If there’s one thing I find fascinating about Pope Benny, it’s not his theology – although his writings are impressively crunchy, and his book on Jesus in particular is well worth your time – but how he’s developed his own political style since taking over as Pontifex Maximus. JP2’s rock ‘n’ roll papacy was always going to be a hard act to follow, and not a great deal was expected of Benedict, partly because of his natural reserve and partly because he’d spent so long holed up at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acting as JP2’s theological enforcer. Those of us who take an interest in these things may have noticed that, while Wojtyła was rooted in a very Polish mystical tradition – which reminds us that Catholic Poles are not as far removed from Orthodox Russians as they might like to think – Ratzinger’s background was firmly in the German rationalist school. But like I say, that’s a matter for theology aficionados.
Over the last few years, though, we’ve got a better idea of Benny as a political operator. This doesn’t always come through in media coverage – especially in Britain, where Catholicism usually only features in the news in relation to abortion, an issue that’s infested by Catholics pretending not to be Catholics (the ProLife Alliance) and non-Catholics pretending to be Catholics (‘Catholics for Choice’). Church politics as such doesn’t get much intelligent coverage, which is perhaps why Benny’s establishing himself as a reformer has gone largely unremarked.
More important, though, is a conceptual fallacy whereby most commentators equate reformism with liberal reformism. It seems impossible to grasp that one can be theologically orthodox – and if you aren’t theologically orthodox, you won’t get to be Pope in the first place – and still be a reformist. In fact, Benedict has racked up quite an impressive track record of cracking down on malfeasances in the Church although, in his characteristic style, he isn’t very ostentatious about it.
Take a look for a moment at this atrocity:
Now, you will probably be saying to yourself, “What are those guys doing waving around a naan bread on a giant pair of BBQ tongs?” This is a Corpus Christi procession in the Austrian city of Linz, and is supposed to be the bit where the Host is paraded on a monstrance. In fact, it isn’t a naan but a focaccia, although I’m willing to bet focaccia is still an illicit substance. What were they thinking? “Hmm, we’ll just get some bread-type stuff and stick it on the end of these tongs – it’ll do just as well…” That’s the sort of muddled thinking one would expect from the C of E, but more of them later.
Benedict, of course, is a great enthusiast for raising the overall liturgical standard – although in the German-speaking lands he may have his work cut out – and apparently the Austrian bishops’ ears were burning after the Focaccia Incident became known. But the disciplinarian aspect goes well beyond slapping down instances of liturgical silliness. Luke Coppen lists quite a number of significant moves, in an article worth quoting at length:
Consider the following incidents, most of which have been widely reported but are rarely linked together:
The Maciel affair: In May 2006 Pope Benedict took the highly unusual step of ordering one of the world’s best-known priests to retire to a life of prayer and penance. His decision followed a Vatican investigation into allegations that Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement, was a sexual abuser who had fathered at least one child.
Investigating America’s seminaries: Not long after his election Benedict XVI oversaw an apostolic visitation of seminaries in the United States. The investigation was inspired by the clerical sexual abuse crisis of 2002 and covered all schools of theology as well as college-level seminaries, houses of formation, and academic institutions that form future priests.
Scrutinising American female religious orders: The Pope has also ordered a wide-ranging investigation of American women religious. The apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States, which is currently underway, covers approximately 400 apostolic religious institutes of women and approximately 59,000 women religious. It is likely to lead to a shake-up of American female religious life.
Deposing the leader of an African Church: Earlier this month Pope Benedict accepted the resignation of Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, the most senior Catholic cleric in the Central African Republic (CAR). The resignation followed a visit to the CAR by a papal emissary, Archbishop Robert Sarah, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, in March. It is widely thought that the Pope requested the archbishop’s resignation because he tolerated priests keeping mistresses.
Calling for a thorough accounting of abuse in Ireland: Also this month Pope Benedict called for a profound examination of the state of the Irish Church following a damning report into “endemic” abuse in schools run by religious orders.
Crisis talks with the Austrian bishops: And this week Pope Benedict held an emergency meeting with the leaders of the Austrian Church. The gathering followed the appointment and subsequent resignation of Gerhard Wagner as auxiliary Bishop of Linz and reports that priests in senior positions in the diocese live with mistresses. The Pope reminded the bishops of “the urgency of going deeper in the faith and the integral fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Church” – a coded message that the Austrian Church is in serious need of reform.
These events together show the determination with which Pope Benedict is confronting the gravest scandals in the Church today. They have all had considerable publicity, but nevertheless have not created the perception that Benedict XVI is a bold reformist pope.
So why, despite the accumulating evidence, is Pope Benedict not regarded as a reformer intent on ridding the Church of wrong-doing?
Some suggest it’s because in mass media terms a “reformist pope” can only mean a pontiff who takes a progressive stance on hot-button issues such as priestly celibacy, contraception and women priests. They argue that the kind of reforms Pope Benedict is pursuing – enforcing celibacy, cracking down on liturgical abuses and investigating radically progressive American nuns – simply don’t fit the existing media stereotype.
