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  Number 381 | Abril 2013

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Pope Francis: “A poor Church for the poor”

Many of Pope Francis’ first gestures express a personality based on simplicity and austerity. He won’t go down in history just for them, but if he turns his desire for a “poor Church for the poor” into a program that changes many of the things that need changing, Francisco will indeed go down in history.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Three days after being elected bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter, the 76-year-old Francis—who even two weeks later hadn’t yet referred to himself as pope—told representatives of the international media, “I would so like a poor church, one for the poor!”

He expressed it as a desire, not a plan, because he knows perfectly well that isn’t the reality in the Vatican—at least in the Roman Curia—or in his own bishopric of Rome and most bishoprics in the Western world. He also knows that to turn it into reality he would have to act as if everything depended on him and trust as if everything depended on God, to quote Ignatius of Loyola’s dialectic approach to our arduous tasks and their relationship to God.

His explanation of why he had chosen the name Francis also helps explain the tone of desire with which he talked to the media representatives. The new pope told the journalists that when in the Sistine Chapel the number of votes for his name passed the two-thirds needed, Brazil’s Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, kissed me and said to me: ‘Don’t forget the poor.’” The mention of the poor immediately reminded him of Francis of Assisi, who lived his life in poverty and for the poor, and that was why he chose the name.

Evoking St. Francis of Assisi from the moment of his election as pope has all the earmarks of a burning desire. And so he was “Poverello,” the romantic nickname used to describe Francis as a “poor man”: a man brimming with desire to restore the Church. Today that Church is rent by the pedophilia scandal, particularly the way it was covered up, and by having fallen into the thirst for power and the divisions it incites. Cardinal Hummes’ words to the just-elected pope reflect a desire as ecclesial as that of the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians, who tells them that upon confirming his mission, James, Peter and John told him in Jerusalem that they must all continue to remember the poor. Paul organized a massive solidarity collection from Macedonia and Corinth to help the impoverished Church of Jerusalem.

The poor… and the causes of poverty

The desire for a poor Church for the poor was proclaimed by the Third Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellín (1968) as the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Some of those bishops, such as Dom Helder Cámara, had already formed the Pact of the Catacombs in November 1965, a few weeks before the Second Vatican Council ended. They had made the commitment there to live in poverty and defend the cause of the poor motivated by the fact that the Council had been unable to radically put into practice John XXIII’s proclamation in his documents that the Church must be “above all the Church of the Poor.” In the Fourth Latin American Bishops’ Conference, held in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, the statement that God takes up the defense of the poor and loves them because his image and his affiliation with the poor is cast in shadow and even reproached was given theological-biblical underpinnings.

It is important that this desire be fulfilled while Francis is the successor to St. Peter, and not be limited to a conversion to austerity within the Church and a profoundly human and symbolic sensitivity toward the poor and suffering such as Francis demonstrated the day he began his pastoral government when, crossing St. Peter’s Square before the formal Mass, he got out of his jeep to kiss a young paraplegic. But let’s not kid ourselves. Such attitudes are crucial, as is the need for that desire to be manifested in a prophetic analysis of the causes of poverty, which were defined by the prophet Amos as selling “the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals …trampl[ing] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[ing] the afflicted out of the way” and by Jesus of Nazareth as “serving two masters: God and money.”

For this desire to be fulfilled, it is also important that the Latin American martyrs for justice be recognized in the universal Church, especially the martyred bishops. Perhaps especially the most venerated of all, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated during the Eucharist, probably as he was looking at the person who shot him. He didn’t hide, shout or point out his executioner. He didn’t get down from the cross.

