"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, April 15, 2019

Ratzinger's Guilty Conscience

I thought I'd wait until the immediate rush of commentary on Ratzinger's latest letter had passed in order to see how those comments have shaped up. There has, of course, been the predictable fawning over his letter from the usual crowd, who find in it confirmation of all their devoutly held ideological nostrums about sex and the 60s. I have said over the years that for some liberal Catholics, including many in my native Canada, it's always 1968; but what I didn't realize until now is that Ratzinger the supposed "conservative" and "traditionalist" is himself un soixante-huitard of the most intransigent sort.

"1968" is clearly for him what Vamik Volkan calls a "chosen trauma" conveniently invoked to justify all sorts of things--bad liturgy, bad moral theology, bad priests abusing kids--but nary a word about bad bishops or popes who were themselves abusers or participated in a cover-up, and who bear sole responsibility for advancing to the episcopate the men now resigned in disgrace, deposed from office, or jailed. Ratzinger's silence in this regard is deafening.

But there has also been some interesting commentary "across the aisle" as it were--or, perhaps better, commentary which is not playing to type in some of the things it both criticizes and praises. One of the most interesting things I have noted in the Church in the past year or so is the turning upside down of a lot of the politics. Thus we find Ratzinger's letter being criticized by people often labelled "conservative" and those often considered "liberal" are seen criticizing him in different ways--while both sides end up agreeing with each other in certain limited and unexpected ways. In witness of this, see Carl Olson's editorial on Ratzinger's letter, and Massimo Faggioli's column in Commonweal. But do not fail to consider Justin Tse's fascinatingly original essay which surfaces many of Ratzinger's caricatures while also considering the problems raised by being too much in thrall to von Balthasar's aesthetics.

Apart from Christopher Altieri's column in the Catholic Herald, every word of which deserves careful re-reading, virtually nobody looked at the problems of power and structures in Ratzinger's letter, which fairly drips with sneering condescension at those issues, an astonishingly adolescent reversal from a nonagenarian who, more than almost any other major Catholic leader of the 20th century, had written more extensively and more intelligently on such reforms, and done so going back at least to 1970. For him, at this very late hour, to pour scorn on the very concept of structural and political reform in the Church today can only be taken an an attempt to buffer his conscience from the slings and arrows of his super-ego, which is plainly rebuking him for his failures in this regard, leading to the acute expressions of guilt we find in the text.

But before I criticize him, let me note and underscore that what follows is written by someone who, until this week, ceded nothing to anybody in his respect for the writings of Joseph Ratzinger. I have been reading them since at least 1997, the year I was received into the Catholic Church when my sponsor gave me a copy of Ratzinger's Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology as a gift to commemorate my reception. After that I quickly devoured other Ratzinger books: The Feast of Faith, Called to Communion, Principles of Catholic Theology, Milestonesand The Spirit of the LiturgyThis latter, along with Feast of Faith, are two books I have assigned to students for more than a decade in courses on liturgy.

If you read my first book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, you will see there my giving him credit for being a real pioneer in certain ecclesiological trajectories. I defended him publicly over the years from people--including those in Catholic theology faculties--who were content to slander him without ever having read a single book by him. (My book has one of my favourite pictures of him on the front cover.)

That picture conveys something of the very high hopes I had for his papacy. But my exuberance was misplaced for in the end his papacy did only two things of significance: the enormous good of Summorum Pontificum, liberating the liturgy for local communities to decide; and resigning his office, which as I said at the time and have ever after repeated was a wholly welcome burst of iconoclasm of the best sort: a smashing of the false image of the pope as some demiurge, some super-bishop, some sempiternal "father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world" (as the old coronation formula put it). Au contraire: if every other bishop in the world is expected to resign at 75 there is no theologically coherent reason for the bishop of Rome to be held to a different standard. Within all the absurd mewling in reaction to his resignation one found not a word of theology but only the emotional meltdown of an infantilized people.