There is some truth in that. But there are other factors at work:
1) The geographically disparate nature of the reforms makes it difficult for observers to connect them together;
2) Many of the investigations are carried out in strict secrecy with severe ecclesial penalties for anyone who breaches confidentiality. This means that neither media nor the wider Catholic public ever know precisely what is going on.
3) Pope Benedict rarely mentions the investigations in public and, if he does, speaks in coded language that only those already in the know will understand (see, for example, his ad limina address to the bishops of the CAR where he discusses the need for reform of the priesthood).
I think Luke makes a persuasive case there. To reiterate, anyone expecting a liberal Pope endorsing the nostrums of the Guardian or Channel 4 News is likely to be waiting a very long time, but it’s well within the abilities of a traditionalist Pope to shake things up, root out abuses and tighten standards all round.
But the big news of the moment is, of course, this new Apostolic Constitution that’s aimed at disaffected Anglicans. I’m still not sure what to make of this, whether it’s an utterly brilliant manoeuvre or it will turn out to be completely pointless. But the thrust of the matter is the establishment of a Personal Ordinariate under which umbrella Anglicans will be able to accept the authority of Rome whilst maintaining their established practices. This has already been given a trial run on a smallish scale in the United States, where there are quite a few traditional Anglicans who are deeply pissed off at the heretical modernist leadership of the Episcopal Church USA and have despaired of trying to coexist within the same organisation. What the Personal Ordinariate amounts to is something that was considered by the late Cardinal Newman, the establishment of an English Uniate Church, equivalent to the various Byzantine-rite formations within the RCC, or indeed the Lebanese Maronites. (Although previous pontiffs may well have thought the Maronites more trouble than they were worth, the same way English Tories came to look on the Ulster Unionists.)
It’s at times like this that I turn to Damian Thompson for some pithy observations. I have my worries about young Damo, not least his recent foray into Mussolini territory, but he knows his religious onions and is particularly good on the C of E. Quoth Damo:
The truth is that Rome has given up on the Anglican Communion. With one announcement, the Pope has given conservative Anglicans a protected route to union with Rome – and promised that, even once they are members of the Catholic Church, they will be offered a permanent structure that allows them to retain an Anglican ethos…
The Vatican would not use the phrase, but this is very close to the setting up of a “Church within a Church”. Yet that is not as unusual as it might seem: Eastern-rite Catholics have their own liturgy and church structures, and in America a small number of ex-Anglicans use service books that borrow from the Book of Common Prayer.
In point of fact, Benedict is offering traditionalist Anglicans more than the Canterbury communion has felt able to do. Within the C of E, the usual procedure has been to spend years debating these issues in General Synod and then to come out at the last moment with some convoluted proposal for a “third province” or “flying bishops” or suchlike. Now, there’s a firm offer from Rome about a long-term haven. What’s also interesting is the diplomacy surrounding this. There have been noises from the C of E about how poor old Rowan wasn’t told until the last moment, and this is a terrible snub. There have also, not coincidentally been critical noises from what one might term the Cormac camp within the English Catholic hierarchy. Actually, reports from Rome stress the high regard Benedict has for Rowan – I suspect the secrecy had at least as much to do with keeping the Bishops’ Conference out of the loop. Benedict will be aware that possibilities for a move of this type in the early 1990s failed thanks to the ecumenists in the BC; he will also be aware that for this gambit to work, the defectors would have to be offered something outwith the authority of the BC. Hats off to our modern Machiavelli.
And yet, and yet. These Anglo-Catholics can be awkward customers. Of those who’ve converted in dribs and drabs over the last wheen of years, many have got a hell of a culture shock – expecting some romantic world of incense, Latin and purple robes, they quickly discovered the actually existing Catholic Church in England was full of guitar-strumming, jumper-wearing priests in concrete churches. Besides, if you’re all that attached to Anglican liturgical forms, there is an outlet that can do them for you wholesale, and it’s called the “Church of England”. I can well imagine some of these High Church AngCats reacting with horror on being told they would have to ditch the Roman Missal and use the Book of Common Prayer instead.
It’s also objected, and there’s some truth in this, that those who were most likely to convert have already done so. It is also the case that quite a few of the AngCats have come to enjoy toddling along to General Synod and getting angry at the modernists, and would miss all the rows. On the other hand, there was quite a warm (if guarded) reception from Forward In Faith, and perhaps some less likely suspects might be attracted.
The departure of a lot of traditionalists would at least ease the factional situation for Rowan, although the conservative evangelicals in the C of E aren’t going anywhere, and nor are the extreme modernist trendies. But, in the end, what other options are there for the Anglican traditionalist? The Canterbury communion looks less welcoming by the year; the small Continuity Anglican formations in various countries have failed to take off; and the Eastern Churches, who could have done long ago what Benedict has just done, have been sleeping on the job as per usual. Benny has, in effect, told the Anglican traditionalists that they have to piss or get off the pot. Now they have to make their choice.