Francis himself explained another profound reason for choosing his name: “I also thought about the wars and that Francis is a man of peace.” The poor are always the victimized masses in wars. As Francis is Latin American, steeped in the tradition of Medellín and Puebla, and later in that of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Aparecida, Brazil, he knows very well that “the suffering faces of the poor are suffering faces of Christ” and that “the Church is called on to be the advocate of justice and defender of the poor.” It is impossible to advance toward that advocacy and defense without taking on the clamor of the poor of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Heartless capitalism

The struggle for justice rooted in the struggle for faith, and consequently the option for the poor according to the Gospel is today the genuine quaestio stantis aut cadentis Ecclesiae, the issue for which the Church is risking everything, either remaining faithful or succumbing to temptation. And we’re not in the times in which Luther posed that issue in terms of “justification by faith.” It has now become clear to us that the poor, the hungry, the homeless, migrants, prisoners and the sick all possess something of the absolute. In the Judgment of the Nations that Jesus of Nazareth spoke about, the king discovers that he himself is in both those on the right and those on the left. But they are “blessed” or cursed” not for having recognized or ignored that the king is in the poor, but simply for either having or not having been in solidarity with the poor, hungry, homeless, migrants, prisoners and sick.

Francis’ desire for a poor Church for the poor must now be incarnated in the preferential option for the poor, in justice and peace in the globalized world. For that reason, it can also be expressed as a valiant denunciation that economic, political and cultural forces are creating and maintaining poverty in this world. The Sixth Bishops’ Conference, held in Aparecida in 2001, already spoke lucidly of that: “Financial institutions and transnational companies are becoming stronger to the point that local economies are subordinated, especially weakening the local States, which seem ever more powerless to carry out development projects at the service of their populations, especially when it involves long-term investments with no immediate dividends.” The denouncing of globalizing capitalism as heartless cannot be put off. It is also a missing chapter in the Church’s Social Doctrine.

In explaining why he had chosen his name, Francis added that he also saw St. Francis of Assisi as the “custodian of Nature, of Creation.” The Church has to recover the profound sense of the first two chapters of Genesis, to rethink the sense of the human dominion of Nature and thus join the struggle for a reasonable, cordial and social cultivation of the Earth, to profoundly and respectfully care for it. Every time destructive natural phenomena increase in frequency and in its capacity to destroy, ecological duty imposes itself on theology and on the Church’s practice and must be prophetically fulfilled against the huge business interests that discredit scientific results related to climate change.

Three current Christian concerns

The poor, the victims of wars and the luck of Nature are three concerns that can make Francis’s pastoral government profoundly Christian and contemporary.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Francis’ desire that the Church be poor and for the poor will acquire very profound dimensions if he assumes as ongoing, personal concerns the interminable war—from 1960 to the present day—in the African Great Lakes area (Congo, Ruanda and Burundi) where the transnational corporations move the bloody strings for their own interests, before in the copper mines and today in the diamond mines and the world’s largest deposits of coltan, a strategic material for mobile telephony; the brutal war in Syria and the permanent threat of war between Israelis and Palestinians; as well as climate change, the melting in the Arctic and Antarctic, the growing scarcity of water and the deforestation of the land; and if he puts his finger on the sore spot of globalization, that transnational capitalism that is structurally responsible for creating more and new poor excluded from the table of humanity.

Any structural extension and deepening of the desire for a poor Church for the poor could trigger persecution by the world’s powers as aggressive as the abundant admiration and surprise caused by his continuous gestures of personal austerity and tenderness toward the poor.

The heart of mercy

If we are to see the fulfillment of Francis’ desire, which is shared by a large majority within the Church, won’t it be necessary for him to be oriented and guided in his options by the prayers recited in one of the Church’s Eucharistic canons? “Give us a merciful heart toward all human misery,/ inspire in us a timely gesture and word for the person alone and helpless,/ help us to show our availability to those who feel exploited and depressed.”

In these first days in his new post, the new bishop of Rome has insisted again and again on mercy and that God’s heart is always willing to forgive. According to the Beatitudes of Jesus, only those who choose to be poor also choose to hunger and thirst for justice, to be merciful, patient, clean of heart and builders of peace. To be really effective, solidarity with the poor probably has to be “ecumenical,” i.e. joined with the many efforts that many institutions, whether Christian or not, make on behalf of the poor; with the spirit of Jesus who saw in all acts of humanity a likeness to his own style and told his supporters: “Forbid him not [from doing good]. for he who is not against us is for us.”

