Just a few minutes ago the Swiss Guards closed the main doors of the Papal Residence at Castel Gandolfo, indicating that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate the Papacy has taken effect, ending his career as Pope. Pope Benedict’s momentous decision of February 11, 2013 opened the way to serious reflection among Catholics, and I think it will have an impact on the Church for years and maybe even for centuries.
During his Pontificate Benedict XVI was always concerned about the dangers of relativism. Now, by the reasons he gave for his resignation, he shows that the Papacy itself is not immune. For centuries we were led to believe that the Papacy is a divine institution not measurable by any human standards. In resigning, Benedict revealed his view that the Papacy can be measured relative to performance, and that he resigned because he is no longer capable of meeting his own performance expectations.
At a stroke he has removed the aura of divinity that surrounded the Papacy. He has clarified that the Papacy is primarily a ministry of service, and when the incumbent becomes incapable of providing that service, it is time to make way for another who can provide what is needed.
This means that future Popes will be under a new kind of scrutiny. They can no longer presume that once elected they are there until the end of their days. Benedict has introduced a new standard and has indicated the course to follow if the standard is not being met.
I think it is Providential that this is being done by a Pope of Benedict’s intellectual and spiritual stature. It cannot be dismissed as an aberration of a Pope who lacks understanding or adequate formation. Coming from a person of Benedict’s professorial standing it must be taken as a serious and thoughtful commentary on the role and function of the Papacy in the Church.
History will one day pass its verdict on Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate. I believe that Benedict served the Church and the Papacy well. By his abdication and the reasons he gave for that decision he has opened the way for a Church that is more transparent, and a Papacy that is less like Imperial Rome and more like the Servant model proposed by Jesus in the Gospel: “You know how the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20, 25-27).
Just a week before Pope Benedict made the surprise announcement of his imminent abdication there was an article in the New York Times about voters and elections. The writer, Sam Wang, an associate professor at Princeton University, pointed out that in the 2012 elections for the United States House of Representatives, the candidates of the Democratic Party received 1.4 million more votes than the candidates of the Republican Party. Yet the Republicans won control of the House by 234 seats to 201.
This undemocratic result comes from the party in power arranging electoral districts so that their party will have narrow victories in many districts while the other party will have large victories in fewer districts. Such an arrangement of electoral districts is known as gerrymandering, and it frustrates the democratic system.
As Catholics we are often reminded by our religious authorities that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. Yet in many ways the Church does act democratically. In the Vatican II Council for instance, the bishops arrived at final decisions by a system of majority voting. In the coming Conclave in Rome to name the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, the new Pope will be the candidate who receives two-thirds of the Cardinals’ votes.
But there are some who question if the Conclave Cardinals are really representative of the international character of the Catholic Church in today’s world. At the beginning of last year Pope Benedict named 22 new Cardinals. 16 were from Europe, 3 from North America, 1 from Latin America and 2 from Asia. Many were surprised at the strong European and Western presence in these nominations, when more than half the Catholics in the world are now living in Africa, Asia and Latin America, according to the statistics in the 2012 Vatican Yearbook.
Towards the end of 2012 Pope Benedict called an extraordinary Consistory to name 6 more Cardinals, none of them from Europe. One was from North America, 1 from Latin America, 3 from Asia and 1 from Africa. It seemed like a gesture from the Pope to compensate for the imbalance of the earlier Consistory.
But it was a feeble gesture and the total picture of the Cardinals in the Church is still one of gross imbalance. Latin America, Africa and Asia have a total of 797 million Catholics, or 68.2% of Catholics in the world. Between them they have 41 Cardinals. Europe and North America have a total of 76 voting Cardinals while they account for just 363 million Catholics, or 31% of world Catholics. Oceania accounts for about 9 million Catholics, 0.9 % of the world total. They have 1 Cardinal.
Maybe the Church will decide some day to choose the Pope by drawing lots, as the Apostles did in replacing Judas (Acts 1, 26). But until that day comes, the growing millions of Catholics who live in the vibrant churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America deserve a proportionate voice in deciding who is best qualified to lead their Church on earth now and in the future.
Pope Celestine V did Pope Benedict XVI a favor when he resigned from the Papacy in 1294. Five months after he had reluctantly accepted the Papacy at 79 years of age, Celestine issued a decree declaring that a Pope has the authority to resign from the Papacy. Then on the basis of the authority he had just given himself, Celestine V resigned the Papacy to return to his former life as a hermit.
So when Pope Benedict XVI made the surprise announcement on February 11, 2013, that he would resign the Papacy on February 28, 2013, he knew he had the authority to do so, thanks to the 1294 decree of Pope Celestine V.
Pope Benedict’s words reveal that his decision was well-considered, taken after serious reflection and prayer. I think it is a brave decision on his part, taken out of consideration for what is best for the People of God and for the administration of the affairs of the Church in today’s world.
I think his decision also does a service to the Papacy by showing that if the incumbent does not have the physical as well as the spiritual qualities needed to fulfill the responsibilities, then it is time to step aside and allow someone with the needed qualities to take over.
