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a more realistic pope? don’t hold your breath

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‘Catholic’ kids in Haiti, and plenty more where they come from

 

Herr Ratzinger has resigned, citing ill-health and old age, and a consequently increasing inability to get his head around all the issues and complexities involved in pretending to be the moral and spiritual leader of all humanity, whether humanity likes it or knows about it or not.

It might be argued that the fact that the 85-year-old’s decision caused ‘shockwaves’ through his community is an indication of how ‘away with the fairies’ that community is, but with some 600 years’ history of the big papa holding onto power till his last gasp, they can perhaps be forgiven their complacent fantasies.

So there’ll be a new pope soon, and the rest of us – that’s to say, those who take little personal notice of the pronouncements of the pontiff and the organisation he heads, but who also realize that a worrying proportion of the human population does take him seriously – engage in the more or less slim hope that a new leader will have a more realistic and less hubristic outlook, in terms of attitudes to women, to homosexuals, to contraception, to knowledge and ideas, and so forth.

But of course we outsiders won’t have a say in the election of the next male spokesman for a decidedly male one-and-only god. Nor will most catholics.

So who elects the next pope? A college of cardinals (as opposed to a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows or a conspiracy of ravens), that’s who. And, amusingly, if you’re a cardinal and over 80, you’re not considered compos mentis enough to vote for the next incumbent. That at least seems more in line with realism, but I don’t hear any noises about mandatory retirement of pontiffs – or cardinals, for that matter.

In Australia, judges of the High Court, the highest court in the land, are mandated to retire at age 70. That ruling came in in 1977, and before that the appointment was for life. No doubt similar rulings have been made internationally. And these days, because of the onerous workload, judges often retire before the mandatory date.

The next pope will be elected by about 118 cardinals (depending on when the election takes place, with cardies hurrying over the 80-year cliff as fast as their ruby-red dresses permit). More than half of these blokes were appointed by Ratzinger, and the remainder by his equally ultra-conservative predecessor, Karol Wojtyla, so it’s unlikely that many of them would be overly infected with realism. And of course the problem is that realism, a fairly mundane and anodyne notion for most of us, has been seen as forbidden fruit to the hierarchy of this organisation for centuries. So a dose of realism always carries the risk of Vaticanonical anaphylaxis (quite proud of that one).

Consider the last ‘realistic’ pope (it’s a relative term), Angelo Roncalli, who called the second Vatican Council in the sixties. Certainly his papacy made a case for ecumenicism that has been pursued, at least, in name, ever since, but Vatican 2’s promise has been almost entirely unfulfilled, and Roncalli’s famous ‘open the windows’ pronouncement has fallen on clogged ears inside the Vatican. What’s more, the possibilities Vatican 2 just might have opened up have proved so scarey to the hierarchy that a veil of silence appears to have been cast over its very existence. I suspect their attitude to reform has something in common with the notions of that old fuddy-duddy Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, with his apparent loathing of softies, considered the Anglicans, with their female priests and their modern services and their acceptance of poofs and the like, to be far worse than the Catholics, who at least stood for something. The question is, is it better to stand for misogyny, homophobia, celibacy, anti-intellectualism and ignorant authoritarianism, than to stand for nothing at all?  Well, actually, if bums on seats are the measure, the answer appears to be yes. Not that I’m convinced that the Anglicans stand for nothing, but whatever they do stand for, it doesn’t appear to be very popular. Anglican numbers are crashing in this country, whereas the Catholics are creeping rather more slowly towards extinction. Of course this has a little to do with the influx of Catholics as against Anglicans, compared to earlier days, but I’d bet too that it has much to do with the age-old appeal of militant  conservatism, from Genghis Khan to little Adolf. And the Vatican has managed, over the years, to clothe its iron fist with the fetching velvet gloves of a humanism that almost seems modern. Kindness to children, to the poor, to the dispossessed and disadvantaged, that sort of thing.

So I’m not expecting anything particularly positive to come out of this change in leadership. The noises coming out of Africa, the fastest-growing Catholic region, are all about holding the line on the homosexual scourge, upholding the traditional family and the dignity of manhood, etc. If anything I see the Catholic Church moving backwards into the foreseeable future, retreating into conservative, anti-intellectual fantasy, much like the Pentecostals, only different. We shall tediously see.

 

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Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2013 at 7:08 pm

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