Monday, 25 February 2013

Crisis in Rome?

The news that Cardinal Keith O'Brien is to resign from his position as Archbishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh a little early, because of allegations of improper behaviour by him against priests of his diocese is a cause of great sadness - for all concerned. He denies the allegations, and says his resignation is only in order not to draw media attention away from the real business of choosing the next Pope.

That seems to me an honourable thing to do.The media (in this country at least - I wonder whether the rest of the world has taken much notice) would always remember that the next Pope was elected partly by a "tainted cardinal." That would hardly help anyone. Could one vote out of 115 really be the difference between a good Pope and a bad one?

Of course only time will tell whether the charges against Cardinal O'Brien are substantiated, though I suspect they are of a kind which it would be very difficult to prove in court, so we may never really find out. It's unclear what is actually alleged - "inappropriate approach/contact" and "unwanted  behaviour" could mean any number of things, though they imply something far less than outright sexual assault, for example. Whilst all have sinned and fallen short, clearly certain standards are expected of a bishop. The allegations perhaps have more to do with hypocrisy and abuse of power than sexual misdemeanors as such, and to that extent are very serious indeed when applied to a leading figure in the Church.

And herein lies the wider problem for the Roman Catholic Church, one which I hope will be addressed in the choosing of the next Pope. For a great deal of what has undermined the Church is to do with abuse of power. We might remember that it was abuse of power which led to the Reformation in the first place - the Protest was first and foremost against selling indulgences to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. In recent years, the scandal over child abuse by priests would not be half as bad if the institutional Church had not done so much, for so long, to try to cover these things up. Insult really has been added to injury, and abusers have been allowed to carry on abusing (and I'm aware that the Church of England has not been entirely without fault, as the situation in Chichester Diocese attests, for example).

To a modern Western mindset which is inclined to question all sources of authority, abuses of power are particularly damaging. Only if the source of authority comes well out of the questioning can it hope to have any credibility. And one of the questions must be "how is that authority being used?" The result of recent papacies has been to concentrate power in the Vatican. This not only means that there is likely to be a disconnect between the faithful on the front-line and those in charge (shades of the trenches in WW1 anyone?), it also means that blame rests where authority does. Failings in one diocese make the world-wide Church look bad. Popes who want total control need to accept total responsibility too. That hasn't usually happened.

So the crisis for the Roman Catholic Church must be over the approach the next Pope takes. Either assume full responsibility with the power, or decentralize the whole thing, move lots of decision-making away from the Vatican, and make it much more flexible and responsive. I know which I think should happen. I fear neither will.

But at least Cardinal O'Brien, in openly saying that priests might be allowed to marry, and in resigning quickly rather than thinking himself above criticism, has shown the kind of options which might restore the credibility of the Bishops of Rome. He's unlikely to be elected.

Monday, 11 February 2013

A new Archbishop, a new Pope

Well, it's been a long time since my last post, which goes to show that once you get out of the habit of doing something it's hard to get back into it. The pressure of work, with undergraduate interviews in early December, and then being off on holiday (when I therefore had much better things to do with my time) both got me out of the habit. And then I just didn't get back into it for quite a while.

Indeed, this post got started last week, on the day Justin Welby was confirmed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. But I wasn't decided about what to say, and it got put off. But now Benedict XVI has announced his resignation and I feel I ought to get back into the game - though I'm sure the Holy Spirit didn't arrange the resignation purely for the purpose of prompting me to blog again.

So today is quite a momentous day - no Pope has resigned since 1415 (actually of course the momentous day will be February 28th when the resignation comes into effect since he might theoretically change his mind before then). And when Popes have resigned in the past (according to wikipedia) it has not been because of advanced age. It seems that Benedict has decided that he doesn't have the strength to lead the Roman Catholic Church because the pace of modern life is so fast, and the challenges so great, that the won't be able to do the job properly. In a sense it is an admission that the Church faces a crisis far more significant than previously faced by aged Popes. Not in the sense that child abuse scandals present a crisis - I think the crisis goes deeper than the wicked behaviour of a relatively small number of priests.

It seems to me that the challenge faced by the Roman Catholic Church, and also faced by the Church of England, is that we live in an age of rapid communication, much of which is mis-communication. This means that discussions which Christians have between themselves take place too quickly, and between too many people. There isn't the time for reflection there used to be. There isn't a control on who gets to join in. Which means that all too often people say and write things which they might regret later, and all too often things are said across cultural divides without proper cultural translation - leading not to fruitful reflection on the glory of God, but hurt and confusion and anger. Fast communication has tended to lead to arguments - about questions of gender and sexuality most noticeably in recent years.

Now I don't think that discussions of difficult topics are bad for the Church, and I don't think the Church should say to some people that they aren't allowed to have discussions, but I do think it's OK for the Church to try to exercise some kind of influence over the way that discussions are held, so that they tend to be constructive rather than destructive. Discussion is good insofar as it leads to the building up of the saints, but not otherwise.

One way for the Church to influence things is to try to keep a watchful eye over discussion between different cultural groupings, and to try to make sure the necessary translation is happening. This requires a nimble, light-handed approach if it isn't to become oppressive censorship (which is a bad thing). I have a suspicion that Justin Welby has some of the skills for this. I suspect Benedict XVI feels he lacked the energy for it. I hope his successor will be chosen with a view to doing it.

But both will need the support of the Churches they are trying to lead. This means in part being willing to accept a guiding hand here and there, and it means being willing to sit light to authority structures sometimes (because they tend to stifle real engagement with a discussion by deciding what the outcome should be in advance).

Most of all Justin Welby and the next Pope will need ours prayers as they try to work in extremely challenging times.