Commenter Devin noted my statement yesterday:
I just want what popes for the past twenty-odd years have not given us: a reason to hope.
Devin asked me to explain, citing …
That is a pretty broad and, especially consider the majority of what John Paul II and even Benedict said was speaking about what the faith was about and not what it was against.
That is a fair request, but not one I felt I could do justice in a combox. Hence a new post on it.
My problem with the popes of 1978-2013 had nothing to do with faith. JP2 and B16 were men of faith. This is indisputable.
As a Roman Catholic, I respect the office of the pope. I question authority, but I am not a pure anarchist or congregationalist. People in authority have to make tough calls in whatever field they are in. As a parent, I’ve experienced this reality first hand in a very personal way. I think–I hope–I’ve gotten better as a parish minister and supervisor of volunteers over the past several years.
That popes make decisions I disagree with is not a dealbreaker. They know things I don’t know. They have insights I lack. I accept their leadership, even if I might question particular judgments they make.
Popes also appoint people and delegate authority. I do not think these popes did a good job on key positions in the curia. And I think many American bishops appointed for the past fifteen years or so have been poor. That is no secret from readers on this site. Dating back to the early 80’s, there have been some spectacularly poor choices: Mahony, Bevilacqua, Walsh, Law, George, Rigali, Finn, and some others.
I have experienced good episcopal leadership in some dioceses. Rochester had a good man, but not a perfect one. Dubuque, Iowa, has had an excellent man since 1995 until his recent retirement. And some of my liturgy colleagues might differ with me on that call–they wouldn’t have liked the result of his involvement in the 1998 Lectionary. And maybe I wouldn’t have liked it either, and maybe he wasn’t the most stirring preacher, but I’ve seen him in action in other ways. I keep my own counsel on his quality and qualities.
Friends and long-time readers on this blog know that I knew both Kansas City bishops in my six years there. I thought Bishop Finn, despite being inexperienced in leadership, was in some ways an improvement over his predecessor. People know I also worked with the young “orthodox” priest he failed to supervise. The scandal surrounding that affair shocked my wife and damaged my teenage daughter’s faith. And those situations cause me more concern and discouragement than colleagues of mine who are upset about a ruined liturgy and witch hunts against theologians and women religious. (But those matters are of no trivial concern either.)
Rome insists on appointing bishops and other leaders, and while I know this is a novelty of the 20th century, I can still accept it. I also accept that with expansive authority, comes responsibility in kind.
For a pope, that responsibility includes getting advisors under control. The final years of John Paul II were a mess. And I don’t discern Pope Benedict did much to repair this institutionally. Sure, he sidelined Maciel and the LC. But he seemed to misdiagnose the institution-wide problems, and focus instead on fixing the symptoms. Maciel was bad enough, but he was indicative of a culture of … something deeper within the institution. Something dark. Pope Benedict seemed blind to the problems around him. And I saw from the trenches of ministry the sad exodus of people who thought that the Church left them. And how could I argue? Hierarchs had open and serious moral problems. And worse, they didn’t see their flaws as indicative of immorality. And neither did some of their close colleagues.
And what did we get? Scandals in Scotland, Belgium, Africa, Ireland, Philadelphia, and all from supposedly “orthodox” bishops. They were appointed under two popes who seemed to think the sin was outside the Church. Or on its fringes in liberation theology or in communities of religious women. What I saw was a laziness in engaging individuals directly. Cardinal Ratzinger often conducted the CDF in a cowardly way. Or maybe it was aloof. Likely both.
I admit I took comfort knowing I was called by God to be a Catholic when I was ten years old. Literally called on the phone by the pastor whose parish school I attended as an unbaptized lad who liked Religion class and got A’s in it. So if the institution was going to abandon Catholicism, I knew I still had a good bishop, an excellent pastor, fine colleagues, people to serve in the parish, and a domestic Church. I also knew I had many friends who were not as fortunate on several of those fronts.
But I will confess my excitement from the start when I heard “Franciscus” on white smoke day. And I have not been disappointed since.
I’ve always had faith, at least since I was ten years old. Love is an admitted struggle for me.
Hope is something I did not find with the institutional Church, but rather in the people I knew, the ministry in which I was discerned, and in the flavors of a rich Catholic spiritual tradition.
But finally I feel hope about the Church from the top down.
Pope Francis may appoint a clunker or two. He might not reform the curia. But I like what he says about shepherds getting the smell of sheep about them. And I trust a man formed by Ignatian spirituality who now sits in the chair of Peter.
That might rankle a number of people who see themselves as “Benedictine” or “JP2 Catholics.” And I’m happy to talk with them about it if they want.
That’s about all for now. If I need to, I’ll pick up this theme at a later time. But I hope it helps Devin and other readers who may be unsure about what I said, what I meant, or what’s going on in Catholicism these days.