Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hababem Papem

Since the death of Pope John Paul II we have all been inundated with news and opinion about him, his Church, his vocation, his victories, and his putative failures. For non-Catholic Christians there is always a slight twinge of "objectivity" in the reading, and for non-Christians a sense of both alienation and awe, for the Pope is the spiritual leader of a religion that encompasses just a bit less than one sixth of all humanity.

For Roman Catholics there is a reverence and intimacy in the proceedings, the death, the funeral, the convening of the College of Cardinals, the vote, and the announcement of the new Pope. It is said that God has made the selection and the Cardinals merely "discover" what that selection was. But, for many this seems to be a cop out of sorts, for it is well-known that more than one Pope has taken office under highly political circumstances.

So, one wonders this week as we contemplate Pope Benedict XVI what role politics played, whether there is really divine intervention, and what the future may bring with Joseph Ratzinger of Germany as the Pontiff, the Bridge between God and his people.

We are mutely and tacitly involved in this event. For those of us who have experienced more than one Pope (and that would only be about half the world population ... counting children), there seems to be a generalization or two forming out of the clouds and smoke. Among the most obvious of these generalizations is that the religion of people with whom we come in contact in our own lives really is important. We want to know whether the other person is a cannibal or not, whether they carry out human sacrifice or not, whether they hold life dear or whether they see it as cheap and essentially less than what we make of it. We want to know whether the other person has a set of "commandments" by which to guide his life, if so, what are these rules. We want to know whether his religion or philosophy is built on respect for other religions or not. We want to know things in exact detail because we may predicate our behavior and our willingness to interact upon our knowledge of the other person's beliefs.

So, we are interested in Pope Benedict XVI and his philosophy, his credo, and his belief in his own worth and mission, for from this we are given information about everyone we know to be Catholic and many others as well, for many Christian faiths are affected by what happens in Rome. The glittering generalities we find in the press this week are elements of this subtle reorientation, this getting to know Catholicism and individual Catholics all over again.

But, the Roman Catholic Church is not just one thing, homogeneous and monolithic. Nothing containing a billion souls could be. And, if you were to be frugal and demand the fewest possible subdivisions, you would probably arrive at two Catholic Churches under this one Pope. The two are the Church of the "have nots" in South America, Central America, Africa, and Asia, and the Church of the "haves," the economically and culturally advantaged in Europe and North America. The larger group the "have nots" have one set of issues and the "haves" have as many issues as they can understand. That is, the "haves" have the ability and the leisure to empathize with the "have nots," although they may not choose to. They may understand the reasons for the plight of the "have nots," but they may be unable to affect those reasons, or, they may choose not to try. Meanwhile the Church, the clergy and the hierarchy and the leadership and ultimately the Pope must keep faith with both groups and provide the same spiritual guidance to both groups, despite the fact that one is vastly different from the other in most of the things we measure in the secular world.

The choice of the Pope is the choice of possibilities of leadership. In electing a 78 year old to the office, the Church has decided that, given the Biblical "three score and ten," this Pope will not be Pope for a long time. In electing a German the Church has said, metropolitan Europe is Christian and it cannot be lost to agnosticism and apathy. It has said the financial foundations of the Church must be preserved. In electing a conservative, the Defender of the Faith under the previous Pope, the Church has said that doctrine is, nevertheless, not national or regional or subject to broad interpretation. Perhaps the College of Cardinals fear that the chaos in the world today is but a harbinger of severe trials to be endured by the Church and that, therefore, it must gird its loins for the impending struggle.

Or, perhaps the Church has said to Europe, we stand with you against the Infidel, the Turkish Gastarbeiteren in Germany, the Algerians in France, the Arabs and Egyptians and heathens of all stripes and colors scattered across the western world's Christian landscapes. Or maybe this a a subtext of a subtext.

Most observers have taken this position: Benedict XVI is a transitional Pope. His job is to take the Church forward, of course, but not to lose either the Liberationists in Latin America or the Modernists in Europe and North America. At the same time the Church cannot afford to be seen as the cause of suffering and poverty or the cause of a diminished reverence for human life.

Benedict XVI has his work cut out for him. He must be cautious, but he can also be astute. Twice now, the Cardinals have said it is not an Italian church. This time they must also say (or let the generalization slowly mature) that it is not possible to keep a billion souls under one tenth century roof.

First and foremost the Church must deal with sex, sexuality, and gender. If this means (even tacitly) acknowledging the truth in the message of The Da Vinci Code, then so be it. Over half a billion Catholics are women and they must no longer be treated as second class souls! No other position will stand up to the outrageous repression of women in Islam. The world is holding its breath!