Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Problem With Throwing A Pebble In A Stagnant Pond

Benedict may have thought he was just dropping a pebble in the stagnant Catholic pond, but now that little pebble has brought up tons of filth from the bottom of the stagnant pond and no one can control the global ripple effects--not even the Vatican.

Der Spiegel OnLine has posted an extensive and excellent article looking at Pope Benedict's resignation and it's potential impact on the Church.  I have posted the first page below, but encourage readers to read the entire article.  Links to the rest of the article are posted at the end of this excerpt.

Zero Hour at the Vatican: A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

Naked and goaded viciously by hornets and wasps, his blood sucked by loathsome worms. Such was the fate of a pope in Dante's "Divine Comedy" who "by his cowardice made the great refusal."
Benedict XVI, in short, knew what could happen to one who rebelled against a centuries-old tradition in a church in which suffering is far from foreign. But he also knew that it wasn't just a matter of his own suffering -- it was a matter of the exhaustion, weakness and sickness of the church at large. The pope from Bavaria has given up. Nevertheless, when he announced his resignation last Monday, hastily and almost casually mumbling the words as if he were saying a rosary, as if he were returning the keys to a rental car rather than the keys to St. Peter, there was still a sense of how deeply his move has shaken the Catholic empire. (I was struck by this tone as well, as if in minimizing his announcement Benedict was attempting to minimize it's impact.)

Archbishop of Berlin Rainer Maria Woelki calls it a "demystification of the papal office." Already, he says, the pope's resignation has changed the church.
So was it an act of liberation? A handful of bishops have, cautiously, made their voices heard. Gebhard Fürst, the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, called for reforms to promote the advancement of women. Although he didn't demand that women be allowed to become priests, Fürst did suggest that more women assume leadership positions in the church.  (Isolated bishops from all over the globe are now cautiously suggesting changes, as well as a Cardinal.)

German bishops will convene for their spring meeting in the southwestern city of Trier this week. Conflicting groups are already taking shape within the German church, with fundamentalists battling reformers, and with everyone anxiously determined to preserve or expand his vested rights under a new pontiff.
And the desire for change is palpable. "A pope can be a theologian, a minister or a general," says a prominent German cardinal, and he makes it clear that he has seen enough of philosopher-popes for now. "A general is needed to lead the universal church." (Already the German Bishops have cleared the way for use of contraception for rape victims.)

Silent Battle
A shift is taking place in the otherwise immovable Catholic Church. A global struggle has begun over the prerogative of interpretation, opportunities, legacy and positions -- a silent battle for Rome.
The ultimate effects of the pope's resignation are thus far impossible to predict. But it is clear that previous certainties will now be up for debate -- certainties that were once just as firm as the understanding that the position of pope was for life.

In the modern age, a pope has never resigned from the office, one that some believe is the most important on earth. There hasn't been an ex-pontiff since the last years of the Schism, after Gregory XII and the Avignon pope agreed to resign to reunite the church. That was the last time that an ex-pope spent the rest of his days strolling around the Vatican gardens as nothing but a simple brother. Never before has the decision of a single pope presented such a challenge to the Catholic Church as this one. Zero hour has begun at the Vatican. The pope's resignation was certainly "great" within Dante's meaning. But it was not made through cowardice. On the contrary, it was probably the most courageous step in a long-drifting papacy marred by scandals and misunderstandings.

With his revolt against tradition and the church machinery, Benedict XVI may have brought more change to the church than he did in the seven years and 10 months of his papal reign.
Benedict has repeatedly raged against a "dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." And this is the man who is now weakening the office of pope, making it dependent on human deficits and efficiency?

If, as Benedict implied in his statement of resignation, the office is too difficult for one man in the modern world, power must then be ceded to Catholic bishops and to world regions. If the Petrine office can be vacated like a seat in parliament, then it's time to put an end to the church's rigid stance on other questions of doctrine. Why exactly should spouses remain together until death if the pope can simply resign from his post?

More Dirt
And if Benedict now assumes the right of resignation, shouldn't every future pope expect to face demands for his resignation, not unlike a politician, when he becomes infirm or is deficient in the discharge of his office?
It's no surprise that some at the Vatican have a bad feeling about the questions that will face Rome in the coming weeks. The pope's decision to elevate his person above his position presents a challenge to the entire Vatican system. Last week, a prelate suggested shunting the ex-pope to a monastery in Germany, in other words, as far away from Rome as possible. (It is just as easy to make the case that Benedict elevated the position above his person. In either case, it is a direct challenge to the entire Vatican system.)

Pope Benedict had hoped to bring the listing ship of the Catholic Church back onto an even keel with clear directives, even if that meant a shrinking crew. He sought to counteract the church's general dissolution by focusing on core issues. He had hoped to revive faith with reason or, to use the Greek term, logos.
Instead, more and more dirt came to light, and Benedict was confronted with a growing lack of understanding. After an endless series of scandals, he must have realized that the office was too much for him.
 "It was," the Italian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Dario Fo said on Thursday, "the attrition in the curia, Vatileaks and all the sharks who surrounded the pope, spied on and betrayed him. Age certainly isn't the only thing that burdens him."

