Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Virtual Papacy Of Benedict XVI

I know I seem like a dog with a bone, but I really have to go back to this. It's still big news, and at the end of my last post I included a link which had some fascinating content and I didn't have the chance to follow it further.

It was Benedict XVI's farewell address to the clergy of the Roman diocese. The audience took place in the middle of February and was noteworthy both for its elegaic tone and for a case of straightforward scapegoating of the media.

The pope gave personal reminiscences of the preparations and work of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when "We were full of hope, enthusiasm and also of good will." He recalled the development of the various doctrinal statements. He concluded by drawing the following distinction. "There was the Council of the Fathers - the true Council - but there was also the Council of the media... And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed liturgy trivialized ... and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council." (my italics)

Come on now, could the pope really read my book and not honestly cite it! This distinction repeats precisely the central idea I developed in Virtually Christian: the existence of virtual Christianity in popular culture outside the official institutions. Only the pope saw as negative what I saw as positive!

Benedict blames the mass media, for popularizing, trivializing and de-centering what should have been closed off, serious and centered.

But, hang on again, just for a moment, I was also there right at the time... in a seminary just like he describes and, for the sake of the record, it was actually nothing like that.

We were a bunch of students and priests and the only media we read on the Council were the Catholic journals. And it was not the media that was pushing the change, it was the seminarians and priests. By far the majority of transformations in our lifestyle and attitudes came from within the student body itself and the priests who were its mentors. In meeting after meeting we abandoned elements of rule, including strict timetable and clerical dress, sought and received permission to smoke, to visit each other's rooms, to watch hours of T.V., etc. Everything was decided by the strongest voices invoking the Council principles of aggiornamento (bringing up to date) and renewal. At the same time there was a powerful self-questioning going on in many, including many priests, about whether they in fact had a calling at all. Many people simply left. Everything happened in a massive spontaneous upwelling and there was not one single source to blame, unless it was the "true Council".

If the truth is told the Council itself embraced a massive "virtuality" in the very sense I used it in my book: the sense that the church could be open to the world because God was also dynamically at work there.

Here are a couple fairly representative statements (with due apologies for the Latinate prose). "Thus, far from thinking that works produced by man's own talent and energy are in opposition to God's power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's grace and the flowering of His own mysterious design." And "Christ is now at work in the hearts of men through the energy of His Holy Spirit, arousing not only a desire for the age to come, but by that very fact animating, purifying and strengthening those noble longings too by which the human family makes its life more human and strives to render the whole earth submissive to this goal." (From the document, Gaudium et Spes [Joy & Hope]).

But if you try to reconstruct a still-hierarchical church on sudden openness to this kind of virtuality I think you're going to get the results the pope describes. The impact is overwhelming and unpredictable. But maybe that was just what the Spirit was proposing! In which case the Spirit was saying that the days of the massive top-down institution are over. Which, again, is the argument of Virtually Christian and its chapter on the emergence of the single-cell church: a newly-evolving creature swimming freely in the sea of Christian virtuality...

Underlining this shift we have to recognize that Benedict's action resigning the post as "Successor of Peter" basically says that Peter looked elsewhere for help and authority: exactly as I pointed out in the story of James of Jerusalem taking the initiative over the actual Peter (Acts 15, see pp.175-77). It's impossible to have this both ways. Once Benedict cited the contemporary questions of relevance to faith and someone else needing to deal with them, then either Peter is not quite Peter, or he is exactly Peter---one of many brothers and sisters who reach out to each other in serving the church. In this way he has critically demystified the "eternal papacy".

Here is a quote from a wonderful interview with Dr. Tom Schirrmacher, chair of the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission, someone who has followed the career of Benedict very closely. It says exactly this in a gentle, clear way.

"(Benedict) once said to the cardinals that a pope is fallible most of the time. In most of his masses and addresses there are hints that he makes mistakes, that he seeks forgiveness from God and the Church, and that he can only hope that God will protect him from wrong decisions. That even applies to his short resignation announcement. This was not the case with John Paul II. That includes the continual indications made by Benedict that he is not head of the church but rather that Jesus is."

To deconstruct the papacy in this way is no accident. It is to admit that the old monolithic structures no longer do the job, indeed they are no longer necessary. Pope Benedict XVI was, whether he admitted it or not, a man of contemporary Christianity, of its intense modern "virtuality". His last act as pope was to surrender the papacy to this emerging and thrilling new meaning.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian

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