Can a Church-State be poor?

Francis’s desire also seems to run through the very Vatican structures of today. The Church needs to recover the humility of its only Lord, Jesus Christ. A Church that is at the same time a State may have a hard time being a poor Church, because it has ministries and diplomatic corps, among other institutions of grandeur. Might not the famous admonition by Saint Bernard to his Cistercian brother, elected Pope Eugenius III, not to forget that he is the successor of a fisherman, and not of the Emperor Constantine be unavoidably pertinent today?

The times in which Pius IX could write to a nephew that “without freedom the Church cannot be governed” have passed. Freedom then meant sovereignty over a few States in which the pope continued to be an absolute monarch. Because he had lost that “freedom,” Pius IX locked himself up in the Vatican after King Victor Manuel took over the Pontifical States and their capital, Rome, in 1870. History led the papacy, explicably although perhaps not excusably, to fall into the temptation of power that Jesus of Nazareth rejected so forcefully. For Francis’ desire that the Church be poor to be fulfilled, won’t it be necessary for the service of Peter’s successor to stop being linked to the condition of Head of State and thus renounce all symbols of historical and temporal power and terrain, which is in the end a secular power?

Francis himself said on the day his pastoral government was inaugurated that no power can be anything else than service: “True power is service.” To the humble kiss of the earth that John Paul II inaugurated in his visits to the peoples of this planet, shouldn’t we add the renunciation of the category of State by the Church of Rome—where fisherman Peter and artisan Paul are buried? Are Church and State, bishop of Rome and nuncio-ambassadors really compatible with a poor Church for the poor? Paul VI already clearly distinguished the double mission of the nuncios: representation before the heads of State and before the local churches. The mission before the local churches could remain, as a respectful presence of the bishop of Rome at his brothers’ side, in a reform that would suppress the other mission.

When Francis reminded the accredited diplomats in the Vatican that one of the titles of his office is “pontiff,” he didn’t relate it to the priesthood, but to the etymological sense of the word: “builder of bridges.” Will he need the bridge-building of a Ministry of Foreign Relations or will the evangelical authority of a person dedicated to building peace and respect for human rights within the Church be enough?

The reform of the Curia

For Pope Francis’s desire for a Church that is poor and for the poor to be fulfilled, a profound structural reform of the Roman Curia also seems essential. The institutionality required by the Church doesn’t necessarily have to pass through the bureaucracy of the Vatican Curia, as happens today.

The Vatican Curia makes sense as a convenient aid, allowing the bishop of Rome to preside in charity over the Churches of the world. It makes no sense as a vigilant bureaucracy that imposes a way of seeing—a single analysis—and a way of thinking—a single thought—to the fraternal communion of the Churches throughout the world. The Roman Curia has to be porous, accessible and fraternal, not impenetrable, inaccessible and superior or powerful, above the world’s bishops and the community of Catholic Christians.

To that end it is probably necessary for the “dicasteries” or offices of the Roman Curia, currently so similar to the ministries of a civilian or military government, to stop being like that and become arenas for permanent listening to the murmur of the Spirit in the Churches, in other religions and in humanity, which is the same thing as saying “listening to the signs of the times.” That would allow a fraternal and effective dialogue that makes the presidency of Rome Christianly authentic in love.

The theologian José Ignacio González Faus has already indicated how important it is for those at the head of the secretariats of the bishop of Rome, in his curia, not to be bishops themselves. It is even more important for bishops not to be the ones presiding over other secondary service posts. Not being bishops would serve two objectives. It would reduce the temptation to impose their power over the Bishops’ Conferences of their countries and over the dioceses or archdioceses and would obey the ancient canonical decision of the Council of Caledonia (450 AD), canon 6 of which decreed that all bishops must have and live in a diocese.

Above all, the Roman Curia would not be only a set of offices at the service of the bishop of Rome; it would also be at the service of the whole Episcopal College, which would fraternally preside over it. This change of the lever’s support point could lift from the Curia the weight of appointing bishops and thus recover the bishops’ tradition of being elected in their own dioceses or in the metropolitan regions: “No bishop imposed,” as Pope St. Celestine said. And that would represent an important step on the road to the union of the Churches, which would not have to fear any excess by the bishop of Rome in exercising the presidency in love.

