Tuesday, February 19, 2013

One Small Step for Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI
by Rebekah Mays

A week ago I logged onto Twitter. It was a sleepy Monday morning, until I saw a headline from the New York Times: “Breaking News: Pope Benedict XVI Will Resign, Vatican Says.”

As a soon-to-be convert to Catholicism, I was confused by this piece of news. Should I be grateful? Worried? Should I fall on my knees right then and there and cry out for this fragile yet precious institution, the Roman Catholic Church?

Amidst all the hoopla and conjecturing about the Pope’s successor, religion blogger David Sessions posed a question. He tweeted: “Is America still pretending to care about the pope?”

At first I was a little taken aback, but since as the day went on my social media circles seemed to engage the matter with mild amusement, rather than serious interest or inquiry, I thought maybe this question was a fair one. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church and the papacy with all of their old-fashioned rigidity don’t have much of a grip on the lives of Americans. A look at the vast numbers of Catholics that use birth control says it all.

Still, though many of us have a problem with the Church’s antiquated teachings and public failings today, I have a hunch that there’s something Americans respect about the Great Tradition and its potential for global good. Last spring liberal activists like Nicholas Kristof defended the work of nuns when they received a hand-slap by the Vatican. And while the Church’s attitude toward birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage continues to be an enormous roadblock for young people who might otherwise find refuge in the Church, Catholics have for a long time been key advocates for immigrants, for the poor, for the homeless—often more so than their evangelical sisters and brothers. Orthodox Christianity still has so much to offer those who want to help the marginalized today, and it’s not Mass that keeps people out of our churches—it’s what is seen as backward sexual politics.
The beauty of the Eucharist

Wanting to explore these questions further, I made a simple poll and posted it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. The question was: “How much do you care about the Pope?” Out of 51 respondents, 29% chose the answer “I care very much and have strong opinions on the kind of person they should pick to succeed,” 49% chose “I think it’s important/interesting, but it doesn’t have a direct impact on me,” and 22% chose “I couldn’t care less.”

Obviously, we should be very careful not to draw firm conclusions from such a limited data pool, but I do think the results give us a little insight. To an extent, these answers confirm my belief that although most people don’t feel the papacy directly affects their lives, they do think the Church influences culture in some way or another.

In my opinion, this mixed bag of intrigue and disdain toward Catholicism indicates that the Church has a window of time in which we can still recover the respect, or at least non-hatred, of many Americans. The way Church leaders have waged a culture war against the current administration has not done us any favors. While I am not about to prescribe certain steps for the Church to take in terms of what issues it should or shouldn’t emphasize (I am a newcomer, after all), it is only too obvious that so many souls have been alienated by the Church’s views on sexuality. But I think it’s more than that. I think what has done the most damage is the Church’s pride when fighting these battles.

This is why I’m both baffled and moved by last Monday’s events. When Benedict XVI recognized he did not have the health to continue serving the Church effectively in his role, he set a new standard for his successor. He broke from tradition to keep the Church as healthy and vibrant as possible, and admitted his limitations.

Glass window above the throne of St. Peter
We can pray that regardless of politics, the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be humble, willing to listen to the voice of God, wherever that may be leading us. It’s safe to say that the next Pope won’t be a flaming liberal. But I’d like to think he doesn’t have to be for would-be-believers to appreciate even the small steps the Church is making toward becoming a more understanding and compassionate body of women and men.

I cannot begin to list the things I admire and even love about Catholicism, and for me reliance on big-T Tradition is one beautiful asset of the Catholic Church I haven’t found anywhere else. But respecting Tradition doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in the Middle Ages. Somehow the Church must show that its core doctrines are still relevant and appropriate today, and most importantly it must demonstrate how a man who lived two thousand years ago is changing the world right this minute. That’s a tall order, and it mandates some changes. We can and must learn from the past, but we must all the while work steadily on our future.

Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in New York City. You can find more of her writing on her blog Iced Spiced Chai or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Bekah!

    Great post! I applaud your efforts to wrestle with this issue the tension of Tradition and reaching modern society. I wanted to leave my two cents, if you'll indulge me:

    1) There is indeed a sense in which Pope Benedict broke from "tradition" with his abdication, but he also wasn't setting a new precedent either, since popes and bishops have abdicated their positions in the past. Thus, I'm not sure "breaking with tradition" is the best way to characterize his decision, as it appears the pope and bishops could always abdicate their position (an ancient example: St. Augustine retired from being a bishop). Further, there is a distinction that must be made between the parts of Catholic tradition that deal with morality, theology, and interpreting scriptures (which are immutable), and the parts of Catholic tradition that deal with custom. The latter is much more flexible ("open handed"). An interesting example of the latter is the church's position on cremation, which has undergone some change from ancient time not b/c of a change in its doctrine but b/c of a change in the delicate balance between the meaning of the act, the theology of how to treat the dead, and the circumstances that compel people to pursue cremation as a burial option. I'll leave it at that for the sake of space.

    2) Are you familiar with what's called "The New Evangelization"? This is a movement within the church (that I'm pretty sure Pope Benedict had significant influence in launching) as a continuation of what was intended at Vatican II, which was determining exactly what you are calling for: how does ought the church approach the task of evangelizing modern society? There are some great resources discussing this if you're interested in exploring the topic further.

    3) Though it's certainly true that individual Catholics have harbored much pride when discussing sexual morality (I've been guilty of this myself), Pope Benedict and bishops who speak on this topic are usually (if not always) attempting to speak the truth in love (as Paul calls us to do), with as much pastoral care as they can muster without compromising the truth. I doubt one could find a hint of pride in JPII's "Theology of the Body" (and his previous work "Love and Responsibility" before he was pope), which are considered seminal works on the specific topic of Catholic sexual morality.