By Tom Krattenmaker
Within minutes of the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation, the wags, soothsayers and odds makers launched headlong into speculations about who will succeed him as the head of perhaps the most important, influential and troubled religious body on the planet.
As fascinating as these speculations are, the most important question is not who will lead the church but how, and toward what? With papal succession in the air, what better time to dream of a new kind of Vatican and Catholic hierarchy that is actually worthy of the devoted Catholics still in the pews, and still out there at the soup kitchens and justice meetings showing “the Church” at its best?
The American Catholics I know often put up with raised eyebrows when they reveal to new friends and acquaintances that they’re active Catholics. How could they be part of an institution that engages in job discrimination against women? That preaches democratic values while working top-down and often in secret, sometimes going so far as to order parishes to take this or that stand on a political issue without asking for input? That promotes an inspiring message about care for the most vulnerable — but that covers up and minimizes the human consequences of priests’ sexual predations on youths in the interest of protecting the church’s standing and reputation?
Yes, this is what Catholicism looks like to many in the broad mass of the public outside the Church. An attractive picture it is not. Closer to the ground, things look a whole lot better. More than popes, cardinals and bishops, “the Church” is also the movement of devoted parishioners and humble nuns who put their hearts on the line for suffering people in their communities, and who take inconvenient political action that defies the usual left/right, black/white orthodoxies and comforts.
The Church has shed followers in droves over the years of the global sex abuse scandal, to be sure. What’s remarkable, though, is that millions upon millions have remained devoted, through thick and thin. Though it’s hard to see through the smoke of church officials’ misdeeds, Catholicism still stands for, and still has the the potential for, propagating the greater good. Those who keep this hope alive deserve a Church hierarchy worthy of their principled commitment.
Benedict’s legacy? Yes, he apologized for and met with victims of the Church’s sex abuse crimes, but critics will emphasize that he did far too little to intervene and report when he was in a position to do so. Yes, he took steps to foster dialogue with Muslims, but only after amplifying the idea that Islam is evil. Progressives with expectations for a Church more enlightened on issues such as contraception, same-sex relationships and inclusion of women will not remember him in a positive light.
Vatican II anniversary
The newly sparked conversations about Benedict’s legacy and his prospective successors come in the midst of an intriguing anniversary year. It has now been 50 years since Vatican II, the council credited with nudging Catholicism into the modern world and giving a long-overdue breath of fresh air to an institution that was still celebrating Mass in Latin.
To more reform-minded Catholics, and to those non-Catholics invested in the best of the Church and its future, what might a spirit of Vatican II look like in 2013 and beyond? An institution that is more transparent, more democratic in its organizational structure and conduct, more inclusive of women and gay people. This is not for reasons of political correctness or popularity, but because of very real moral and Christian values that undergird those ideals.
More important, we can hope the new pope can lead the creation of a Church that fully lives up to the commitment that Catholicism espouses so compellingly: the imperative to stand up for the abused and forgotten. Especially when the Church itself is the perpetrator of the abuse, and when doing the right thing will come at a cost to the Church.
Can this dream start to become reality under the next pope? Probably not, given what Vatican experts are saying about the pool of candidates from whom Benedict’s successor will be chosen. But those buoyed by Catholicism’s principles and potential can dream a little, can’t they?
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, to be released in April.