The step would be so much greater if the way the bishop of Rome were elected also changed, in the sense of the Bishops’ Conference and select representatives of the clergy, the religious congregations and the laity also having a presence in the college of electors.

Equality in dignity

For Francis’ desire to be fulfilled, the Church itself would have to recover the fundamental equality within it: the equality required by the dignity and freedom of the daughters and sons of God, whose full manifestation is subject to hope. It must especially recover the conviction that there are no men or women, no Asians, Africans or Westerners, natives or emigrants, people of the South or North, privileged or scorned, heterosexuals or homosexuals in Jesus Christ, because all of us are one with Jesus Christ. And it must also respect all those people who don’t know if God exists, or who deny that God exists, but with a noble or troubled heart try to construct fraternity and sorority among peoples and people. Thus it could also attract those who live with a mistaken objective, honoring the god money above all.

Even Canon Law states in canon 208 that “Flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action.” That same canon then introduces difference: “each according to his or her own condition and office.” But for the Church to be poor, for the ancient tradition of its hierarchical structure not to end up dissolving the equality and dignity common to all, even reducing it to pure words, it is necessary for the hierarchy to undergo a strong but humble conversion to sister- and brotherhood. We are sisters and brothers much before we are the episcopate, priesthood, diaconate and laity. We are people of God before we are hierarchy and laity: that was precisely the vision of the Second Vatican Council when organizing the document about the Church, putting the Church as people of God first and only listing its way of being hierarchical afterward.

Don’t call anyone father, teacher or chief

To be authentic, the poverty of the Church must involve the renunciation of a mode of authority exercised with authoritarianism, as we have seen above all in the Congregation of the Faith, although to no lesser extent in the other Congregations of the Vatican Curia.

Jesus of Nazareth’s authority came from an unprecedented coherence between his words and his life. “A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” Jesus obeyed the faith of the suffering and needy people he found: “Your faith has cured you.” Until we take seriously that we must not call anyone on earth father or teacher or chief because we only have one father, one teacher and one chief, God and Jesus Christ, we will make no headway with the poverty of the Church because we will be bogged down in the privileges of power. Today, we have given ourselves too many fathers, teachers and chiefs. It is notable that in the first 15 days since Francis was elected we’ve neither seen nor heard him spoken of in the media as “Holy Father” nor has he called himself anything other than “bishop of Rome” or “successor of St. Peter.” To be a poor Church for the poor it has to descend from the thrones and seats of power and recover the path along the avenues of equal dignity for all of humanity.

A preferential option for women

To fulfill Francis’ desire, the Church has to shed its patriarchal nature, make a preferential option for women and redress what, covered with the practice of veneration of the Mother of God, Mary of Nazareth, has offended the women of this world. In the Church, in a very different and very contrary way from that of Jesus, we seem to have bowed before the machismo of cultures over the centuries. Jesus of Nazareth became an accompanier not only of the Twelve and other disciples, but also of Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna and other women who served him with their goodness. The verb “to serve” is one of three in the New Testament that indicate a person is a disciple of Jesus: to follow, to serve and to go up to Jerusalem with him on the way to his death.

The best exegetes say that women, disciples of Jesus, were probably present at the last supper. So writes, for example, Joachim Gnilka in his book Jesús de Nazaret, mensaje e historia [Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History]: “Jesus spent the last afternoon of his life in Jerusalem, with his group of disciples. And, of course, it can’t be ruled out that the female disciples who had gone up to Jerusalem with him were present as well.”

Between the last supper and Jesus’ crucifixion there is a profound relationship between symbol and symbolized reality. “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” If they were at the foot of the cross, which is authentic reality, how could they not have been at the supper, the symbol of that reality? Mark, the oldest evangelist, doesn’t tell of male disciples at the foot of the cross. Finally, these women disciples were the first to whom Jesus’ resurrection was announced; its announcement and proclamation was entrusted to them.

