The Popeless Breath

By Joe Boon

At eight o’clock on the evening of the 28th of February, the holy see becomes vacant and the ossified Pope Benedict XVI discards his white robes and dons his old dusty crimson as Cardinal Ratzinger. After an indeterminate breath of time (there won’t be the usual mourning) the Cardinals under the age of eighty will cloister themselves in a historic conclave to set about electing the 266th bishop of Rome.

They are not by any stretch spoilt for choice. The Catholic Church is at a dire crossroads, crumbling under the weight of conservatism delaying a long postponed rendezvous with the modern world, shamed by its disgusting compliance in the revelations of clergy raping and molesting children, and eroded by the intolerant stubbornness of its position on female priests and married clergy, while poaching the married Anglican priests to try to maintain its pathetically waning priesthood. The resignation of the pontiff (and since the last three have been inaugurated rather than crowned, I shall not employ the term abdication) presents a golden opportunity to turn the ship around and steer it to calmer and altogether more ecumenical waters. 

The Catholic Church claims 1.2 billion followers, a figure presumably reached by comparing baptismal records. The actual number of practicing Catholics therefore is much smaller, nonetheless the true figure is significant and the Church is extremely influential. The expanding congregations in Africa, South America, and Asia indicates that in the developing world the Church hold immense sway, its capacity to improve the lot of hundreds of millions is very high indeed. However, the Church has and is poisoning this very capacity by refusing to budge on issues like sexuality, contraception, the empowerment of women, and maintaining a supercilious outlook on other religions, thereby hurting the chances of religious cooperation. That is the case for a new direction, possibly a third Vatican council to redefine the role of the priest and the place of women, among a host of other issues.

It would not be unheard of or even unprecedented for the Church to alter its doctrines, it did so with the nauseating belief in limbo as “a place on the edge of hell” for unbaptised children killed in infancy. This was repudiated in 1992 when the church decided that although the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to have first been baptised, God is not bound by his own sacraments and may save them if he wishes. Since the logic that God is not bound by his own sacraments and therefore presumably his own statements, the Church could validate the reversal of almost any doctrine. It could recognise homosexuality on the grounds that Jesus preached the golden rule of love thy neighbor as thyself, therefore since God passes the final judgement, the Church could ignore the ugly scribblings of Leviticus and still wholeheartedly embrace the teachings of Christ, on whom the Church is based. It certainly would not be beyond the pale to do so, the rules for selling one’s daughter into slavery are wisely ignored, as are the godly warnings about idols (where would the church be without the veneration of saints, and the rich history of religious iconography).

No, there is no valid excuse for holding back on drastic reform. However, after nearly 35 years of ardent conservatism in the holy see, the college of cardinals has been bled dry of liberals and progressives. That brings the shortcomings of the Church’s capacity to produce a reformist pope into grave doubt. Change may be forced upon the succeeding pontiff, for without it the Catholic Church can only expect fewer ordinations, more empty pews, and a public that is after their scandalous clergy. Individual parishes and diocese must foster grassroots demand for reform, and not leave it to an empty chasuble Vicar of Christ. 

This is an exciting time to be looking on the Catholic Church from the point of view of a secular humanist. While it is true that I favour the decline of faith and hope that more people will shake off the mind forged manacles of religious belief, I see the potential good the Church can do with its great power and influence. This popeless breath could be the most important moment for the Church this century, I sincerely hope the chance is grasped by the new pope.

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