The benign and serene dignity with which Pope Benedict XVI retired from his office, pledged “obedience and cooperation” to his successor, urged the cardinal electors to behave as coherently as an “orchestra,” and departed for the “last phase of my pilgrimage on earth” to his books, piano, domestic cats, and a contemplative life can scarcely have left any reasonable observer unmoved. He thus joined the ranks of those who captivate the world by their voluntary departure from exalted positions generally held for life, from Diocletian to Charles V to Greta Garbo. As with his visit to Britain that caused the atheistic British media to sharpen their knives for a year in advance, predicting the final debunking of Roman impudence and flummery, and of this pope as indulgent of clerical sexual abuse, Benedict XVI left everyone in deep admiration for the depth of his faith and intellect and spiritual integrity. How fatuous and unjust now seem all the snide comments about him being God’s Rottweiler.
From this unspectacular man of immense intelligence, it was a spectacular and brilliant end to his papacy. While it is beyond my competence to judge, his retirement seemed an act both saintly and expedient. The Roman Catholic Church is at a turning point and the course should be set by someone young and energetic enough to see it through. This was an event that might have struck silent, like Zechariah in the Temple, even the pope’s noisiest accuser, the late Christopher Hitchens. Assuming the conclave is conducted with the customary dignity and discretion, the process will vastly transcend the malicious gossip with which the most scurrilous elements of the Italian media greeted it, faithfully amplified in vapid echo chambers such as CNN.
In that network’s coverage of the funeral of John Paul II eight years ago, as the announcers jubilantly reassured themselves of the proportions of the crisis in which the Roman Catholic Church was immersed, a guest pointed out that the population of Rome had swollen by 2 million for the funeral, that there were nearly twice as many Roman Catholics in the world as there had been when John Paul II was elected 27 years before, and that there were 74 heads of state or government at his funeral, which was more than attended the funerals of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle combined. The contrast between the unhistrionic selflessness of the departure of this pope and the infantilistic absurdity and moral, if not pecuniary, corruption of most secular governments in the world, including the mockery of public service being acted out in Washington (and the unmitigated electoral farce across town with Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo), could not be clearer.
There is a crisis, but there is almost always a crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. It could not be otherwise, as it tries to be the ark of continuity of Christian faith, despite powerful and permanent forces of antagonism, apostasy, paganism, schism, and venality. Jesus Christ allegedly gave the first pope, St. Peter, a terribly difficult mission statement: a divinely inspired project to be carried out in the teeth of overwhelming disbelief, a heavenly task for terrestrial sinners, among the skeptical, hostile, and ungrateful. The chronic crisis-mongers should brush up their Church history. Two hundred years ago, Pius VII was incarcerated by Napoleon, as Pius VI had been by the Directory (and Pius VI had died in captivity in France). In 1848, Pius IX was chased by mobs out of Rome. Three archbishops of Paris were murdered and one fled for his life between 1792 and 1871; this in the country that traditionally styled itself “the eldest daughter of the Church,” whose monarch was officially “His Most Catholic Majesty.” Today’s doom-laden and wishful media philistines seem to think that Rome glided serenely forward for 15 centuries after the early Christian martyrs, apart from a bit of Borgia skullduggery, on a magic carpet of flimflam and superstition.
Of course, this is a time of great difficulty for the Church, but it has surmounted many more severe problems. The crisis now is not about whether God exists, Christ was divine, or the Roman Catholic Church is the chief bearer of that message; there has always been plenty of dissent about all of that. Rather it lies in the reaction to two relatively recent phenomena: the startlingly rapid advance in the technology of information and popular access to it; and the possibility to consider sexual intercourse a good deal more lightheartedly because of the efficacy and availability of contraception. The Church should be grateful, though obviously many of its cadres are not, that the increased ability of the media to penetrate and publicize its less salubrious mysteries has forced a reckoning with the sexual-abuse problem that has festered since time immemorial (“in saecula saeculorum,” in liturgical parlance).
The incorrigibly cheesy CNN celebrated the current frenzy by announcing that half of the Roman Catholic clergy in the world, or about 1.5 million people, are homosexuals. This is unlikely, is a wild surmise, and is not entirely relevant for those who honor their vows of celibacy. Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, now camerlengo (chamberlain), is one of those (along with Keith Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland, who has just retired after being accused of molestation decades ago by some of his clergy and ex-students) who have blamed the abuse crisis on homosexuals. This has muddied the waters, as the gay-advocacy groups are militantly denying that the authors of this clerical abuse are of the same sex as their victims. It has become a general melee. The huge civil-damage awards are being paid off, screening procedures have been put in place that will be infinitely more rigorous, the Golgotha of endless denunciation and defamation has been endured. Ghastly and horrible though it is, this scandal doesn’t destroy the message or delegitimize the messenger. It will not be possible for the aggrieved, both the genuine victims and the hucksters inspired by contingent fees from avaricious lawyers to overcome decades of amnesia to recall or conjure up incidents, to keep this fire going indefinitely.
The issue that the Roman Catholic Church will have to face soon is the balance between, on one hand, the retention of the counsel of perfection that it continues to utter about the sex lives of its adherents (not to mention its own clergy) and of fraying traditions about eligibility for the priesthood (all-male, and all-unmarried except some Eastern-rite and ex-Anglican priests), and, on the other, a stance that protects and affirms the central dogma while making the Church less vulnerable to the impression of anachronism and archaism that its critics now so easily attach to it. The appearance of an organization led by elderly celibates denouncing, in what seem to many to be twee strictures, what is now pretty standard sexuality for most consenting, unmarried adults will continue to reassure those at the inner core of the faith, and they are numerous and appear to be immutable. But it will also continue to deter from practice a very large group of softer and less purposeful Catholics, yet Catholics still.
Of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, about half practice their religion reasonably diligently, and many follow the widely accepted norm that recourse to contraception does not separate them from their Church and is not confessable unless it incites troubling sensations of guilt. Perhaps 200 million are pretty nominal, accept the designation, and might prefer a Church funeral, but leave it at that. And the rest are in between. There are always those like Garry Wills, who have departed, but never really seem to close the door, or go far, or lose interest; and those like Maureen Dowd, who can’t stop saying how sad their anger at their Church makes them. And there are countless millions like Erin Burnett (one of CNN’s most competent and ingenuous presenters) who unselfconsciously identifies herself as a Catholic, without a hint of the extent or depth of her practice. “In my father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2), and to be completely quit of Catholicism requires a prodigious renunciation.
The cardinals will soon choose someone who must decide whether to hold the counsel of perfection, with no illusions about the strain this places on the credulity of the ostensibly faithful, or try to cast a wider net to rule a broader Church, without betraying those who have stayed the course. I suspect that a partial course correction may not be far off, but that is flimsy conjecture. Two things will not happen: The Roman Catholic Church is not in any danger of disappearing or being generally marginalized. It is and will remain the chief ark of the Christian faith, the loudest and most consistent voice against religious persecution, and a refreshing contrast to the moral bankruptcy of most secular government. And it will pay no attention to the calls for congregational or even episcopal democracy. The vicar of Christ is an individual, not an electorate. Those who dissent can simply withdraw, unlike citizens of a civil society, where lawbreaking and refusal to pay taxes have serious immediate repercussions. Rome has held its place as the world’s principal organized denomination for nearly 2,000 years as a dictatorship, even when there really were crises, with papal murders, schismatic popes, chaos, and debauchery far beyond the sophomoric imagination of the contemporary, titillated media.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].