There is no question but that in the diverse cultures in which we have acclimated ourselves—the Judean, the Greek, the Latin, the Germanic—we in the Church have left to one side the evangelical tradition and yielded to the preeminence of men in the ordination of its structures and services… Don’t we have a debt to pay here? Could the Church, run exclusively by men, ever become poor and for the poor without paying women back the debt we have contracted with them?

Jesus was profoundly countercultural with women. Could the Church become countercultural as well, and become poor with the poverty secularly imposed on women in the different cultures? Will it realize that only by so doing can it achieve a heartfelt understanding of the cry of so many women? Certainly here, as in other human currents, the Church has not yet climbed on the bandwagon of true progress, of women’s rightful claims.

Many gestures of simplicity and humanity

“We must not fear either goodness or tenderness,” said Francisco in his homily on the 19th, the start of his pastoral government. Ever since his election, Francisco has set before the Church and humanity a series of unprecedented and admirable gestures of goodness and tenderness. Before blessing the multitude, he asked them to pray for him so God will bless him. He prayed the whole Lord’s Prayer with the crowd. He got rid of the most ostentatious garments the popes are accustomed to wearing. The day he began his pastoral government, he wore the simplest liturgical vestments while cardinals, bishops and other concelebrants were the most luxurious. He moved through the streets of the Vatican on foot or in the same bus that transported the other cardinals. He eschewed the papal Mercedes to travel to Santa María la Mayor and upon reaching the basilica, placed a bunch of flowers before María. He personally paid the bill for his lodging. He left aside the armored popemobile and went through St. Peter’s Square in an open jeep, getting out several times to kiss babies, greet women he knew and console and kiss a paraplegic.

He kept his iron cross and asked for a ring not made of gold. He wore his same old used black shoes. In an absolutely unheard-of gesture he greeted the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández, with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. He petted the guide dog of a blind journalist. He personally phoned the Roman Curia of the Society of Jesus, and when he identified himself as the pope, the receptionist very nearly responded “And I’m Napoleon.” And in Santa María la Mayor he made it clear that he didn’t want to see Cardinal Law, who had been forced to resign as archbishop of Boston for having covered up a multitude of cases involving pedophile priests: he wanted Benedict XVI’s wish for Law to retire to a monastery to be fulfilled. He has stayed in the Santa Marta guest house and has yet to occupy the rich and elegant papal chambers. There have been so many such gestures in so few days that it’s impossible not to read into them a message of simplicity and humanity.

And yet he probably won’t go down in history just for them. On the other hand, if he can turn his expressed desire for a “poor Church for the poor” into a program and a series of paths, it could put him into the history books. Certainly, the good pope, John XXIII, made many gestures of goodness, but he went down in history not only for them but for calling and guiding Vatican Council II and writing the encyclical “Pacem in terris.” He matched the authority of gestures with the authority of deeds and thus became a parable of Christian consistency.

Renounce the exclusivity of truth

To be poor and for the poor the Church must recover the spirit of openness that the Council had toward non-Christian religions, and express it continually in symbolic acts such as the one John Paul II initiated in 1986 in Assisi when he prayed for world peace with so many religious leaders, without any of them taking precedence.

The renunciation of the exclusivity of truth and salvation is a path to poverty. Only by recognizing the presence of salvation among all people on Earth, as the Council already did, and the presence of God in “saviors,” which are not competitors of Jesus of Nazareth, but venerable human images of God’s multiform grace and benevolence, will we truly respect the faith we profess. By virtue of this, “the seeds and germs of the Word” present in religious humanity have their own dynamism until we all converge through the Holy Spirit into the arms of the one we call Father, but who is mysteriously greater than any human father or mother.

