Sunday, April 03, 2005

Postcarolingian reflections

Since Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla hence the title) has finally passed away despite struggling against his infirmities for so long, I'll take the opportunity to muse on his life and the challenges that await his successor. I disagreed with the Pope on a lot of issues but he should be commended for encouraging the Poles to throw off their shackles and for stomping hard on the heads of the Liberation Theologists.

Although the last days of the Pope began when he was rushed to hospital in February, in reality the Papal Twilight began several years ago. When the Pope was well, he was capable of making strong decisions and he didn't care who he upset. A case in point concerns the diocese of Christchurch.

When Bishop Hanrahan died in 1987, my parish priest Father John Cunneen was widely favoured as his successor as he was very popular among the local priests. The Pope however had concerns about the liberalism of the diocese (he was right about the liberalism whether his actions were justified is another question). He rejected the appointment of Cunneen and instead appointed one Monsignor Basil Meeking as Bishop instead. What the link to Meeking's bio tactfully doesn't tell you is that through much of his clerical career, he was working in the Vatican. In particular, he had been working in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the successor to the Inquisition. The Pope didn't so much as ruffle the local feathers, rather he plucked and incinerated them. That was how he ran the Church at the peak of his powers.

The sequel to this anecdote is that a few years later Father Cunneen was first appointed as co-bishop to assist Bishop Meeking and then appointed his successor when Meeking had to retire early (which was unusual in and of itself).

In recent years, the Pope was no longer capable of acting so decisively or even firmly. Matters were kept waiting for a resolution that hardly ever came. Two years ago, matters had so that Cardinal Ratzinger was commenting obliquely that the Pope should get a move on (and within twenty-four hours, he was wishing he hadn't). Hence it's my belief that even if the next Pope was an arch-conservative, he will still seem like an active modernizing Pope compared to John Paul II's last years.

What of the next pope? He'll probably be called John Paul III considering the illustriousness of his predecessor and the probability that he will continue the same uncompromising conservative path. The chief reason for this is that of all the Cardinals that voted in the Conclave that elected John Paul II, only three will be involved in voting for his successor.

The papers generally list several important issues which the next pope will have to confront. To be perfectly honest, most of the issues they raise aren't really all that great. What follows are some of the more credible issues cited in today's Sunday Star-Times:

Birth Control: While many people might have fond hopes that the next Pope will relax prohibitions against Birth Control measures, I have my doubts that this will ever happen. For starters, a modus vivendi has been reached about the issue. Conservative catholics will obey the pope while liberal catholics will continue to defy the pope and, if pious enough, inform their confessor. There is little incentive for the pope to change policy here.

Some people raise the related issue of using condoms to prevent AIDS in Africa. For starters, the major problem here is not the Church but many African Governments and Leaders (e.g. Thabo Mbeki) having heads in the sand. Since the main vector of HIV there is prostitution and casual sex, the people spreading it are hardly likely to be faithful adherents of the papal line on contraception.

Abortion, [fetal] stem cell research and cloning: Why is there even a need for the Pope to compromise? The Vatican is not in the business of funding of medical research.

Married priests, women priests and gay priests: The decline in the number of priests is perhaps the biggest issue confronting the next pontiff. Part of the problem is that the major sources of priesthood are under pressure - the historically poor catholic communities such as the Irish (both Republic and American), the Quebecois and so forth are becoming more sophisticated. Hence the number of males contemplating a life without sex has decreased while large segments of the priesthood contemplate having a wife and kids. For what it's worth, a former priest appears in a TV advertisment for viagra here.

The easiest solution would be to relax the rule against priestly marriage. This isn't a doctrinal rule but was introduced to combat clerical corruption back in medieval times. Since there are now more sophisticated methods of calmping down on corrupt clerics (accountants, audits, etc), there is no necessity for having every catholic priest celibate. Even a modest relaxation would not only make priesthood more attractive but also entice back many ex-priests.

I doubt that the next pope would allow female priests and I would be surprised if he allowed female deacons for which there is historical evidence for in the early church. As for gay priests, what's to change? The Catholic Church has had gay priests for several centuries now without any problems.

Lastly on a lighter note, I must admit to being amused by the origin of the rituals surrounding the death of the Pope. Breaking the Ring of the Fisherman, smashing the Papal Seal, sealing the Pope's apartment and the heads of all Vatican departments save a few to resign their offices. All these have their origin in anti-corruption measures to prevent enterprising officials from forging documents in the emotional tumult of the Pope's death. The Vatican must have been a fun place to work in when these measures were first introduced!