Reconciling Faith and Modernity in the Aging Catholic Church
By Thomas Mattes
From 1981 until his election as Pope in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI as we know him now, was the Vatican’s primary theologian. With Pope John Paul II travelling the world, receiving the praises of the masses for his humanitarian causes and amicable persona, Ratzinger stayed home, working in the background to foster an ideology of wide-reaching conservatism, seeking to end and retract the liberalization brought forth with the Second Vatican Council twenty years earlier.
As Pope, he has done what he could to maintain this course. He has worked to position relativism as the great villain of the 21st century, forcing the unknowing faithful into a modern world where moral truths are left to subjectivity. He has spent his career fighting the increasing secularization of the Church and the world at large that carries this relativism into his church, shaping a Vatican that stands as the last bastion of tradition in the face of the tidal wave of modernity. No same-sex marriage. No abortion. No condoms. No female priests. He hates Communists, but he is not fond of Capitalists either. As long as he was there, the modern world would only be allowed so much ground. He not only put up barriers against modernity, but he more often than not refused to admit to its increasingly inevitable arrival.
And yet, with his resignation from the Papacy on February 11th, he has opened the Vatican’s doors to the secular and modern world in a way never encountered before. With this one decision he has negated his life’s work. The Second Vatican Council may have liberalized the church. The Popes may have formerly conquered and held court like kings. But never before has the position seemed so utterly secular. Never before has the man holding the keys to the kingdom of Heaven seemed so utterly fallible.
The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415. That was a time when three men in three differing locations all claimed the leadership of the church. To finally end the conflict, the popes and anti-popes were forced to resign and a new Pope, Martin V, was elected. There were no resignations for 598 years, and even Pope Gregory’s resignation was undeniably very different. This is a moment without precedent.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to talk about Ratzinger without talking about the failures of the Church in recent years. People are attending mass less and less. Young people are either leaving the church in droves or never involved themselves in the first place. There is a shortage of priests like never before. And even now in the developing world where John Paul had found so much room for growth, the church struggles to compete with the rapid growth of evangelism and that same increasing modernity broughtwith this globalized world.
Worst of all perhaps, Ratzinger has done next to nothing to address the issue of sex crimes by the clergy—a blight like no other for the Church’s faithful worldwide.
Ratzinger’s time as Pope has been problematic at best. He has sought to grapple with the issues of the modern world and push back at increasing secularization, but he has largely failed. Now to cap it all off, with this resignation, he has admitted to the absolute impotence of his own papacy and increasingly the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although the Vatican is indeed responsible for real, practical issues—administrative, political, financial, social—the role of the Pope itself is one of primarily religious and symbolic purpose.
Since the time of St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, the Pope has been entrusted with the symbolic position of the Shepherd guiding the flock towards Heaven. In paintings, tapestries and stained glass windows, the Pope holds the keys to the kingdom of Heaven entrusted to St. Peter and his successors by Jesus. The Pope is the rock upon which the church is built. It is a position that, over thousand of years, has been manipulated, bought and sold, and devalued. However, no matter these political and historical complications, the position of Pope is one of first and foremost symbolic significance. He is the spiritual guide. There is nothing physical, nothing carnal, nothing of the flesh, to consider.
Upon his resignation, Ratzinger announced: “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
John Paul, for all the complications involved in his papacy, at least understood that physical strength is insignificant; strength of the spirit is what matters to the faithful. John Paul’s last days were spent in agony as far as we can tell. Wracked with Parkinson’s’ Disease, he went on. His was a life of suffering, but of carrying on with that suffering. He fought in the Polish Resistance against the Nazis, he completed his studies in secret. And he died old and sick and likely in great pain. He died as a manifestation of extreme faith—something to be expected considering his charisma, and his care for the world’s faithful. He understood that every time he stood on the balcony at St. Peter’s and struggled to lift his head, every Catholic saw and felt his suffering—evidence that everyone suffers, but that even in suffering, there is still faith. His death was one of great symbolic importance, fitting for a position based on, more than anything else, great symbolic importance.
Now we have a Pope who has allowed the secular world to overcome his spiritual position—who has allowed the troubles of the flesh to overcome him. There is a reason that Showtime has a series called The Borgias and not The Roncallis—because Rodrigo Borgia had a bunch of bastard children and got a lot of people killed and Angelo Roncalli led the Second Vatican Council. Nobody finds theology entertaining. Nobody finds faith entertaining. Yet, there is a reason so many people rely on it. There is a reason Rodrigo Borgia is a despised villain and there is a reason John Paul is so loved.
The Pope and his Church exist not for this world. He exists for a world that we cannot see or touch but that exists for so many people nevertheless: that of faith.
Ratzinger has spent his entire life attempting to hold back the perceived assault that has carried this material world over into that of the spiritual. Yet, here he stands, bowing out when he is weak and old, unable to handle the day to day.
He has left without precedent. The tidal wave of secularism and relativism and unabashed, unforgiving modernity has crashed ashore. For 85 year-old Joseph Ratzinger, the flesh has won out and worn out, and he cannot, so he thinks, adequately lead.
This is a loss that may never be overcome, that may never be reversed. For now, it is time to recognize that this world has enough leaders, and could use a few more Shepherds.