Some time ago, when asked by the New York Times what he thought of Pope Benedict XVI, American historian Garry Wills -- a practicing Catholic -- replied, "Irrelevant."
"Irrelevant to what?" asked the journalist.
"Irrelevant to religion and to the gospel."
So, one wonders, does this resignation matter? Will it make any difference and is his successor likely to have any real impact on the Church and its challenges? Meanwhile the fest of trashing Catholicism goes on. There's a lot to trash but many of the trashers fail to see the good. The trouble with trashing the Pope (any pope) is that, if you're not careful, you begin to trash the good things that even good people tend to betray -- things like the sacred, the holy, the transcendent.
When I heard the news of the pope's resignation, I thought of Celestine V's being put in Hell by Dante for making the "Great Refusal." Celestine's resignation was culpable because it made way for a worse pope! I wonder what G.K. Chesterton would have made of all this upheaval and scandal? His view of history was mainly heroic. The heroic stories and legends, he thought, are meant to teach us that we have souls, not to show us (as modern historians do) that we are often weak and foolish.
I couldn't help thinking of Newt Gingrich's reception into the Roman Catholic Church in the Spring of 2011. He seemed very content with himself as a nominal Baptist and his being twice-divorced made we wonder how the Roman Catholic Church was going to square the circle. Days before he officially joined the Catholic Communion on March 29, he was among the first to criticize the University of Notre Dame for inviting Barack Obama to speak, tweeting (of course): "It is sad to see Notre Dame invite President Obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti Catholic." News to me. As Time Magazine commented, "Gingrich's spiritual awakening has struck more than a few political observers as a bit of positioning for the GOP nomination in 2012." I have no need, no right and no grounds to question his conversion. The more Newt Gingrich is exposed to the Catholic Tradition in all its fullness, the better. But the truth is that American Catholicism has been losing members at a remarkable rate. An April 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report found that for every person who joins the Catholic Church, four others leave.
Chesterton loved paradox, and it's hard not to like and admire him. Yet he manifests the annoying and culpable ambiguities of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. I am both irritated and puzzled by his appealing to paradox in order to "solve" life's contradictions. He was able to embrace Roman Catholicism (the 1920s version to boot) without the slightest reservation or reference the glaring evidences not so much of its sins so much as its inability to say its ever being able to admit that it has made any mistakes. And I can't imagine what it was like for John Henry Newman becoming a Roman Catholic in the actual history of the mid-19th century. He must have closed his eyes and held his nose. May be that's what all of have to do -- at least those of us who struggle with faith and embrace a moral vision?
Chesterton rightly pointed out that the heretic was arrogant in his clinging to private judgment but couldn't see the arrogance of the papacy and the Vatican in defending in the past, for example, the institution of slavery. Catholicism was a bundle of laughs -- a celebration, in Chesterton's case, of Merrie England. He could see its faults but "in the long run" it was always right. Moreover, he claimed, Christianity is essentially democratic; it exhibits "a divine vulgarity." Oh, really? It is difficult to reconcile this with a monarchical polity -- with the reality on the ground. What I like about Chesterton's Catholicism is that he makes embracing it sound like running away from home and joining the circus.
Why, then, is the question of being or not being Catholic important? It is, perhaps, not important in itself -- as if one were in a competition for the best God and the most super church. The Catholic question is important because it's one of the best ways of entering into a rich and complex exploration of the world of the human -- not least because it begins with an explosive definition of a human being as the image of God. To be human is to be marked by divinity. You don't even have to believe this to find the concept useful and challenging. A human being is a creature whose identity is marked by a radical openness to the unknown and unexplored. Moreover, this human being's identity isn't a private affair. It is manifested in communion with other humans in a shared culture. Being in conversation with the Catholic Church, which celebrates the sacredness of being human, about what manner of creatures we are can enrich and expand our self-understanding, whatever our religious persuasion or atheist leanings.
Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (July 16-17, 2011) wrote of our cultural ignorance and dislocation:
Pretty much everyone over 50 in America feels on some level like a refugee ... And they fear, deep down, that this new culture, the one their children live in, isn't going to make it. Because it is, in its essence, an assaultive culture, from the pop music coming out of the rental car radio to the TSA agent with her hands on your kid's buttocks ... In the Old America there were a lot of bad parents. There always are, because being a parent is hard ... But in the old America you knew it wasn't so bad, because the culture could bring the kids up. Inadequate parents could sort of say, "Go outside and play in the culture," and culture -- relatively innocent, and boring -- could be more or less trusted to bring the kids up ... Grown up now know that you can't send the kids to go out and play in the culture, because the culture will leave them distorted and disturbed.
The Roman Catholic Church is at a crossroads. Transitions are difficult enough, particularly in the light of the Church's handling or mishandling of the sexual scandals concerning the priesthood. To many, the Church has seemed to be, for most of the time, on the wrong side of history. The struggles in and with the Church provide a prism through which we might examine the whole range of human experience -- its horrors and its glories. Our generation needs to set aside the cultural hostility toward Catholicism and take another look. The resignation of Pope Benedict gives us that opportunity.