Sunday, March 3, 2013

Benedict's Legacy Was All About Identity At The Expense Of 'Scapegoating'

No question Benedict's successor is left dealing with all the issues all the scapegoating failed to address.

Ross Douthat has an interesting perspective on the legacy of Pope Benedict in an op ed in NY Times.  The first thing that struck me is that Douthat trivializes, when he mentions it at all, the cost born by targeted groups in the JPII/Ratzinger campaign to save the Church from the 'disastrous' seventies and the 'progressive excesses of Vatican II'.  He fails to note that gays and women bore the brunt of the Catholic Identity campaign. This is an omission I find old and tedious.

The following is an extensive excerpt which begins about a third of the way through Douthat's piece.

....In America, the ’70s were defined by not just a weakening in the institutional life of the church but a wholesale collapse. Thousands of priests and nuns left their holy orders each year. Mass attendance had fallen by a third in a generation. The church faced a rebellion from Latin Mass traditionalists, even as progressive theologians confidently planned for a third Vatican Council. Along with institutional instability there was moral laxity, and worse: revelations of sex abuse and cover-up were years away, but the rate of abuse was at its peak. (What Douthat fails to mention is Paul VI retaining clerical celibacy which had a huge impact on priestly attrition, and of course, the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, an act which defined collegiality as a non starter--amongst other things.)

Beneath these trends was a pervasive sense that Catholic identity was entirely up for grabs — that having dispensed with Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the church might be poised for further revolutions, a major schism, or both. When Walker Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins” imagined Catholicism in the United States splitting in three — a progressive church modeled on liberal Protestantism, a right-wing “American Catholic Church” that plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” during Mass, and a tiny remnant loyal to Rome — it seemed more like prophecy than fiction. (The USCCB certainly bought into option number two.)

It was the work of Ratzinger’s subsequent career, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal policeman and then as his successor, to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood. This was mostly a project of reassertion: yes, the church still believes in the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Yes, the church still opposes abortion, divorce, sex outside of marriage. Yes, the church still considers itself the one true faith. And yes — this above all, for a man whose chief gifts were intellectual — the church believes that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science. (The Church under Ratzinger believed that its doctrines were compatible with the Church's version of scholarship and science, and there was very little action on the dogmatic aspects of Catholicism and plenty of action on the pelvic and clerical issues.)

It was understandable that this project made Ratzinger many enemies. It turned him into a traitor to his class, since it involved disciplining theologians who had been colleagues, peers and rivals. It disappointed or wounded the many Catholics who couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings with their post-sexual-revolution lives. And it obviously did not solve the broad cultural challenges facing institutional Christianity in the West.
But it did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America, to an extent that was far from inevitable 40 years ago. The church’s civil wars continued, but without producing major schisms. Mass attendance stopped its plunge and gradually leveled off, holding up even during some of the worst sex abuse revelations. Vocations likewise stabilized, and both ordinations and interest in religious life have actually risen modestly over the last decade. Today’s American Catholics, while deeply divided, are more favorably disposed to both the pope emeritus and the current direction of the church than press coverage sometimes suggests. (Douthat is leaving out the fact that none of his demographics hold amongst whites of European descent.)

This stabilization was not the kind of sweeping revival that some conservative Catholics claimed to see happening, and it did nothing to prevent the church’s reputation from suffering, deservedly, once the abuse epidemic came to light.

But for all of Catholicism’s problems, the Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger — those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn’t reassert a doctrinal core — have generally fared worse. There are millions of lapsed Catholics, but the church still has a higher retention rate by far than most mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger’s critics has increased vitality and growth. (The 'nones' or the non aligned maybe disorganized, but they are a rapidly growing religious group.)

This doesn’t mean there isn’t some further version of reform, some unexpected synthesis of tradition and innovation, that would serve Catholicism well. And if such a path exists, Pope Benedict was probably not the leader to find it.

But he helped ensure that something recognizable as Catholic Christianity would survive into the third millennium. For one man, one lifetime, that was enough. (The birth rate in Africa and South East Asia have a whole lot more to do with maintaining the Church in the twenty first century than BXVI)


Most of the above is spin.  It leaves out way too much and optimistically ascribes to Benedict credit for trends for which Benedict had nothing to do.  Hispanic immigration into the US was not the result of some motu proprio of Benedict's.  I will grant this immigration boom could have been accelerated by conservative hierarchy meddling in the political affairs of Central American governments on behalf of rich right wing interests.  I doubt Benedict would want to take too much credit for that though, although come to think of it, he should be given much credit for that particular relocation fact.

Douthat also pens that millions of Anglo Catholics leaving the Church is nothing in comparison to the Catholic retention rate vs mainline protestants.  Really? I feel so much better knowing that we could lose millions more and still have a slightly better retention rate.  What I don't get is why retention rate is so important in this context, but is no where to be seen when conservatives like  Douthat go on about the vocations to conservative convents and seminaries.  Maybe it's because in these cases the retention rate is exactly the same as it is for progressive vocations.  No bragging rights I guess.

I'm not too surprised conservative commentators are spinning Benedict's papacy different from progressives or reality for the matter.  Pope Benedict has had almost forty years to instill his vision of Catholic identity and it has resulted in the acceleration of first world Catholics and South American Catholics right out the door.  It seems to my jaundiced eyes that the Catholic identity that was set in stone by Benedict's crusade against secularism and progressive Catholicism has resulted in an identity that is at war with post modern culture. His successor is left with hard choices.  Does he continue the pelvic wars at the expense of social justice or does he finally grant that continuing the pelvic wars is disastrous for women and children in the areas in which Catholicism is growing and is in fact, counter productive to social justice concerns in these regions.  What makes this choice even more difficult is that the celibate clerical priesthood and other religious vocations have always found large families and the attendant poverty fruitful ground for their vocations.  There's something wrong about perpetuating poverty to perpetuate vocations.

I guess it doesn't matter what Ross Douthat or I think about the past.  The real question is whither the future?  I do take some hope in one trend commented on by numerous Vatican correspondents this morning and that is giving equal consideration to the office of Secretary of State as well as the papacy.  I've maintained this position ever since Benedict's resignation.  It would be a much more honest situation to separate out the Holy See as a nation/state government from the activities of the papacy.  One man can not possibly do justice to both entities.  However, since this idea is being pushed by Sodano and Bertone, in this case it's about self preservation for the curia.  It's a good idea being promoted by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.  Hopefully other minds will see it's potential and promote it for the right reasons.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting that you refer to the very real phenomenon of scape-goating the person/group thing in the middle.

    Please find another set of references which, in one way or another points out and describes that/how the power-and-control-seeking patriarchal religion called "catholicism" is the world's most "successful" scape-goat meme, even to the extent that it, along with its bastard off-spring scientific materialism, has brought all of Earthkind to the brink of total meltdown. And that it is a form of collective psychosis.
    Plus essays on Truth & Reality.
    1. The Secrets of the Kingdom
    2. on the "Great" Religions
    3. the Truth About
    On Art & Culture or the origins and cultural consequences of the perceptual
    strait-jacket in which we now ALL trapped - with NO exceptions
    3. The

    Realization of The Beautiful