On Ash Wednesday, when everything was almost over, Benedict XVI is sitting, hunched over, in St. Peter's Basilica, dressed entirely in purple, the liturgical color of atonement. He seems tiny under the bronze canopy by Bernini. Gregorian chants mingle with calls from the nave. "Viva il Papa," say the faithful, as they stand up and applaud for several minutes. They form a cordon through which he is rolled toward the exit in the wheeled platform he uses because of knee pain. He seems calm and tired, but also relieved. He apologizes for his mistakes. He can do that now, because he has nothing left to lose. In stepping down from his post, the pope seems strong, almost modern. Benedict has also lightened the load for his successors. Now, future popes will not have to face being dragged out of his Vatican office on a stretcher, like someone dying in a hospice.
There is something rebellious about Benedict's action. If it is God who calls someone to the throne, abandoning the post voluntarily can be seen acting against God's will.

A Series of Last Words
Pope Paul VI once compared his job to fatherhood -- something that was impossible to give up. "One does not step down from the cross," John Paul II reportedly said. The traditional view is that the body of the pope is not his alone. As with an absolute monarch, the office and the body are inseparable.
There were signs, but few interpreted them as such. During a visit to the Italian region of Abruzzo, why did Benedict lay the pallium, the papal woolen cloak, in front of the altar containing the relics of St. Celestine? Celestine was the only one of his predecessors who had voluntarily resigned, an act for which Dante had apparently banished him to hell. Did Benedict see the hermit pope as a kindred spirit?

But no one was paying attention, just as no one had paid attention to the pope in light of the commotion surrounding the church. Benedict spoke quietly and softly, and yet his words were chosen as carefully as if they were to be set in stone. For those who listened, his message was clear: It was a series of last words.
This was especially evident in the way he addressed German Catholics. On his visit to Germany, he warned of the need to take greater care of God's creation, one of several forays into ecology. In Freiburg, he advocated "de-secularization" and called upon Catholics not to adhere to structures. But there was no response to his efforts. The German episcopate also ignored the "Year of Faith" he proclaimed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
 Tired and worn down, he completed his final tasks. He made his longtime confidant and loyal friend Georg Gänswein an archbishop, and he ensured that a conservative dogmatist, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Bavarian city of Regensburg, would assume leadership of the Vatican's doctrinal office. (If the new pope wishes to insure his autonomy, he must accept the resignations of these two men.)

At the very beginning of his term in office, Benedict spoke of the "yoke of Christ" that he was now assuming, and of the willingness to suffer. But even then, in his inaugural mass, he said ominously: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."........The rest of this extensive and worthwhile article can be accessed here: 


Whatever Pope Benedict thought would happen when he dropped his boulder into the Catholic pond, I don't think he calculated how big the ripples would be.  He may have deluded himself into thinking he was only dropping a pebble.  It was no pebble and the ripple effects are washing up all over the global church.

There are still approximately two weeks before the conclave begins, and in virtual reality that is an eternity.  With the German bishops approving birth control for rape victims, Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Great Britian advocating for married priests, and more than one ranking prelate discussing updated notions of governance and collegiality,  I am beginning to get a ripple of hope.  No matter who comes out of the conclave as pope, at least the electors will have been exposed to something other than the thinking of the last two papacies.  Maybe we will even begin to see these Cardinals catch on to the fact the Church is not just wallowing in Roman corruption but it is bleeding educated committed believers by the literal millions.  Brazil for instance, is in free fall, and Brazil leads the way in Catholic trends in South America.  Worse than the loss of the educated middle class, is the across the board loss of women.  Lose the women and you have lost your religious future.

The Der Spiegel article called this the Vatican's Zero Hour, and that is a very important concept in physics.  When one drops a rock in a pond one creates a zero point in the very center of the concentric circles.  Zero points can be points of dynamic change--especially out on the margins and in the center--which means things are not going to be the same ever again.  

For a man who did his best to teach the Church never changes, he made the one decision which will see to it that it does. Pope Benedict may very well have unleashed the winds of change rather than just tossed a pebble in a pond.



  1. I have a memory fragment of a statement by Hans Kung, something to the effect that he hoped Benedict would do something significant before he died.

    I spent time yesterday trying to find the exact statement. Even with all the marvels of the information age, I could not find the statement. I can say that I discovered the wingers really hate Hans.

    Like many, even Hans Kung, I have been waiting, but not with much hope, for Benedict to do something significant. Now I think Benedict by resigning the papacy has finally done something very significant.

  2. It almost seems that someone has Google-bombed Hans Küng, whom they accuse of disloyalty and being un-Catholic. As for myself, I am eagerly awaiting the English translation of "Can the Catholic Church Be Saved?" From what I've been able to find, it is supposed to be published this year, but there is little info about it. To answer the question posed by the title, I think the Church as People of God can be saved, but the Vatican is beyond salvation, and as Robert Mickens has noted, is crumbling around the Curia. The wingers (I especially think of John Zuhlsdorf in this context) have been bad-mouthing Mickens for telling the truth. Now what was that about prophets being without honor...?

