Archive for the ‘pope benedict xvi’ Tag

The Papacy is not the Presidency

In a nearly unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI will retire from the papacy at the end of the month.  He has humbly explained that he no longer has strength enough to perform the duties entrusted to him as leader of the universal Catholic Church.  Yet, rather than celebrate the humility of this selfless act, the majority of articles have become an all-out venting session for people to detail the ways in which the Pope, and the Catholic Church more broadly, has failed them.  With headlines like “Farewell to an Uninspiring Pope,” “The Pope Can Still Right the Wrongs,” and articles that describe Pope Benedict XVI as “a theological conservative with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests,” it is clear that we are missing the mark.

These misconceptions are a product of our culture here in the United States. In this country we elect our leader, we suffer through years and months of campaigning, until finally a winner is elected.  We give over our hopes, dreams, and tax dollars to this president. “This will be the time for change,” we think.  We want our government to protect us, to enact policy changes commensurate with our needs.  The President is bound by our Constitution, and we have several branches of government to keep the executive branch in check. We watch and we wait and we eventually write about all of the things that our President is doing, has done, or will do wrong.

The duty of the Pope is not to enact change where the people see fit. We need look no further than the electoral proceedings for a new Pope. The “people” of the Church, by and large, do not have a say in who will be the next leader of the Catholic Church. Rather, a college of a maximum of 120 Cardinals, each under the age of 80, casts a vote. Why the age restriction? Pope John Paul II writes in Universi Dominici Gregis, “The reason for this provision is the desire not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ’s flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.”  Several of these cardinals have been appointed by the Pope himself during his papacy (for example, as of January 26, 2013, there are 118 electors; 51 have been created by Pope John Paul II; and 67 by Pope Benedict XVI).  To continue the parallel to the presidency, it is as if the Supreme Court, appointed mostly by the current president, were the sole electorate.

We hear this electoral process and are outraged that “we the people” do not have a say in the next leader of the Church. Acceptance of this process requires humility, a quality that is at best difficult for most of us to grasp and which is so beautifully modeled by Pope Benedict XVI in his decision to resign from the papacy.  But the duties of the Pope and the President differ dramatically in scope. The President is a public servant—he or she is charged with representing the needs of the people, providing security, so that all who live here may pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The Pope, too, is a servant, and  is the guardian of the universal Catholic Church, and must represent equally the needs of all of her members.  The Pope must steer a 2,000 year old institution through an ever changing world.

What many people simply do not understand is that a Pope, by the very nature of his office, can only do so much. The Catholic Church is steeped in a rich Tradition—a deposit of faith that contains truths passed down from Jesus Christ himself. Having a “conservative” Pope or a “liberal” Pope belies our ignorance…the papacy is not a presidency. We cannot describe the Pope as a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic. There is no such thing—a Catholic is a Catholic. A Pope cannot easily enact sweeping reforms as a President can.  The Pope must work within the confines of Tradition…seeking to elucidate teachings of Jesus in a world that is hostile to any mention of God.  People have criticized the Pope for not changing the Church’s stance on hot button issues such as women in the priesthood, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—without realizing that the Pope does not have the authority to alter Church doctrine.  These teachings are immutable, are founded in Sacred Tradition and Divine Revelation, and by their very nature cannot be changed by a Pope.  Other issues—such as whether or not priests can marry, and the question of priestly celibacy—are church disciplines, which are not immutable, and therefore can potentially be changed if a Pontiff is so inspired.  Encourage a dialogue of respect and create an atmosphere of loving warmth where all are welcome? Create a culture of learning to help the faithful truly understand the Church’s moral teachings? Yes, a Pope can do that.  Alter doctrine? Not within the Pope’s office of power.

The argument should not be that the Pope was too conservative and therefore did not respond to the needs of the Church. The Church, as a thousands year old institution, must proceed with caution. Christ himself put these teachings in place because he knew that the Church is human. Christ knew that times would change and people would want the Church to change right along with it. We have the evidence of these changing times right before us. People speak of the Catholic Church’s oppression of women, when truly, the Church fights for the equality and dignity of women.  Anyone who has ever read Pope John Paul II’s letter to women can see that clearly. But such positive teachings of the Church rarely get traction.  Vatican

So rather than focus on Pope Benedict’s alleged failures, let’s hope and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Catholic Church through times of both light and darkness.

Bob Rice

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