The Vatican in Turmoil

By Volodymyr Kish

The world was shocked last week with the announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as the head of the Catholic Church. The word “shock” is appropriate in that popes seldom willingly resign. In the history of the Papacy, only five popes have ever resigned, the last such occurrence having taken place in 1415. The official reason given by the Pope for his resignation was age and poor health, though I would hazard a guess that the motivations that led to his decision are far more complex. Virtually all of his predecessors carried the burdens of office to their dying breath, regardless of their age and infirmities.

The Vatican has also announced that the soon-to-be ex-Pope will retire to a renovated monastery within the Vatican Gardens for “prayer and reflection” and possibly to engage in theological writing. Although a commendable plan, there have been some grumblings about the potential adverse impact on the newly elected Pope having his predecessor so close by looking over his shoulder. The more cynical critics of the Papacy have also noted that by staying inside the Vatican City State, the retired Pope will retain legal immunity, since once he steps outside its boundaries, he could be subject to legal criminal prosecution for his involvement and possible complicity in the cover-ups surrounding the numerous child sex abuse scandals by Catholic priests since, when he was a cardinal, he was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and responsible for dealing with those issues.

Pope Benedict leaves behind a troubled legacy and a church in some turmoil. Although the Catholic Church still commands the loyalty of some 1.2 billion faithful, there are disturbing trends that pose serious challenges for the Church’s future. While the Church is experiencing rapid growth in the poor and developing corners of the world such as Africa and Asia, in its historical bastions of Europe and the Americas, the numbers of active adherents and the attendance figures in particular, are either stagnant or declining. Closer to home, in the once very Catholic Province of Quebec, where some fifty years ago, over 80% of the population attended church regularly, the current numbers are now below 20%. Over the last 50 years, the number of Catholic priests in Canada has shrunk by more than a half.

The reasons of course are not hard to discern. In the Western World over the past century, the level of education, the moral values, social norms, political and economic structures, all have changed dramatically. Yet, the Catholic Church, with the exception of a brief blip represented by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, has remained firmly rooted in a reactionary historical past, causing it to become increasingly disconnected from the lives, practices and values of its members. Its dogmatic stands on divorce, contraception and abortion, its opposition to liberation theology, its unconscionable actions in covering up child-abuse and protecting pedophile clergy, its autocratic governance processes, its continuing resistance towards gender equality, all have served not only to make it increasingly irrelevant to younger generations of potential churchgoers, but has also created a significant dissident movement within its own clerical and laic ranks.

Although the election of a new pope always brings with it the hope of renewal and constructive change, I have serious doubts whether much will change this time around. Most the 117 voting Cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, both of whom favoured conservatism and strict adherence to church dogma, so the chances of a progressive or liberal pope being elected are slim. Unless the Holy Spirit comes up with a miracle, a revival of the spirit and reformist energy of the Second Vatican Council is not in the offing.

The Church is in dire need of reform and updating of its dogma, governance and its practices. Until recently, this was achieved through convening Ecumenical Councils that brought together all of the leaders and best minds from within the Church. The first of these was the Council of Nicea held in 325 AD. There were 19 more such councils convened frequently in succeeding centuries to deal with the Church’s challenges and issues of the day, ending with the Council of Trent in 1563. Since then, there have been only two more such councils held in almost five hundred years - the First Vatican Council in 1870, and the Second Vatican Council held from 1962-65. Although this last council attempted to institute a more progressive approach to the Catholic Faith, a lot of its reforms and vision have been significantly eroded during the reign of the last two popes. Essentially, the Catholic Church has been stuck in place for the past five hundred years and shows little desire or ability to adapt to modern realities.

The new Pope, whoever he may turn out to be, will be facing a daunting and unenviable task.