The "media conclave," the Nun Pope, and other thoughts

Over the past seven days since we first heard about Pope Benedict XVI’s historic retirement (or resignation, or abdication, whatever one wants to call it), we’ve heard plenty of discussion about what direction the Catholic Church should take with its next Pope.  Some of that has been well-intentioned, if not entirely well-informed, while some has been based on ignorance of both the papal office and the Church itself.  Patheos’ Frank Weathers has called this the “media conclave,” the attempt by media outlets to push secular and worldly concerns into an election as though it were the equivalent to that of an American President, or perhaps more accurately, a parliamentary contest to replace a Prime Minister.

This begins with a misconception of the papacy itself, and one that is both mystifying and dreadfully indicative of a lack of media interest in what the Catholic Church is really all about.  Most commentators begin with the premise that Catholicism is whatever a Pope says it is, acting as a benevolent despot and rewriting Catholic doctrine at will.  Anyone familiar with the Catholic Church knows just how absurd a premise this is, and Ramesh Ponnuru explains this to Margaret Carlson as part of an on-line tête-a-tête at Bloomberg:

This is the picture you give us, Margaret, in the opening lines of your latest shot at Benedict XVI: The pope is “close to all powerful”; he can hire and fire whomever he pleases; he is “infallible when he wants to be.”

If I found this this picture of the papacy true to life, I would agree with you that Benedict’s response to the abuse scandals has been grossly and culpably inadequate. But the papacy does not operate like this. It never has.

During the Reformation, when almost all the bishops of England were in revolt, the pope did not feel himself free to excommunicate the lot of them. And popes had far more power back then. The 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint speaks of the bishops as the pope’s “brothers in the ministry” who must always act in communion. Add to the pope’s modest self-conception modern canon law, which as interpreted by canon lawyers creates even more obstacles to the disciplining of bishops and priests. It is true that no one but the pope can remove a bishop from office. But that doesn’t mean that he can do it whenever he pleases.

As Benedict himself said, it is “very rare” for a pope to claim to speak infallibly: That charism has clearly been exercised only twice since the doctrine of infallibility was formally proclaimed. (In both instances the pope said that beliefs about Mary that had been widely held among Christians going back to the religion’s earliest days were now doctrines of the Church.)

Popes just don’t go around smiting people, even people whom you and I agree deserve smiting. Instead they do things like offer prayers. You suggest that prayer is not a “concrete initiative.” Surely, though, you can understand that popes don’t see it quite that way.

In fact, this last part is so basic a misconception as to stand Benedict XVI’s decision on its head.  Catholics (and other Christians, of course, as well as other faiths) see humanity inhabiting two realities — the material and the spiritual. We believe that both are real and “concrete,” and that “reality” has to account for both.  When the Pope announces that he will resign to concentrate on prayer, he’s not actually “retiring” at all.  He’s merely shifting his focus from the material to the spiritual, and that is most definitely a “concrete initiative,” at least to Catholics and most other Christians.  The material world may disagree, but that’s because it’s focused on the Church’s mission in only the material world.

Other voices seem more intent on provoking debate rather than be taken seriously as suggestions for the upcoming conclave.  E.J. Dionne sparked a lot of heating rebuttals with his column on Friday proposing that the cardinals choose a nun as Pope:

In giving up the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI was brave and bold. He did the unexpected for the good of the Catholic Church. And when it selects a new pope next month, the College of Cardinals should be equally brave and bold. It is time to elect a nun as the next pontiff.

Now, I know this hope of mine is the longest of long shots. I have great faith in the Holy Spirit to move papal conclaves, but I would concede that I may be running ahead of the Spirit on this one. Women, after all, are not yet able to become priests, and it is unlikely that traditionalists in the church will suddenly upend the all-male, celibate priesthood, let alone name a woman as the bishop of Rome.

Nonetheless, handing leadership to a woman — and in particular, to a nun — would vastly strengthen Catholicism, help the church solve some of its immediate problems and inspire many who have left the church to look at it with new eyes.

Frank Weathers scoffs:

Because sending a message is what’s most important, right? Okey dokey. Interestingly, E.J. gives us no candidates whom he finds fit for the Petrine Office. Maybe he should pin his hopes on installing a female Cardinal first, eh? Fr. Dwight Longenecker could serve as color commentator in that event.