At the same time, Christian identity is to follow Jesus, and according to the Vatican Council, to seek fully human solutions to the problems of the world and of humanity, offering “the fraternal light of faith” for that purpose. To be a poor Church for the poor, the Church must genuinely be pilgrim-like, traveling simply with humanity to achieve or at least move closer to greater justice, a less threatened peace and truly responsible care of nature. The Church must struggle tirelessly against hunger and strike the conscience of humanity, above all that of the Church itself, so that the hunger of starving and malnourished women and men, young people, children and the elderly will be an incessant concern of the universal Church as great as God’s loving and believing recognition. In the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, “There are only two absolutes: God and hunger.”

Pederasty and Vatican finances

The Church must make absolutely clear that in the first of its internal conflicts, its major concern is the victims of pederasty and that it will not cover for any of its members guilty of that crime. It should also make it no less clear that in its other great internal conflict, the finances of the Institute for the Works of Religion, best known as the Vatican Bank, will never go against its own social doctrine, but rather reach beyond it in an unprecedented effort of transparency. Recognition of these two concrete sins within will make the Church poor and for the poor.

As long as this world lasts there cannot be love in the Church that, in addition to being projected in the lucid, integrating and failure-surmounted personal life, does not also project itself in utopian hope, both earthly and other-worldly, both illuminated with absolute human banking on relative human projects or by the faith that dares to underpin that gamble. The Church must explain to anyone who asks us about the hope that animates us, at the same time firmly arguing with hope that another, more human, friendlier world is possible.

The way Francisco addresses these challenges will determine whether his pastoral government goes down in history as full of charisma and serenely and attentively hears the whisper of the Holy Spirit in the Churches and in humanity or loses its way in the mists of history without leaving the mark expected of him. It is a gigantic task, full of obstacles.

The shadow of the past

There is a lot of sympathy for Francis in the Church today, and also in humanity. But it certainly isn’t the only thing there is. To judge by what happened in the first days of his pastoral government, two situations may well turn into a headache for him: his administration as superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina and his conduct in response to the military dictatorship in his country between 1976 and 1983. We Jesuits have no other option but the truth, to pray for him and for us and to be available for the responsibilities Francis gives us. The meetings between Francis and the Father General of the Jesuits could be foretelling the future.

With respect to his conduct during the years of the dictatorship, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 1980 Adolfo Pérez Esquivel said in a BBC interview that there was undeniably collusion from a good part of the religious hierarchy in the genocide perpetrated against the Argentine people, but that he does not think Jorge Bergoglio was an accomplice of the dictatorship….” Things being as they are in this world, it is not improbable that this issue will pursue him. The best way to resolve it will be his actions in his new post. Leonardo Boff put his finger on it when he said, “What matters is not Bergoglio and the past but Francis and the future.” This evidently does not signify absolution without request for pardon. But it is also true that as its president, Francis moved the whole of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference to beg forgiveness for not having done enough on behalf of the victims during the dictatorship.

A time for hope

The Church is not just the bishop of Rome, successor to St. Peter. It is above all the people of God, everything that is charismatic and priestly; everything that is a secure and loyal depository of the Church’s faith; all that is adult. This moment at the beginning of 2013 could become a moment of truth for the whole Church. A call to conversion and testimony for the hierarchy, but especially for all people of God; a testimony that makes us simple and close to this world. From that proximity, faith could recover its dialogue with the world, as Francis’ gestures seem to have done. The fact is that all of us in the Church are listening for the whispers of the Spirit and preparing ourselves for a new Pentecost. Benedict’s resignation continues to be the most important gesture that gave rise to this time.

In some way, that resignation and the evocation of Francis of Assisi, restorer of the Church, could lead us, as signs of the time, to a dawn after the storms. That is the hope many people hold at this time, especially many young people, it would appear; if we were at least to hear that murmur telling us that the time has come to cast off glory and state that Jesus crucified and resurrected for the poor by the Kingdom does not scandalize us.

Why did Benedict XVI resign?