Perhaps Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the way for new thinking about the Papacy in modern times. In modern times the membership of the Catholic Church has passed the one billion mark. The Church must be able to adapt fluently to reach out to a wide variety of cultures in a rapidly changing world.
It seems unreasonable to expect that a newly-elected Pope would carry these responsibilities for life, especially as improved healthcare has enabled people to live long into the declining years. Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the possibility of a term limit for the Papacy. Seven is a Biblical and liturgical number. Perhaps a maximum term of 7 years, not renewable, would be a starting point.
Pope Benedict’s decision to continue living in the Vatican may help us to get used to the idea of a former Pope living just a few blocks away from the reigning Pope in residence. We might even get used to the idea of several former Popes living in the same neighborhood. For the sake of peace it would be important for a Pope to remember that the claim to infallibility ends with retirement from the office.
All credit to Benedict XVI for freely deciding to resign the Papacy. It must have been a difficult decision for him. But I think it was a wise decision, and may well be the most significant and memorable act of his entire Papal career.
The Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation takes its name from the first two words of the document, Dei Verbum (Word of God). It was given final approval on November 18, 1965, by a vote of 2344 in favor with 6 against.
The document consists of 6 short chapters, a total of 18 pages. The first chapter is titled “Revelation Itself”. It refers to God revealing himself in creation, and then manifesting himself to our first parents “from the start”. From that time on “he ceaselessly kept the human race in his care”, calling Abraham, and then teaching through the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets to wait for the promised Savior. “In this manner he prepared the way for the gospel down through the centuries” (n.3)
The second chapter is called The Transmission of Divine Revelation. It explains that “Christ the Lord, in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching”(n.7). That commission was carried out by the apostles, and by those “apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (n.7).
The document goes on to say that the apostles left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching role to them. Then it adds, “What was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life and the increase of faith of the People of God; and so the Church in her teaching, life and worship perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (n.8)
Having introduced the word “tradition” the document continues: “Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the Bride of His beloved Son” (n.8). “Hence there exist a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end” (n.9).
“The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on”. (n.10)
You may be puzzled by all these words about sacred scripture, tradition and the teaching office of the Church, which do not offer much by way of inspiration to the ordinary person in the pew. What you are witnessing is the outcome of tense debates which took place in the Council between the first presentation of this document in November 1962 and its final approval in November 1965.
Father John O’Malley, in his book What Happened at Vatican II, explained that it became clear early on in the Council that there were two distinct groups of bishops with differing views on the Church and the Council. One group, whom I call the Centralists, believed that all power in the Church should be centered in Rome, in the Pope and the departments of the Roman Curia who assist him in governing the Church. The other group, whom I call the Collegials, believe that Church power should be shared by the entire college of bishops, with the bishop of Rome having the special duty to intervene to resolve disputes and promote unity.
The original document on Divine Revelation presented to the Council in November 1962 had been prepared by the Centralists. They made Scripture and Tradition two distinct sources of God’s revelation. While Scripture was limited to the actual texts, it implied that Tradition had no limit, and could go on developing. The authentic interpretation of the sources of Revelation belonged to the teaching office of the Church, which meant in effect, the Pope and the Roman Curia.
This understanding of Tradition was unacceptable to the Collegials. They believed that Tradition should be linked to Scripture, and could not be used to invent new doctrines which had no basis in Scripture. Moreover the teaching office of the Church could not have priority over the revealed word of God.
The battle lines were drawn, and the tense debate went on over the three years. You can see the efforts at compromise in chapter 2 (n.7-10). The resulting words may be doctrinally acceptable to both camps, but I think the conflict took a lot of energy from the Council, and left it incapable of inspiring enthusiasm about Divine Revelation.
I would like to have seen more attention given to God’s self-revelation in Creation itself. After all, the sacred books have been in existence only a few thousand years, four or five at most. For the hundreds of thousands of years of man’s existence prior to that, the primary revelation of God was the Universe itself.
My own experience among the Mapuche in the South of Chile taught me how people can know about God from the world around them, and find ways to respond. The Mapuche (the name means People of the Land) have no sacred books and no tradition of revelation. But they believe that the earth is a gift from the Creator’s hand, and they are grateful for it.
When the Mapuche stand at the door of their huts each morning they give thanks to the Creator God for the earth, the sky, the rising sun or the falling rain. They give thanks for the land, for the crops and for the animals which provide food and sustenance for them and their families. When they need to kill an animal from the flock or herd for food, they first ask pardon from the Creator God for doing this. Then they thank the animal they are about to kill for being available, and they thank the herd and promise that they will continue to take good care of them.
Their almost mystical attitude to the world around them was an object lesson in how man’s religious sense can be aroused by the Universe itself as the primary revelation of God. The Mapuche claimed no special revelation; they had no sacred texts; but they were alive to the presence of the Creator God in the world around them.
Sometimes when I reflect on some of our sacred texts I wonder how much of it is God, and how much is the imagination of the person who thinks God is speaking to him. One example when Moses, responding to the Golden Calf episode told the Levites: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Put your sword on you hip, every one of you. Now go up and down the camp, from gate to gate and slay your own kinsmen, your friends and neighbors. The Levites carried out the command of Moses, and that day there fell about 3,000 of the people. (Exodus 32, 25-29).