  3. I do too Wild. This is truly a boulder thrown into a stagnant pond. It's not only lifting the dross off the bottom, but it's repositioned the papacy in terms of it's own theology. It's a going to be quite a long time before this resignation is all sorted out. Just because there were Canons which allowed for this move doesn't mean anyone truly expected they would be used. In some respects, this is a perfect example of the power of myth vs Canon Law.

  4. The Church as the People of God needs to grow up and take their rightful place in the Christian world. The Vatican needs to turn the keys to the car over to the soon to be very adult laity. Hans Kung has been one of the best driving instructors post Vatican II.

  5. I know! I just went on a search for the Hans Kung quote mentioned above and was met with some really nasty dirty stuff directed at Kung. And these people call themselves 'Christian.' They almost sound like the Westboro Baptist Church in the way they gloat over what they perceive as a soul going to Hell, as if that were a thing to rejoice over. Good thing Fr. Kung will surprise them at the gates!

  6. My image is of a whirlpool. It seems the resignation has resulted in a vacuum, pulling everything into a whirl - going around and down. Those most heavily betting on the hierarchy are in the whirlpool. The rest of us are watching the proceedings with a sense of fascination, horror, and wonder. What's next? As daily, even hourly, new things appear and get drawn into the whirlpool.

    Or maybe it's more like a black hole. And those clinging to the pope and clericalism, those who draw close, are being pulled into the apparent vacuum.

    In any case this is not business as usual for even those getting ready to vote on the next pope. The resignation has upset the applecart. The law of unintended consequences is at work here. And all parties are getting into the action in this "inbetween time". It also reminds me of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia - the book where you have this place that's "the world between the worlds". That's where we are now. Peering into pools... not knowing which world we will land in.

    Full of metaphors this morning! But what else have we got at the moment?

  7. I was really surprised the Vatican admitted one of the reasons that Benedict is staying on sight in precisely because they are afraid the wingnuts would parade to where ever else he might have retired had his predecessor made a decision they didn't like. This is an admission that the Vatican is far more afraid of the reaction from the right than it is from the heretics on the left. No wonder the Temple Police types have had so much influence. It's influence based from fear of them, not because they are 'more Catholic'.

    How sad is it, that our supposed leaders are more afraid of one part of the flock, than the God they are supposed to serve. Truly a case of 'tail wags dog'.

  8. TheraP, there were a couple of other pictures I was thinking of using that showed the whirl pool in the center just after a rock is thrown. No question the law of unintended consequences is at work, especially in this in between time.

    One lesson the Vatican might take from this is they don't control the information flow anymore. I would have thought they might have gotten that lesson from previous Benedict statements, but I guess not. Old illusions die hard, especially in palaces full of 'princes'.

  9. Some meandering thoughts. Pebbles falling down a hill or mountain can gain enough momentum to take down even the boulders. It certainly is getting very interesting to say the least. Last time I checked in with my thoughts about PBXVI before his retirement announcement was the thought about his inordinate amount of power he held, firing good priests, and with total disrespect towards those who had contrary views, of which he seemed to not have the openness of heart to lend an ear to hear with any kind of mercy. In central authority in dictating his ideal form of what it is to be catholic, which crossed the boundaries of ordinary to absurd to outlandish to insane, PBXVI coddled to the right wing as if they were the army that would release him from captivity.

    I think of the other time in his life when he had to join forces with the Nazis when he was very young, a decision he made to save his own skin or he might have been killed. Fear marked his course and seemed to drive his decision then, as well as his immaturity, limited perspective of the times and the peer pressure & history itself that goaded him. Is he relinquishing power again as he did back then, I wonder. Someone or some group is or has been gaming him, taunting his own conscience. His answer is that he is out of here and he is packing his bags and staying semi-planted in the shadows of the chair of St. Peter, a seat that seems to have unseen tacks and thorns upon its seat.

    I recall the lightening bolt on the same day that PBXVI announced his retirement, which turns out to be the same day of a "report" which needs to be revealed to all in the Church. There will be more lightening bolts before this saga is over, no doubt about it. Two weeks is a long time and I'm sure the headlines in blogs and news outlets will get even more interesting.

  10. He does have a history of leaving the field of play, but I think he was truly being honest. His body is just breaking down and he truly can't 'perform' as Pope. I really appreciate the fact he is not going to force the entire Church to watch his physical disintegration ala JPII.

  11. I think it is a good idea for him to retire too, for the reason you describe in the inevitable physical disintegration of old age and failing health. It was painful watching PJPII. Bishops have to retire at a certain age I believe, so why not the Pope is the feeling I have about it. He's getting up there in age and he doesn't look too well either from the latest pictures.

  12. Wouldn't it be nice if, as his final act before leaving the chair in a couple days, B16 makes that report public? That might go a long way toward fixing his conscience troubles.