Francis would obviously not be among us today were it not for the resignation of his predecessor, the 85-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI. In one of the briefest conclaves in papal history, Ratzinger was elected “bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter” on April 19, 2005. Almost eight years after his election he announced that “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry… in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”

It was the first papal resignation since a hermit monk who took the name of Celestine V 700 years ago. It cannot be denied, therefore, that Benedict XVI has made history. We could have seen it coming, following this answer to a question by his interviewer and biographer Peter Seewald: “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” This represents an important demystification of the post, leaving clear that above all it is it is a humble service and not an ambitious apotheosis. As with any personal service, the succession of Peter entails certain power and at times even enormous power. Power is a created human relation and can be exercised as service or domination. In the first case, it also glows with authority; in the second it does not. Referring to the service of his disciples, Jesus forthrightly told them it should not be among them as it is among the powers of this world.

Upon resigning, Benedict spoke of his fragility. I believe he was referring to a fragility to deal with two types of problems. One, in the world, is the culture of secularity, of progress, and of what he most rejected, the relativism of truth. And the other, within the Church, is the scandal of pederast priests and, above all, of how their crimes were covered up, as well as the power struggles and ambition for money surrounding the Roman Curia and the Vatican Bank, revealed by the famous “Vatileaks.”

Speaking of the first of these problems it is impossible to forget the harsh blow delivered to the theologian Ratzinger, professor in Tubingen, by the repercussions of the 1968 cultural revolution in his own department: students refusing to recognize the authority of the professors in that German University! Postmodernity was requiring a mental flexibility of the progressive theologians, specialists of the Second Vatican Council, like Ratzinger, that would carry them beyond the friendly reception of modernity in the Council.

Ratzinger confessed his disappointment to his interviewer: “Of course I am also disappointed. By the continued existence of this lack of interest in the Church, especially in the Western world. By the fact that secularity continues to assert its independence and to develop in forms that increasingly lead people away from the faith. By the fact that the overall trend of our time continues to go against the Church.” Some years before his resignation, Benedict XVI still believed he could continue struggling: “I believe that this is just part of the Christian situation, this battle between two kinds of love [love of self and love of other]. The battle has always existed, and sometimes the one side and sometimes the other will be stronger.”

On the issue of progress, Benedict XVI told his interviewer that “A major examination of conscience should begin today. What really is progress? Is it progress if I can destroy? Is it progress if I myself can make, select, and dispose of human beings? How can progress be achieved ethically and humanely?” In some sense, his selection of questions seems to signal that he has moved away from that bold affirmation of Vatican II, when he said that temporal progress, “to the extent that it can contribute to the better ordering of human society, is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.”

Benedict XVI also tackled the problem of truth and relativism: “It is obvious that the concept of truth has become suspect. Of course it is correct that it has been much abused. Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, ‘This is the truth, or even ‘I have the truth.’ We never have it, at best is has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.”

These are the problems that hounded Benedict from the world the Church is called upon to evangelize, to announce the good news, and in the end it seems to have been too much for his strength to bear.

Another way of seeing things

Benedict XVI didn’t have the intellectual make-up to open himself to another way of seeing things, such as relativism, for example, as the Belgian priest José Comblin did in his posthumously published book El Espíritu Santo y la Tradición de Jesús (The Holy Spirit and the Tradition of Jesus): “Until recently, God explained everything for the illiterate or barely literate masses: peace, war, rain and drought, floods and earthquakes, health and illness, accidents and salvation from accidents. It was necessary to invoke God, thank him or do penitence for everything. Today there are scientific explanations for the problems related to the climate and for social, health or psychological problems. There are remedies although they are not yet able to resolve all problems. Many things depend on human beings. The scope of religion must be different, in accord with the living conditions of the current world.

“The abandonment of religion is the abandonment of one kind of religion, of a religion adapted to the Neolithic, pre-scientific, pre-technical human being. It is typical for men and women to abandon religion at around 14 or 15 years old, when their personality and the sense of freedom awakens in them, and at the same time they discover the rudiments of a scientific vision of the world…. That adage attributed to G.K. Chesterton is truer today than ever: ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.’ A multitude of Christians have left the Church because Christianity was never transmitted to them.”

