The most poignant, and ironic, commentary on Pope Benedict XVI resigning was not how it shocked the world. It was how it did not.
If you belong to the faithful, of course, which most of the people of this country do, it was the most shocking thing in the world. At the very least because it was unexpected. It hadn’t happened in six centuries. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, in days when the Church was still an imperial power, and he was locked in a power struggle with a rival ironically enough named Benedict XIII. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time, a time when the Catholic Church is wracked by scandal and a dwindling faithful, or an increasing faithlessness. The message it sent, not entirely subliminally, was that the Pope had gotten spent, as much spiritually as physically, and given up.
At the very most because, well, Benedict was the one Pope that made our very own Chito Tagle a cardinal just a few months ago, and who has looked upon him as some kind of protégé. Thereby giving us a foot in the door to the Vatican. It would be interesting how the election for the next pope, which is expected to heat up over the next few months culminating on Easter Sunday, plays out. Not quite incidentally, Tagle, being a cardinal, will be a qualified candidate, though a very dark horse even if he is nominated. It’s something we’re bound to monitor with keen interest, if not enthusiasm.
Alas, not so the world. You saw that in the coverage of the Pope’s resignation in Google and Yahoo. The news flared out like a meteor for a few hours late last Monday and disappeared just as fast. The following day, Google still had it as one of its headlines, but it had been overtaken by the second anniversary of the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and other news around the world. Yahoo had buried it among the items down its page, and it didn’t even appear in the 10 items in its “Trending Now” section. Of course, that probably just shows how parochial America is, imagining how its football holds the world in thrall, but it does say something as well about how unimportant the Vatican’s doings have become to the world today.
All this reminded me of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and William Carlos Williams’ poem of the same title that drove home its point. In that landscape, life pulsed everywhere one spring day while “unsignificantly/ off the coast/ there was/a splash/ quite unnoticed/ this was/ Icarus drowning.” What a brilliant reduction of the earthshaking to the trivial, the sublime to the paralytic, Icarus thrashing about in a corner of the sea while the world reveled in itself and blithely moved on. I got the same impression from the Pope’s resignation.
Far more than Benedict’s actual resignation, it’s the relative lack of impact it had for much of the world that’s the more dismaying. It shows more than anything else how the Catholic Church has been epically diminished in the eyes of the world. Indeed, it shows more than anything else how the Catholic Church stands at a watershed, or crossroads, in history between continuity and obscurity, relevance and irrelevance, life and death. If you’re one of the faithful, of course, it won’t occur to you that the Church can possibly die. But if you’re not, which much of the world is, it most certainly can.
Part of the problem is personal. I did say after Benedict stepped into the Shoes of the Fisherman that it was a case, too, of the sublime lapsing into the paralytic. After John Paul II plucked the Church back from its drift toward obscurity and gave it back some of its luster, there came a successor that looked guaranteed to return it to where it was. Which was what happened. If John Paul II brought the Vatican back to the world, Benedict withdrew the Vatican from the world. If John Paul II saw one success after another, Benedict saw one scandal after another. No wonder then that if John Paul II soldiered on though weary to the bone, there was too much to do and little time to do it, Benedict gave up, being weary to the bone, there was just too much to do and he wasn’t the person to do it.
But the other part of the problem, and probably the bigger part, is the institution itself. In many ways the Vatican mirrors on a grander scale what has happened to the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
Like the local Church, the Vatican has seen a great deal of its moral authority eroded by taints of immorality. The world now is more likely to take their moral cue from a Nelson Mandela than from the Pope. Like the local Church, the Vatican has met demands by its faithful for it to be more relevant to the times not by dialogue but by dogma: Only the Vatican and the Philippines now excoriate contraception and divorce. Like the local Church, the Vatican hierarchy is getting not new blood but more of the same. Europe and the United States now find Catholics a minority, it is in Latin America and Africa where they are either the majority or continue to grow. Yet popes remain Europeans, and predominantly Italians.
The Catholic Church does stand at the crossroads today. These are uncertain times, turbulent times, violently changing times. Times that will probably see the collapse of the American Empire—it’s already on the decline— over the next decade or so with all its unsettling effects. Can the Vatican still work a miracle, renew itself, and lead the world through the wilderness, or will it just go by the wayside?
Believers call the Catholic Church the “Rock,” meaning by it that it will last forever the way rocks do. But cynics call the Catholic Church the “Rock” meaning by it that it has become fossilized, and things that are fossilized die the way rocks do.
Who’s right and who’s wrong, we’ll know soon enough.