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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The pope's leadership crisis

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Pope Benedict XVI spent last week meditating on the mysteries of Holy Week, commemorating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now he needs urgently to meditate on the mysteries of what is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church that he leads and where his leadership is failing.

People in Japan who bother to read this may yawn and say, "Who cares?" Religion to most people in the sophisticated prosperous world is a superstition that distracts from the more important practical business of daily life.

But the Catholic Church, with more than 2,000 years of history, is the oldest still-surviving institution in the world. The nominal roll call of Catholics is about 1.3 billion, the same as the population of China or Islam. Millions may be hangers-on seeking a meal ticket, education, health care or an insurance policy offering life after death, but in many countries of the world, Catholicism can enormously affect public policy for good or ill. The 1 million-strong throng that greeted Benedict at his Mass in Revolution Square in Havana last month demonstrates that the papacy still has popular pulling power greater than any pop star.

As a baptized and confirmed Catholic, I will not pretend to neutrality. To me, the life and death of Christ is a fantastic love story, a man prepared to die for love of his people, who are all human beings. Last week commemorated the last days of Christ's life, his entry to Jerusalem, his Last Supper with his close friends, his betrayal and desertion, his trial and ignominious death on a cross as a common criminal.

But it was not quite the end — because the gospels tell that on the third day Christ rose from the dead, an action which not only showed that he was God but repaired the broken links between God and humans. In simple story terms, it is a wonderful read, a good and pacific life betrayed to politics and greed and ambition, yet triumph came from beyond the grave.

Secularists will of course dismiss this as fantasy, though to my simple mind the story is easy to follow and requires less suspension of belief than Harry Potter or modern magic tales that hoodwink children of all ages.

This God-Man also laid down loving but very demanding instructions as to how his followers should live their own lives. John Dear, the Jesuit priest, claims that Jesus established a "covenant of nonviolence: in the loud cry of the crucified Jesus. ... I hear the cry of the poor and oppressed throughout history today; in the victims of all wars, injustices and empires. I hear Jesus begging humanity to wake up, reject the insanity of violence, become nonviolent, and turn with compassion toward others."

Christ also left behind a timorous band of followers who formed the basis of a fledgling church that grew over the centuries to become the wealthy and powerful Vatican-based Roman Catholic Church headed by the pope and setting rules of dogma and morality for Catholics worldwide.

Today, Pope Benedict has not one but several crises to deal with, some of his making. He was chosen as pope as the consummate Vatican insider, a safe, and elderly, choice after the unpredictable youth of John Paul II. He has lost his way in leading the church. Millions have left the church, especially in its European heartland. John Dear says that 30 million American Catholics have left in the last few years. Many were scandalized by priests abusing children and by bishops covering up the sins and crimes. On this Benedict has not been given credit for, belatedly, trying to set things right.

Others have left because of the narrow teachings of the church, especially on sexual matters, which seem to have a lot to do with priestly power play and little to do with love. Yet others have left because the church seems irrelevant to their lives.

The reaction of the official church has been to close ranks as if to wish the problems away. In October, it will be 50 years since the start of the Second Vatican Council, which sought renewal of the church, introduced Mass in local languages and the concept of "the people of God" embracing all Catholics and not just the priests and bishops.

In the last few years in the face of an undoubted crisis of faith in the West with priests becoming elderly and dying faster than their congregations, the official church has declared taboo many of the questions which might offer a solution, such as married priests or women priests. The Vatican has even begun investigations of priests who have dared even to suggest discussing whether married or women priests would be a possible solution to a widespread situation in the West, where parishes are served by priests in their 60s or 70s, if they have a priest at all.

In Ireland, where the Catholic Church was traditionally so powerful that it was at least as influential as the government through the local church and school, weekly Mass attendance among nominal Catholics has dropped to 25 to 30 percent, and in Dublin only 5 percent of Catholics go to Mass each Sunday. In the United States, the Catholic bishops have drawn such a traditional line in the sand, condemning not only abortion — where most Catholics would agree with them — but all forms of artificial contraception that some dismayed Catholics have accused the bishops of behaving like the "tea party at prayer."

In country after country in the West, with a few notable exceptions including Poland, not only are regular worshippers increasingly elderly but the under-30s are staying away. In other traditionally Catholic countries, such as the Philippines, Brazil and much of Latin America evangelical Christians are growing in strength at the expense of Catholicism. In Africa, however, Catholics are increasing rapidly.

These are worrying trends that have been going on for some time. But in the last few months scandals have reached inside Vatican City. Some of them seem far-fetched, such as an alleged "death-plot" to assassinate the pope. But others are well-attested, including leaked letters to the pope by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then the number 2 official in Vatican City and now the papal nuncio to the U.S., complaining of corruption in Vatican finances and a campaign to get him out of the way.

Benedict's defenders say that he is a teaching pope and neither a governor nor a leader, and he has tried to reduce the role of patronage and personality politics that have always played a large role inside the Vatican and the Italian-dominated curia. An experienced Vatican insider told me, "If you look at Benedict's teachings, his books about Jesus, his comments on issues of global development, war and peace, they are remarkably good. But he is an innocent who has not chosen his allies wisely. He should remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

It is an inadequate defense. Benedict is no longer the "Rottweiler guardian" of the faith as he was when he was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. He is the pope, the leader, the chief shepherd, and the man charged with the mission of carrying Jesus Christ's love to the whole world. To my simple mind, Benedict's greatest failing is his narrowness of vision and his hope. His charge is to take the good news not merely to the 1 percent faithful in the church pews or in traditional civilized Christian Europe, but also to those Catholics who have been tempted away and to the billions of non-Christians who have never heard or cared.

I thought of this when I read the Exsultet, the marvelous hymn of the Easter Vigil Mass celebrating the Resurrection of Christ: "Of this night scripture says: 'The night will be as clear as day: it will become my light, my joy.'

"The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthy pride. Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God!" That is worth more than one exclamation mark. Benedict, believe it and share the joy!

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the biggest-selling English Catholic newspaper.

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