Benedict XVI’s response to
pederasty and the Vatican Bank

Within the Church, the problems Pope Benedict XVI had to wrangle with were pederasty and particularly its cover-up, and the difficulty governing with a Roman Curia impenetrable to the reforms attempted by Paul VI and left to its own discretion by John Paul II, who may have been a charismatic world pilgrim but was not very interested in the day-to-day governing of the Church.

Benedict XVI confronted the problem of pederasty very quickly in his government, radically disowning the priest Marcial Maciel and intervening in the Legionnaires of Christ, which Maciel founded. He continued confronting it in the United States, Ireland, Malta, Germany and other countries and with other episcopates. He made it clear he would continue doing so, allowing the problem to become totally public and decreeing a zero tolerance policy.

But it is also true that, with his sensibility, the problem for him was one of “dirtiness,” a huge “stain” that the guilty spread over the face of the Church, and that sensibility put less accent on the violation of human rights. It is true that the ongoing unveiling of this very grave problem in many parts of the Church, like an earthquake with incessant aftershocks, and above all the cover-up engaged in by some religious functionaries, really wore down his resistance. And this must have influenced his retirement, appealing to the fragility of his physical and spiritual vigor in his old age.

In the last two years of his pastoral government, access to the financial ambitions and battles for power within the Roman Curia and the Vatican Bank allowed Benedict to learn about the corruption threatening the Church from within. Another genuine scandal. That the intrigues got as far as his desk and that his own majordomo went so far as to take confidential papers from him and leak them to sensationalist publications was probably the final straw for him. He appointed a trio of investigators, three octogenarian cardinals—thus as far removed as possible from the ambition and intrigues that would be played out over the eventual succession of Benedict himself—and reserved this commission’s findings for the new pope.

In response to the Curia
and liberation theology

Benedict XVI made important personnel changes at the head of the Roman Curia offices. The following and many more were his appointees: Italy’s Archbishop and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, his old lieutenant in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was appointed Vatican secretary of state; Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Brazil’s Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was made prefect of the Congregation for Religious; US Cardinal and Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until 2012 and his successor, Germany’s Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller; Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Italy’s Archbishop Vincenzo Paglio, member of the Community of Sant’Egidio and Vatican postulator in the case of Monsignor Romero, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family; and Italy’s Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Nonetheless, he apparently failed to impose himself on the Curia’s own structure and the currents that move and divide it. Theologian González Faus tells that Benedict intended to implement a magna reform that would end up with bishops as employees in the Curia, but he couldn’t surmount the opposition coming from the Curia itself.

Benedict XVI was never able to open up to the true nature of Liberation Theology, to the vision of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, humanity, sin, grace, scatology and all the other theological issues from the perspective of love (intellectus amoris) and compassion (intellectus miseri­cordiae). But he did open up to the option for the poor even though the bedrock of his administration was his concern about Europe and its de-Christianization, which effectively left the world of the poor and the denunciation of the causes of poverty on the back burner. He even saw love from the viewpoint of truth and not the other way around, truth from the viewpoint of love, as shown in his third encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” translated most often as Love in Truth rather than Charity in Truth. It is a transformative re-reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which says that “all people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person.”

Francis’ path

As José Comblin says in his book, there are two ways to understand tradition: one is the religious tradition, which includes doctrine, and the other is the tradition of following Jesus in life, the tradition of sainted, prophetic and renovating people, such as Francis of Assisi, the most venerated of all, or Joan of Arc. Even Benedict cannot dream anything else from a Christian perspective when he writes that “The declaration, the intellectual translation, presupposes the existential translation. In this respect the saints are the ones who live out their Christianity in the present and in the future, and the Christ who is coming can also be translated in terms of their existence, so that he can become present with the horizon of the secular world’s understanding.”

The election of his successor, Francis, inspired by Francis of Assisi, will perhaps take the Church further along the tradition of Jesus and his followers, of the saints, than along the road of the tradition of doctrine. Nonetheless, it is not possible to walk in the Church without a synthesis of both traditions: without living from the saints and with a theology of saintliness while living for the poor and with a theology of poverty that denounces it and seeks to eradicate it while constructing a new civilization of poverty and work.

Theologian Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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