Before I get to the core argument, I want say a word about E.J.  I’ve met E.J. and talked with him a couple of times, and while I almost always disagree with him, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or his love for the Church.  E.J. may not be popular with readers, but in person he is a gracious and decent man.  His column seems to be more a pushback against discipline against a particular order of nuns during Benedict XVI’s papacy that didn’t sit well with some Catholics.  Still, I want to address something else E.J. says in this piece:

More than any other group in the church, the sisters have been at the heart of its work on behalf of compassion and justice. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times made this point as powerfully as anyone in a 2010 column. “In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches,” he wrote. “One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch. . . . Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.”

First, there aren’t two Catholic Churches.  The parts function as a whole.  The nuns (and the brothers, by the way, who get short shrift from E.J. and Kristof) providing aid are just as much a part of the Church as Catholic hospitals serving the poor in the US and around the world, the charities and schools, and the churches and their parishioners.  The “all-male Vatican hierarchy” serve to organize the body of the Church to accomplish all of these wonderful deeds, either directly or (mostly) indirectly.  We do this to put our faith into practice in the world, in order to create justice and freedom not just as an end unto themselves — worthy as they are — but so that all people can voluntarily choose the path of salvation based on the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which the hierarchy defends and evangelizes.

Men and women have distinct roles within the Church; that’s well known.  The point of the Church isn’t to model diversity, although we most certainly do.  It’s not to run hospitals and charities, although we pioneered both.  It’s to spread the Gospel and save as many people for the kingdom to come based on the immutable Word of God.

When one considers that mission, the concerns over whether women can be Pope fade to silliness.  So too do many of the issues being raised in the “media conclave,” which has almost unerringly managed to miss the point of the entire affair.  The change of Popes does have implications for evangelization, energizing the Church, and perhaps change in some practices and emphases in teachings — but not doctrines.  Perhaps this week, we’ll see more media attention on those issues rather than condoms and Nun Popes.  And maybe — just maybe — the focus will stay on the Word of God, although I will be pleasantly surprised if it does.

Update: Speaking of media coverage, Fr. Dwight Longenecker‘s occasional contributor and mainstream media analyst Todd Unctuous offers his take on this week’s events:

Rumors are swirling around the centuries old city state–a walled enclave that is like the Kremlin of old. Like the Kremlin, the holy huddle of old men with absolute power are worried about the threatening world outside. Rumors of a conspiracy are swirling around this tiny sect-like group. Was Pope Benedict ousted by a group of power hungry conservatives who regard his papacy as too liberal, or were the plotters a group of renegade nuns who arrived in Rome on a bus? Was he pushed out because he loves the ancient Latin ritural or because he was simply too old? Rumors are swirling around this ancient, notoriously closed walled city–the place where only thirty years ago rumors swirled about the sudden death of “the smiling Pope” John Paul I who was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London after  threatening to expose the Mafia connections with the Vatican bank. There are simply too many co incidences for them to be co incidences. Only a few months ago this tiny walled city was blown wide open as the secrets of the Pope’s butler were revealed to the press.

I am not myself a religious man, but am I the only one who thinks it slightly ostentatious for the Pope to have a butler at all? The man lives in a palace and is guarded by soldiers in Renaissance costumes. He surrounds himself with the trappings of power, wealth and priviledge. This is not something you see other religious leaders doing. Good solid men like my friend Joel Osteen and Paul Crouch lead simple lives with a fair amount of remuneration. Yet the Pope of Rome wears velvet capes and red slippers from Pravda. ….

Now that a new Pope is about to be elected the time has come again for the People of God to bring about change in the centuries old Renaissance court. As Vatican Doozy calls for, the Catholic Church is rightly called the Peoples’ Republic of God. Time has come for the people to take charge of their church. Whether it is a housewife in Ghana or a female executive in New York, whether it is a hard working nun who drives a bus or a social worker in a dog collar, the time has come for them to claim the church for the people. St Francis wore a simple brown robe and expressed his poverty. The clergy of the Roman church should do the same.

Poverty is a very noble thing for religious people and it is time for the Catholics in the developing world to understand that it is God’s will for them to be poor for as Martin Luther King III said, “Blessed are the poor.”

I am not myself a religious man, but I do respect people who take their religion seriously like the pop singer Bono and his wife Cher.

Yes, this is satire … but at times, it’s difficult to distinguish it.