lunedì 19 aprile 2010

Benedict XVI after five years: time is running out for a great reforming Pope. By Damian Thompson


Benedict XVI after five years:
time is running out for a great reforming Pope

By: Damian Thompson

Today is the fifth anniversary of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope, and there is chance – just a chance – that it also marks the beginning of the end of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Yesterday, the Pope was reduced to tears when he met victims of predatory priests in Malta. His horror at these crimes is not in doubt. And now, at last, sections of the secular media are grudgingly acknowledging that those journalists who tried to paint the former Cardinal Ratzinger as the protector of paedophiles made a serious error of judgment.

Still, the Vatican could have done much more to stop the frenzied misdirection of public outrage towards the Holy Father. That it failed to do so tells us something depressing: that Benedict XVI, the cleverest pope for centuries, an important thinker in his own right and the author of wonderful teaching documents, may lack the administrative skills and support that he needs to push through desperately needed reforms.

How to sum up the particular vision of Benedict? In an article for Catholic World Report, the Ratzinger scholar Tracey Rowland quotes a line from the 1963 Hollywood film, The Cardinal: “The Church … thinks in centuries, not decades.” Fr Ratzinger is reported to have been a consultant for the film; he would certainly endorse that particular line. As Dr Rowland argues, Benedict wishes above all to lay the groundwork for healing the schisms that have torn limbs from Catholic Christianity, by purifying the worship of the Church in a way that enables Christians who are Catholics at heart to return into communion with Peter.

He understands – as no Pope before him has done – that conservative Anglo-Catholics are not Protestants, but aspiring Catholics for whom the scandalously bad worship of the post-Vatican II Church is a spiritual, not just an aesthetic, obstacle to reunion. Hence the Ordinariate provision, a structure for ex-Anglicans that will be set up soon but will take years to reach maturity (if it is not sabotaged). Hence also the removal of virtually all restrictions on the celebration of the classical form of the Roman Rite – to my mind, the boldest and finest single achievement of Benedict’s pontificate to date.

Correctly orientated worship, believes Pope Benedict, is a sine qua non for the operation of the redeeming love of Christ in the world. That is why his request that priests should say Mass facing a crucifix on the altar is so important to him; he would prefer that the celebrant faced eastwards, in the same direction as the congregation, but at least the central crucifix helps ensure that the consecration is not directed at the people, which would make it more like a Protestant shared meal than a sacrifice.

But Catholics should ask themselves: when did they last visit an ordinary parish church and see a priest observing the Pope’s wishes? Just as the correct orientation of the altar matters enormously to Benedict XVI, so the disregard of this reform tells us a lot about the fundamental disconnection between the Pontiff and his priests.

This disconnection is made possible by the immense power of the bishop and the diocese in the Church – a power that also made possible the sheltering of so many clerical sex abusers not just from the police but also from the Vatican. Much of this power is derived from Scripture: the diocese has been the fundamental unit of the Church since its institution. A crucial problem is that the Vatican – a tiny organisation, really, about the size of a middle-sized American corporation – has neglected its historic role of aligning Catholic bishops with their Pontiff. Benedict XVI wants to reform the Church; but how can he do so when the dicasteries (major departments) are run by cardinals and archbishops of widely differing degrees of loyalty and mental alertness?

In an interview he gave in the 1980s, Cardinal Ratzinger said that he had come to appreciate the laid-back Italian way of doing things, since it meant that the Vatican didn’t rush into bad decisions. I wonder if he still thinks that, surveying the wreckage of European Catholicism. No wonder no one goes to church on the continent, for what they encounter is barely recognisable as Catholic. Even the philistine horrors of the Archdiocese of Liverpool cannot begin to compare with the liturgical desert of many French, German, Austrian and Italian dioceses, long since captured by the exhausted aesthetic and pastoral practices of 1960s liberal Protestantism. And who let this happen? The old men in the Vatican.

I wrote last week that, as a result of recent scandals, the Pope finally has a chance to clear out some of the cardinals who are too compromised by laziness, corruption and bad taste to initiate the Benedictine reform. Since then, I’ve spoken to a friend of Benedict XVI who feels that he lacks the will to effect the necessary changes. Also, it wasn’t exactly encouraging to see the Pope fall asleep during Mass in Malta; he is not ill or confused, but he is 83 and (though the world has been slow to pick up on this) of a naturally gentle disposition.

I was in St Peter’s Square five years ago. It was hilarious to witness the rage of the Tabletistas (though, to my everlasting regret, I missed Bobbie’s blubbing). But it was hard to know what to expect of a papacy led by “God’s Rottweiler”, as we still thought of him. Not yet having read his amazing books, I didn’t anticipate the intensity of Ratzinger’s vision of renovation. Still less did I guess that his reforms might founder because he is simply too nice.