and thrived for two thousand years is, by the very nature of its longevity, conservative, traditional and resistant to change. The truly surprisingly news that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to resign next month is just the kind of nearly unprecedented event that happens so rarely in the long history of the Catholic Church.
The last pope to resign – Gregory XII – did so amid a “crisis” in the church that makes many of the problems and challenges that face Benedict’s modern church seem almost quaint. As the New York Times noted with regard to Gregory’s long ago resignation, “Three rival popes had been selected by separate factions of the church, and a group of bishops called the Council of Constance was trying to heal the schism. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Donald S. Prudlo, a papal historian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., said Gregory XII had offered to resign so that the council could choose a new pope whom all factions would recognize. It took two years after Gregory XII’s departure to elect his successor, Martin V.”
So say that the Catholic Church is in “crisis” is almost an oxymoron. The Church endures despite the crisis.
The world-wide media coverage of Benedict’s announcement has spawned a vast amount of speculation about a successor, stories about where the ex-Pope will live and, of course, competing takes on whether the resignation is proof the Church’s fundamental strength or proof of its enormous challenges. Truth be told the Church’s challenges – and there are plenty of challenges from the clergy sex abuse outrages to the role of women in the Church – nearly always take a back seat to its traditions. A transformative Pope comes along rarely. John XXIII was such a leader. The “reforms” ushered in by his combination of pastoral humbleness and the historic Second Vatican Council he convened have defined much about the modern Church and those reforms, as becomes the Church, are still both praised and lamented.
By contrast, given his substantial communication skills and while celebrating his substantial moral role in helping force the end of Communist influence in his native Poland, the much beloved John Paul II was more a consolidator of the Church’s traditional theology and skepticism of the modern world than any agent of change. Pope John Paul II made it certain that there would be a Pope Benedict. The princes of the Church who will now select the next Pope are fundamentally disciples of the two men who appointed all of them to their positions of leadership. Remember after all, nearly 100 years separated the Vatican Council in the 1860’s that put in place the doctrine of papal infallibility from John XXIII’s Council in the 1960’s that largely ended the Latin Mass. That Benedict, in the age of Twitter, surprised the world and the faithful by announcing his resignation in Latin proves how bound by history and tradition the modern church remains.
While many American Catholics yearn to see a modernizer in charge at the Vatican, a man who might lead a renewal that deals realistically with the abuse scandals, does more to bring women into Church leadership and more effectively employs the Catholic notions of works of mercy and charity to address the modern world’s challenges, the Church’s 2,000 year history holds little hope for anything like a quick transformation. The new Pope will be both a spiritual and a political leader and, in all faiths, spiritual leaders are constrained by tradition. Political leaders, most at least, are constrained by fear – change is risky and change is hard.
Popes come and popes go – more than 250 men have ruled the Catholic Church in its two millennia – but the Church as an institution endures and change comes to the institution about as frequently as a resignation of the Bishop of Rome.