Pope Benedict XVI has resigned. The Canadian press is full of speculation that Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet might be his successor.
But the next pope is going to face momentous challenges. This is especially so if the Roman Catholic Church chooses another pope in the traditionalist mold of Pope Benedict, which Ouellet, by all accounts, certainly is.
In the wake of Benedict’s resignation, the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church are also getting a lot of press coverage. For example, two weeks ago courts forced the publication of thousands of pages of secret files from the archdiocese of Los Angeles. The files concerned decades of child abuse by clergy. Two or three days after the forced release of the papers, in a show of hard-heartedness, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles admitted that it had nevertheless still withheld key documents. These were mostly related to Cardinal Roger Mahony’s role in the cover-ups. As usual, while the Roman Catholic hierarchy has sometimes been long on apology, it remains terribly short on action that looks and feels like true repentance.
Another issue the next pope will face is the growing divide between people sitting in the pews in the West and those in the “Global South,” countries like The Philippines, Nigeria, and Brazil. A number of religious experts point out that the “energy” in the Roman Catholic Church today mostly comes from the South.
Perhaps. But these churches are not without their own issues. When I visited Brazil, fifteen years ago, a bishop had just written a book about the dangers of putting the Bible in the hands of the laity. This attitude might explain why Evangelicalism is growing exponentially in Brazil. But Catholics in the South also do and believe what they want. When I lived in Manila, The Philippines, I was always amazed at how many vendors sold traditional (and absolutely unsafe) herbs and concoctions to induce abortion in the courtyard of the main cathedral. Meanwhile, the Filipino hierarchy was working hard against government plans to begin birth-control education. In my travels through Africa I’ve often heard about and seen Catholics mix traditional religious practices and Catholicism.
But there are surely even more serious issues simmering under the surface in the Global South. The abuse scandals that have exploded in the secular West are waiting to do the same in the South. The difference is that for now, in the South, the cultures are generally more conservative, more accepting of authority, and less able to make use of the courts and public advocacy to get their stories out. Does foot dragging and resistance on the part of the Catholic Church in the West not hint at a similar, and surely more successful strategy in the South? Are we to believe that powerful, politically well-connected leaders in the Global South are not keeping their dirty laundry under wraps?
Another oft-mentioned challenge is that the Roman Catholic Church is a shadow of what it used to be, at least in the West. In Quebec (as in Ireland, or Spain or even Italy), for example, after putting up with generations of cultural and even political control by the church over every aspect of Quebecers’ lives the Quiet Revolution of the sixties ushered in an era where it is now hard to find anyone who goes to church anymore, even when Ouellet was the Archbishop there. Were it not for immigration by Catholics (and priests) from the Global South to Canada and the United States, most Catholic churches would probably have to be shuttered.
Even more difficult for the next pope is that fact that Catholics who still go to church don’t buy what it teaches. Survey after survey shows that when it comes to birth control, or homosexuality, or women as priests, or immaculate conceptions, Catholics believe what they want and not what they’re told.
But one further challenge faces the Roman Catholic Church, a challenge that ties all these others together. The Roman Catholic Church is hierarchical and male-dominated, thus coercive, secretive, and preoccupied with power and political structures to maintain that power. Some of this preoccupation is almost laughable. Robes that clergy wear have more to do with the clothing of officials in the collapsing Roman Empire over 1600 years ago than anything in the Bible. Such robes, of course, put power on display (albeit in a rather comical way). The ongoing resurrection of Latin, the language the pope used for his resignation speech, reminds the laity that what the clergy says is for the clergy first. The laity has no say about who their priests will be, or whether doctrines should be re-examined or changed. But the concentration of power in the hands of a few older men is nowhere as frightening and coercive as it is when it is used to assault children and then protect its own, the perpetrators.
So remind me—why is it that in Ontario we think the Catholic Church ought to run a school system on the public dime?
Of course, Protestant Churches have their own issues—including their own abuse scandals. For that matter, the Canadian government, armed forces, police forces, and even the Boy Scouts also all have had their own well-publicized scandals surrounding abuse of power. Male dominated, secretive, old-boy cultures that preserve power in the higher ranks are a common thread that runs through most of these scandals. Still, it isn’t the case that such scandal means that the church, or the armed forces, or the Boy Scouts ought to be disbanded either. Organizations can and must change.
What is more, the Catholic Church has other, more hopeful and grace-filled stories to tell as well. Pope John XXIII, who called Vatican II, was a bright light of renewal—even if the church since then has tried to put him and his council out of mind. Many Catholic saints gave their lives for the sake of the poor and marginalized. My favorite is Father Damien, who ministered to Hawaii’s lepers until he himself died of the disease. I’m grateful for towering Catholic scholars like Canadians Marshall McLuhan and Charles Taylor. Where most religious conservatives are anti-science, at least when it comes to things like climate change and evolution, the Catholic Church has learned a lot since the days of Galileo. It now leads the way in showing that faith and science don’t need to be at war.
So, in the end, if there is a God, I’m pretty sure he or she will find a way to help steer the Catholic Church beyond the whirlpool of its present problems and on to what Margaret Avison beautifully describes as “more ample, further waters.”
Still, that coercive, hierarchical, male-dominated structure that is especially well designed to protect its own at great cost to innocent children has to go.
Which also means that if he is all that he is advertised, a doctrinaire traditionalist like Marc Ouellet most-certainly should not be given the helm.