Archbishop O'Brien, the disgraced leader of Catholics in Scotland, won't be the last casualty of the current Vatican shakeout precipitated by Benedict XVI's resignation. The question now is not whether the Church will survive, but how and for whom.
The most long-lasting outcome of the decision by Joseph Ratzinger -- "Benedict XVI" seems passé already -- to resign from the papacy continues to be the act itself. We have not come close to absorbing this. While there have been other cases of papal resignation in the last two millennia, they have little bearing on this moment. This is different.
As with the decision to divorce or leave the country or have the surgery after all, our attention at first was consumed with the clutter of detail: the rules of the conclave, the renovation of the residence deep in the Vatican, what happens to the papal ring.
We know the drill. There will be a conclave, white smoke, a figure in brocade will be presented to the joyful crowd below, a subdued yet authoritative narrator's voice commenting as I watch the scene on cable. I follow the news closely, I may opine on the choice, perhaps you'll read my words in your newspaper as I note the significance of an Italian (stability, housecleaning at the Curia) or an African (global Catholicism!) or that guy from Quebec (pro-family conservatism, Canadian-ness).
But everything has changed. Whoever it may be, his papacy will be defined not by the reign of Benedict, but by Benedict's last act, foregoing the slow swoon of a death on stage in favor of a short bow to the audience before a most purposeful exit. The houselights have come up rather quickly and we are all struggling to our feet, gathering our things and checking our watches -- until we glance sideways and see the slowly emerging and unintended consequence of this resignation in one another's eyes: all bets are off.
The image of the barque of Peter, floating serenely through the various ages of human history, has been un-done by this one public act and the dominoes that keep falling. From here on, as bishop of Rome, the pope does not serve above history; he serves with a college of his peers as they guide a very human church in history. For Christians, for Catholics in particular, this distinction matters. It does not negate the gift of the Spirit to the Church, but it re-affirms, with surprising resonance, that the Church is both a spirited and deeply human institution. In resigning the papacy, Benedict has allowed the Church to rejoin the world. This is potentially even more important than the necessary bloodletting about the sexual scandals that will have our attention at first.
In the world the Church re-joins, trials can make one stronger, but unnecessary suffering generally crushes its victims. If the pope can resign, a woman with a compromised uterus, for whom pregnancy means certain death, may have her tubes tied. If the pope can resign, the pastor who gave his all with fidelity and vision for 30 years, but now sees his deep loneliness, can leave the priesthood and marry without shame. If the pope can resign, the older couple who have taken in her mother with severe dementia, risking their own health and driving their adult children away, can call that nursing home. Today.
In the world the Church re-joins, the priesthood can serve the Church, but not as its supreme exception. If the pope can resign, we can put to rest the numbing grip of clericalism. Celibacy didn't cause the sex abuse crisis, but the clerical fiction that celibacy makes priests holy did. There is not more sexual abuse in the Church than elsewhere, but the perversion of clericalism geometrically increased its impact, often on the most vulnerable. Clericalism dictated that when the Church got serious about eradicating sexual abuse from the clergy, the laity received re-education. Clericalism has kept bishops from speaking plainly about other bishops; it has put artificial barriers between priests and those they serve, and it has too often reduced the Church's sacramental action to nothing more than pretentious superstition.
If the pope can resign, the women students I have mentored all these years can walk into their local bishop's office and put their credentials, and their years of witnessing to the faith, on the table. If the pope can resign, Catholics in wealthy countries might have to account for the glaring disparities, the "geographical differences," between rich and poor parishes in a world church. If the pope can resign, a pastor can finally give the response he's always wanted to give to the anxious person at the wedding reception who wants to know if the Saturday afternoon wedding "counts" for Sunday mass: "It's your call."
Bottom line: If the pope can resign, the rest of us can say goodbye to the cult of suffering and the cultic exaltation of the priesthood -- and we can welcome women to the pulpit, the poor to our table, and the laity to the exercise of their own common sense.
The pope has resigned; the bad news is tumbling out of all corners. What a relief.
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