The Catholic Church is at a crossroads

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

February 17, 2013 

Pope Benedict XVI. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 265th Pope on April 19, 2005. At 78 he was the oldest pope to be elected since 1730. At 85 we have seen him looking weak and sickly, but his sudden statement on February 11 that he was resigning effective February 28 sent shockwaves around the world. The last time a Pope resigned was six centuries ago. Most popes who became sickly, like Pope John Paul II, served on without resigning. As reported only six popes have resigned since St. Peter became the first Pope.

Global headlines on the Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is a measure of his stature as a world leader.     In his resignation statement, the Pope said that after examining his conscience, “before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an exercise” of leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. The Pope has drawn widespread praise and thanks for his difficult and admirable decision to resign the papacy, a very modern act for a conservative leader. “He taught the Church and the world that the papacy is not about power but about service, said the Brazilian priest Reinaldo Braga, Jr. The Pope got a standing ovation in his last public mass on Ash Wednesday, February 13. In his final homily as Pope, he calmed down fears of the unknown with the assurance that God would continue to guide the Church and hoped for a united Church “moving beyond individualisms and rivalries….”

Early in his papacy the reserved and soft-spoken Pope prompted a major crisis by quoting a Byzantine emperor in the 14th century who said that Islam had only brought evil to the world spread by the sword. He made amends, including a trip to Turkey and praying with a Mufti in a mosque in Istanbul. In 2012 a butler revealed documents alleging corruption in business dealings in the Vatican. The Pope’s  inspired  pontificate as a theologian is recognized and his advocacy of an ardent evangelization enlisting the faithful around the world coincides with the growing realization of its validity and urgency.

Randy David explains Pope Benedict XVI. “…Benedict has often rallied against the excesses and irresponsibility of global capitalism in the name of justice, solidarity, and ecological awareness. That is his progressive voice. But he has also repeatedly warned that even as the Church must clearly speak its truth, it must do so with humility, careful not to transform herself ‘into a directly political subject.’ This is his modern voice, which may not sit well with liberals and conservatives alike.” (Phil. Daily Inquirer, Feb. 14, 2013.)  

The Catholic Church at a crossroads. The Church faces staggering practical challenges pointed out by commentators: its flagging energy amid rising secularization and indifference to religion; evangelical competition; the perennial shortage of priests and nuns worldwide; the sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the moral authority of the Church; the collapse of Catholic numbers in many countries; evangelical movements in the United States, Latin America, and Africa. Victims of clerical abuse have faulted the Pope for failing to take stronger steps to halt the practice and punish the offenders. And why did the Church revert to Latin as the language of the mass when the faithful have become used to their own mother languages spoken in their churches?

The Philippines also suffers from failing attendance in Catholic masses and the increasing attraction of religious sects with their charismatic appeals and involvement of their believers in mass praying, singing, dancing. But Filipino Catholic workers overseas are seen as active evangelists by dwindling numbers of the local faithful. As we take pride in being the only mostly Christian nation in Asia, we experience our continuing poverty, corruption, violence, injustice, and human rights violations that indicate our serious failure to practice our faith.  We elect leaders who are well known to be corrupt and immoral.

Many Filipinos were turned off by the Church’ use of the bully pulpit and the mass media, including threats of political reprisal, against those who proposed and favored the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenthood bill. It is asserted that there is no “Catholic vote.” We elected a Protestant as President in 1992, Fidel Ramos. 

Some reformers would like the Catholic Church to be more open to dialogue with the faithful and be democratic, rather than unilateral and hierarchical. They would like the Church to do much more to help the poor, and to accept women to become priests as a measure of gender equality and a solution to the great lack of priests to serve the people’s spiritual and personal needs.

Who will be the next Pope? In his time the Pope has appointed one-half or 67 of the 117 cardinals. Two-thirds of them, mostly traditionalists like Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, will likely determine his successor. This is expected by Easter Sunday, March 31. The resigned Pope will not participate in the selection of his successor and will retire largely in seclusion. Relationships and personality will count in the selection of the next Pope who can energize the faithful. So would the ability to speak many languages in order to communicate to a global Church. The large constituencies in Latin America and Africa might be a factor, too.

Speculations abound. Two-thirds of the 117 cardinals will elect the next Pope. Half of them are from Europe, although the Catholic faithful are more numerous in Latin America (42 percent), Europe (25 percent), and Africa (15 percent). The names of cardinals from Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa are reported in the global media as possible successors.

Ever hopeful nationalists, and often insular, Filipinos hope and pray that our very own Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle is “a dark horse,” because he has worked with and is thus known well to Pope Benedict XVI and is familiar to other cardinals. If such a miracle happens, he could help energize Filipinos to live their faith and begin in earnest to transform the country, another miracle. Italian journalist Sandro Magister of the magazine L’Espresso said “there seems to be no other prominent churchman from the Third World, except for Tagle, who is capable of attracting votes” in the conclave that would elect the next Pope. (Phil. Daily Inquirer, Feb. 16, 2013)

It is said that what may be needed is a younger Pope with better managerial skills, and a more personal touch, somewhat like Pope John Paul II. But it is conceded unlikely that the next Pope will change certain Church teachings and practices, such as having only male and celibate priests, and the ban on artificial birth control. Having women priests, which is devoutly to be wished by growing numbers of Catholics, would still be unlikely. But if it happens the Catholic Church will undergo a continuing peaceful revolution with important consequences for the world at large.


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