Another example when the prophet Samuel spoke to King Saul: Now therefore listen to the message of the Lord: I will punish what Amalek did to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt. This is what the Lord of hosts has to say: Go now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses. (1 Samuel 15, 2-3).
The God in these examples does not sound like the compassionate God revealed by Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Did God change, or did Moses and Samuel just get the message wrong? That could be a topic for another statement on Divine Revelation.
The Catholic Church’s understanding of itself was expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations) which was approved on November 21, 1964 by a vote of 2,151 in favor and 5 against.
The bishops at the Council begin by describing the Church as the new People of God formed by those baptized in water and the Holy Spirit and united around their Founder Jesus Christ as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2, 9) (n.9)
This is a new approach. Traditionally the Church used to describe itself as a divine institution, beginning with the Pope, then the bishops, the priests, the clergy and finally the ordinary faithful. Here the Church begins by looking at the entire membership together, united by the faith and baptism that they share in common.
Recognizing that there are particular traditions and legitimate difference within the one Church (n.13) the bishops go on to discuss other Christian churches and other religions. They welcome the links the Catholic Church has with other Christian churches, and encourage the goal of unity for which Christ prayed (n.15).
The bishops then refer to those great religions which have Abraham as their father, and which are related to the Catholic Church in their worship of the One True God. They finally reach out to other religions and people of no particular religion, and encourage them to be faithful to the dictates of their conscience in the hope of attaining eternal salvation (n.16)
This approach is in total contrast to the traditional “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation) of Saint Cyprian (3rd century), or Pope Boniface VIII’s definitive statement that “Every human creature must submit to the Roman Pontiff in order to be saved” (Unam Sanctam 1302 CE). There are those who say that the benign attitude of the Council to those of other religions or of no religion, has led to a steep decline in the missionary zeal of the Catholic Church.
Having surveyed other religions, the fathers of the Council returned to take a closer look at the People of God. They explain that the People of God is made up of two main parts, the hierarchy, who are the bishops, priests and deacons, and the laity who constitute more than 99% of the membership. The main difference between them is that the hierarchy has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, which gives them sacred powers.
The strange thing about these sacred powers is that they are given to the bishops, priests and deacons because they are servants of the People of God. At the same time, only those who have these powers are qualified to govern the People of God. (n.18) The hierarchy are clearly stated to be the servants of the faithful, but there is no suggestion that they should be in any way accountable to the people they are ordained to serve.
Just as Saint Peter was the head of the apostles, so the bishop of Rome is the head of all the bishops. Each bishop at his ordination receives his sacred power immediately and directly from God, but he can exercise that power only in communion with the bishop of Rome. (n.21)
The bishops at the Council go on to emphasize, six times in rapid succession, that bishops must act always in communion with the bishop of Rome, “who has full, supreme and universal power over the Church” (n.22). This repeated emphasis on Papal primacy puzzled me, but it may be the bishops’ way of reassuring the Pope they will not challenge his teaching or his policies, whatever their personal views.
This is quite in contrast to the early Church where Paul challenged the first Pope on his policy towards gentile Christians. Paul wrote, “I opposed Peter to his face because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2, 11). Such a challenge would be unthinkable today. Today the mere suggestion of a difference of opinion with the Pope could lead to a bishop’s early retirement from office. At the same time the Council clearly states that each bishop governs the local diocese entrusted to him not as an agent of the Pope but as vicar and ambassador of Christ (n.27)
Looking at priests, the Council says that they are the bishop’s helpers and as such are called to serve the People of God. In the globalized world of today the Council calls upon priests to “wipe out every kind of division so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God” (n.28)
Deacons, the Council states, are “at a lower level of the hierarchy”, and are ordained, “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service”. The Council restored the permanent diaconate, recommending that it be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. (n.29) Allowing married men to be deacons was a significant change in Church order.
The document then devotes an entire chapter to the baptized laity, the vast majority of the People of God. The Council fathers recognize lay people’s part in the mission of the Church, and ask that they be given full freedom to exercise their gifts and talents in this service. “Upon the laity therefore rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land. Consequently let every opportunity be given them so that, according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church” (n.33).
The Council document on the Church has three more chapters before concluding. There is a chapter on those consecrated men and women in the religious life. There is a chapter on the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church. And there is a chapter on the universal call to holiness.
“The Lord Jesus, the Divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples, regardless of their situation… Thus it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (n.40)
The universal call to holiness is a distinguishing mark of this Council. Previous Councils gave the impression that their objective was to preserve true doctrine, to prescribe rules of conduct or to condemn errors. This Council document makes clear that the Church is about something more fundamental, that the Church’s main concern is about holiness for all.
The list of Catholic saints could give the impression that holiness is the preserve of bishops, priests and those consecrated in the Religious Life. This document on the Church opens the door to all the faithful, and says to them: You are all called to be saints. By faithfully carrying out the duties of your state in life you too can reach the heights of holiness to which God is calling you. Holiness is for all. (n. 41)