The only way I can understand this letter is to see it as an attempted justification of his inaction from 2005 to 2013. He failed, as pope, to do many of the things he said should be done, above all in reforming the structures of the Church. For someone who had--starting at least as far back as 1971, and repeatedly in many places--written about the need for such reforms, the fact that he did nothing must be weighed against him. The closest he came to any action was in 2006 when he monkeyed about with the title "patriarch of the West" but then failed to follow up, leading to wholly unnecessary panic on the Orthodox side which I spent no little energy trying to tamp down in a number of articles and lectures--and again addressed in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy.

So he knew and plainly knows the need for structural reforms, and clearly has a guilty conscience in this regard. There is no other explanation for this new text's fatuous question, "Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed." It is impossible to see this as anything other than a counsel of despair of the most cravenly self-justifying sort. Nobody is calling for the creation of another Church, and the desire to reform the one true Church given by Christ is not an "experiment," nor has it "failed": it has not yet been tried, but it must be, precisely to make her pure for Him who is her bridegroom.

Lest we miss the point, he later elaborates by using the standard tactic of people who inhabit a crypto-monophysite ecclesiological imaginary rather than a real Church. Thus he vaguely waves his hand fearfully in the direction of some supposedly sinister thing called "politics" by immediately trying to claim that calls for reform conceal some kind of "political" agenda:
Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms.
Perhaps there are bishops who do this (can he name any of them, or cite their writings?). But serious proposals for reconceiving and reconfiguring the Church are not drawn from, say, German polities or American federalism, or the Westminster model of cabinet governance. (Even if they were, there's nothing wrong with such provenance necessarily. The Church has long despoiled the Egyptians in many ways. Does he not remember Dvornik's documenting how the very language and structures we still use--e.g., diocese, prefect, metropolia, province--are taken from the political structures of the Roman Empire?)

Rather, serious proposals for reform are drawn, as I do in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power from within the Church's tradition fully conceived and broadly understood. They are first and last theological proposals drawn from within, not "secular" or "political" solutions imposed from without. It's time to let go of this bogus binary.

Ratzinger's letter continues: "the crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope."

This is another tedious bogeyman. Nobody who is serious, least of all me, regards the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the "pillar and bulwark of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15), as unacceptable. And nobody is proposing to replace it with a "self-made Church"--whatever that is. This is silliness on stilts.

But it cannot be denied by anybody that the present structures in the Church are plainly and fully unacceptable for they have aided and abetted the present crisis, and are retarding any serious reforms. Such unjustified and unjustifiable structures must be taken up by us, using our hands and minds and brains and gifts, all given by God, to find new forms, new structures, to prevent such abuses--which are always and everywhere abuses of power and sex simultaneously--from ever occurring again. Absent such structural reforms, all the appeals in the world from Ratzinger for better liturgy, for overcoming "atheism," and for "spiritual" reform in the Church will be grossly incomplete and inadequate at best.

Is this "self-made"? As opposed to what? Given his once-brilliant intellect, surely he cannot fondly imagine, like the "Nestorians" in Waugh's uproarious Black Mischief, that the Church, untouched by human hands and fully formed in every respect by God alone, just fell down from heaven during one Good Friday luncheon some years back? Given his ecclesiological self-awareness, he knows the role of humans shaping and re-shaping the structures of the Church--dioceses, conclaves, episcopal elections, parish councils, etc. He himself called for human beings to do more of that re-shaping in his writings going back to at least 1970.

If being "self-made" is bad, why would he call, e.g., for removing many responsibilities out of Rome and back to the regions in the decentralization he advocated in, e.g., God and the World? If "self-made" reforms are bad, then surely Summorum Pontificum should be retracted for it was his very self that made such reforms possible, along with others--e.g., the Anglican ordinariates. Should we retract those arrangements and pitch out former Anglicans?

Surely these and other reforms proffered by him must be reprobated (by the logic of ecclesiological crypto-monophysites) as "self-made"--or is that only a problem when performed by anyone other than a pope?

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