Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Pope Benedict XVI Can Avoid "becoming a sort of Dali Lama in papal dress"

The National Catholic Reporter has a translation of a very insightful March 14th commentary on the current crisis of authority in the Catholic Church by Italian political scientist and philosopher Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a lay professor at the University of San Raffaele in Milan. NCR says Della Loggia is widely regarded as one of Italy’s foremost commentators on Catholic affairs, despite being a self-professed nonbeliever himself.

Speaking of the pastoral letter Benedict XVI sent to the world's bishops to address negative reactions to his leadership among Catholics, Jews and secular Europeans, Della Loggia writes: "The letter and its contents betray feelings of anxiety and disappointment which, in reality, bring something much more important into view: a basic crisis of authority that today is felt at the very top of the church.

"Contradictions accumulated over the last half-century are coming to a head with regard to the role of the pope, which has undergone a profound historical transformation. That transformation has two principal causes, with which popes have had to come to terms: the advent of television, and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)."

Della Loggia recalls how John XXIII, in leading the church and convoking the council, realized the importance of communicating through television and used it sagely to cultivate his media persona as "good Pope John." Unfortunately, della Loggia suggests, this tended over time to make the pope dependent on the approval of the public who watched TV, and accountable to their sense of political correctness. Always craving favorable media attention, the pope runs "the risk of becoming a sort of Dali Lama in papal dress."

Coupled with that, della Loggia adds, was Vatican II's role both in bringing liberal and conservative political parties to light within Catholicism and in fueling their competing positions going forward. Both sides realized the importance of using the media to press their positions publicly on the pope and to criticize him publicly when he departs from their vision of what the church is, what positions it should take, how it should be operated, and the like.

Della Loggia concludes that having to account to the public and these Catholic parties can tend to rob the pope of the spiritual independence he used to have and can, as it appeared to in the current controversy, leave him "painfully, irrevocably alone."

I think della Loggia's analysis is accurate for the most part. I would modify it, however, by arguing that despite John Paul II's superior skill at manipulating the media to endear himself to the public and the faithful, the pope never had as much spiritual independence as della Loggia suggests, or as the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) wanted him to have.

Moreover, one of the accomplishments of Vatican II, one which may yet prove enduring, is that it situated the authority of the pope in the context of other authorities--especially the pope and the bishops teaching together, and all of them on concert with carefully schooled theologians and devoted lay people.

Despite the conservative-liberal disagreement, the bishops, theologians and lay experts at the Council achieved consensus on an amazing variety of issues. The pope avoids becoming "a Dali Lama in papal dress" by repeatedly upholding that consensus, and by insisting that any changes to it are made only after a new consensus is worked for and achieved.

And that isn't restricted to changes conservatives want or changes liberals want or changes desired by dialogue partners like Jews and Muslims and non-believers. It also includes changes theologians want and changes the pope himself favors. He remains relevant by promoting dialogue and mutual persuasion, and by insisting that no parties of lesser authority than the Second Vatican Council get their way until they can forge a new consensus similar in scope, breadth, depth and weight. Until then, those individual wants are proposals, having no official prominence until enough believers find them persuasive.

This has been my issue with all of the popes since Paul VI issued Humanae vitae in 1968 and began what is now a 40-year papal attempt to make Vatican II say things it never said and support interpretations of Catholic church history which it never endorsed.

Benedict XVI still has a chance to become the first post-Vatican II pope to resume the models of church teaching and church governance that Vatican II favored. Given his track record as Cardinal Ratzinger and pope, I do not hold my breath. But who knows what surprises the Spirit who inspired the Council may have in store?


Joseph O'Leary said...

Dalai Lama, please, not Dali. The Dalai Lama has been a respected religious leader for decades.

Gerald T Floyd said...

Sorry. I notice that I borrowed the mis-spelling from the original commentator and failed to catch it. Thanks for the correction.