Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Revolutionary Resignation

Pope Benedict's announced resignation has triggered a lot of political speculation and some theological consternation.

From a theological perspective, the question of whether a pope can resign depends on whether he is viewed as the vicar or the image of Christ.  If he is only a vicarious agent of Christ then his position is fundamentally a question of management which can be handed over at any time.  If, however, he is the representational image of Christ, then following in his footsteps, a pope cannot resign from the Cross.

Pope Benedict's concise statement of resignation explicitly recognised the distinction.  He began by stating that the papacy "due to its essential[ly] spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering."  This was an express acknowledgement that the cardinal office of the Pope is to suffer representationally of Christ as Jesus suffered representantionally for Mankind.  In short, the papacy is a spiritual sacrifice.  And yet, in his next breath and repeatedly throughout the statement, Benedict referred to the papacy as a "ministry" a word laden with more Protestant notions of trusteeship and stewardship.

Pope Benedict's resignation manifested the latter perspective and was therefore fraught with revolutionary doctrinal implications. 

The idea that a priest is the representational image of Christ is the springboard for both celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood.  As cardinal, Benedict  himself put it succinctly: women could not be ordained as priests "because Jesus was a man."  Jesus was also celibate, according to tradition. 

There is an arguable distinction between the priesthood as such and the office of pope.  One must be a priest to become a pope, so that the representational imagery of the priesthood is something that pre-exists pope-hood.  It follows that the office of pope is not that which brings or bears the element of representational imagery to a person. It already inheres in the priestly office and is nothing brought by the papacy as such.  On this basis, it could be argued that whereas a person, as pope, is not the image of Christ, a priest as such is.  But this argument, aside from being overly clever, runs into a host of  problems, not the least of which is the retirement and/or defrocking of priests. 

The plain fact is that by resigning, Benedict has consigned to history the notion that a pope cannot resign because he is the image of Christ, who did not "retire" from the Cross.  Once this decoupling is accepted there becomes ever less reason to insist on celibacy or to deny women the priesthood.

We, ourselves, are not convinced this was a well-advised move but we are certain Benedict was well aware of its implications.

As usual, Benedict is subtle and perhaps too subtle for a world (and Church) filled with braying dolts.  Noisiest among the dolts are the liberal Catholics and secular non-Catholics (which are much the same thing) prattling about the "scandals" that beset Benedict's papacy, his undeviating attempts to turn the clock back on Vatican Two, his relentless opposition to women and homosexuals, his botched outreach to Muslims and (despite his Rottweilerian instincts) his enfeebled incapacity to control the Curia and, at last, the opportunity which his courageous (or at least welcome) resignation presents for cleansing, reform and change ---  all of which simply reflects the discontent and panting of their own desires.

One wonders if anyone in this crowd ever read anything Benedict wrote and if they read it whether they had the erudition and capacity for reflection to understand it.

It has been our view, that Benedict was a tempered reformer.  He was, in his professional youth, part of the so-called "liberal" wing  of the Church.  But within the first decade after Vatican II, Benedict saw that the process had unmoored the Church, casting it afloat on the choppy waters of personal opinion, situational relevance and, worst of all, liturgical kitsch. 

But it is equally the case, that Benedict rejected the dead-end fetishism of the SSPX and those "traditionalists" who insisted on remaining precisely adherent to tried and inherited norms. He struggled to make room for their practices without surrendering to their insistences.

Benedict came to see the true nature of tradition as comprising of change within continuity and involving "tacit corrections" (his phrase) of unerring doctrine.  That is not the language of what people nowadays call a "conservative."

But the idea that we each see "the right, as God gives us to see the right" is fundamentally a Protestant error which leads to alienation and disoriented extremes.  "Room for all under the tent" misconceives who the all of us is.   

Faith, Benedict has said on more than one occasion, is not personal and subjective but communal and performative.   But this community -- the whole  Body of Christ --  includes the seen and the unseen, vivos et mortuous -- now. The Church lives within an eternal present which is not eternally static but eternally ever growing larger as more and more faithful are born and added to the host of Heaven.

We cannot ignore what those who got here before us had to say.  Nor can we (like modern day lawyers) mine what they said for nuggets of "precedent" and "dicta" favourable to our own aims and desires.  Even less in an effort to be innovative or Reformist can we "go back" to some fantasised original state of early Christianhood because such a return can only result in a grotesque (and ultimately pathological) parody.  As an astonished Mussolini once told Hitler, "(mio caro Adolfo) you can be like a pagan but it is impossible for you to be a pagan."

In practicing doctrine, we must not only "consider" by-gone theologians and philosophers as if they were the subjects of a doctrinal anthropology.  We must walk and talk with them by means of imaginary dialogues in which we play both parts of the conversation.  And to keep our own selves in check we must do this together with others in the here and now. This is not done by "bringing the Church up to date" or by abrupt, habit-breaking corrections under the banners of necessity and relevance and inclusion.  It is a a slow, evolutionary and organic process which equally honours continuity-community-change in the ever present.

It is our belief that Benedict viewed the matter thus and was accordingly laying the patient groundwork for organic but solid and lasting change.  It is a shame that he his great gifts were ignorned by hot-heads and fusspots each operating from their respective repressions, guilts and self-love.   It  is equally a shame that the Church's exit from her present deadlock is left to the  expedient calculations, ambitious machinations and bald hypocricies of fattened eunuchs who could stand some hungering and humiliation.

We are not sanguine about it, but perhaps Benedict will be more widely appreciated once he is out of office. Perhaps too, his resignation was simply a matter of exhaustion.  But even if it was, we cannot believe he was impervious to its far-reaching implications on which he managed not to shut the door.


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