By the way, this affair has piqued the interest of our old bugbear, Titus Oates of the National Secular Society. Titus writes:
Of course, in a strictly secularist sense, the NSS should not concern itself with the internal machinations of religious organisations. If the Pope wishes to stab the Archbishop of Canterbury in the back (in a wholly ecumenical sense, of course) then that’s nothing to do with us.
Titus then, of course, goes on to fulminate at length about something he’s just said he’s not concerned about.
But wait a minute. The state is involved in this. We have an Established Church, the head of which is also the head of the State. So when the Roman Rat plays such a comprehensively dirty trick on Rowan Williams, we all have to consider whether there are constitutional implications.
Well, there aren’t. The Established Church remains the Established Church, regardless of the comings or goings of its personnel. But that doesn’t deter our friend:
Since the Holy See is at once both the government of the Catholic Church and also of the State of the Vatican City, any bishops who sit in the House of Lords who decided to opt for Rome would owe allegiance to the Holy See, which, when wearing one of its hats, is a foreign government.
Ah, it’s the old dual loyalty canard. Titus, as we know, is deeply concerned about Catholics getting into Westminster, lest they start wearing cloaks and funny hats and plotting to blow up King James. He seems less keen to level the dual loyalty charge against Jewish parliamentarians, which is probably sensible.
In other words, because there’s an established church at this end and a church-state at the other, the constitutional implications could be enormous. If half of the Church of England is going to end up under the Vatican umbrella, then can it really remain “by law established”?
Look, this is really quite simple. Those Anglicans who opt for the Personal Ordinariate leave the communion of Canterbury and enter that of Rome. It doesn’t effect the Established Church at all on the constitutional level. If Titus is attempting to argue that Anglo-Catholics defecting to Rome will, by some mysterious osmosis, turn England into a Papist theocracy, I must confess that his logic is too subtle for me.
In his anxiety to keep the “Anglican Communion” intact, Rowan Williams abandoned his own humane, liberal instincts and threw in his lot with the worst elements of bigotry within his flock. They have now rewarded him by conniving with the “Holy Father” to pile on the humiliation.
Is this humane and liberal Rowan Williams the same Rowan Williams upon whose head Titus and his mates heap abuse on a regular basis? I believe it is.
The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch.
I suspect some wishful thinking here, but go on…
Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).
There is, you know, a reason why Catholics feel a deep anger about abuses such as were detailed in the Ryan report. That is because of the breach of trust involved, and because the guilty parties acted in contravention of the ideals of the faith they were supposed to be representing. But Titus doesn’t understand, or care about, that anger. What is more, people who loudly proclaim that celibacy is perverse and sexual libertinism praiseworthy are not best placed to attack people who fail to abide by a vow of celibacy. And again, if Titus is really shocked at homosexual priests who have a liking for teenage boys, perhaps he should speak to his pals in OutRage! who want to lower the age of consent to fourteen, which at a stroke would decriminalise much of what he’s complaining about. Or is it only immoral when clergy do it?
They argue endlessly and violently over which bell to ring and which language to say their prayers in.
Evidently our friend hasn’t heard of the vernacular Mass.
They spend their lives bowing down to the bones of a dead girl and pretending that a biscuit is actual flesh and that wine is really (that is, literally) blood.
Nor does he understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, or what the veneration of saints is all about.
And yet, throughout history, the Vatican has managed to convince those in highest authority that it is entitled to unique and unquestioned respect. Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.
Where does the UN come into this, pray tell?
Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.
Aha, now I get it. Evidently our Mr Angry has been reading the collected works of Dan Brown on his holidays. No UN inspections can take place in the Vatican, lest they discover that neutron bomb guarded by heavily armed Opus Dei monks, while Pope Benedict cackles maniacally and strokes a white cat.
We need to ensure that the bigots and reactionaries that infest those few acres in Rome do not get a grip on Britain.
Perhaps you could form an alliance on this issue with the DUP. Although Iris Robinson’s views on homosexuality might be too ripe for our friend.
I always thought the great thing about atheism was that it was about personal freedom and you didn’t need anyone to advocate for you. Perhaps that explains why I get wound up by evangelical atheists, and keep wondering why people like Titus don’t just get themselves a hobby. In any case, religious people may feel reassured that they aren’t the only ones who get doughheads representing them – militant secularist rationalists can be as moronic as anyone else.
Rud eile: I know some readers are dying to hear my take on what’s going on with the Swips. There may be something on this in due course, but for the meantime Red Maria has the scoop.
Rud eile fós: I don’t do Search of the Week as a regular feature any more, but I just want to give a shout out to the punter who came here googling “George Osborne in school uniform”. That’s an image that’ll take a while to shift…