The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI comes at a critical time for the Roman Catholic Church. All Western institutions are being shaken to the core by economic, demographic and cultural forces and the Church is no exception.
His decision to resign is a sound one. Gone are the days when monarchs and popes could drift into the dotage under a regency council while the ship of state wandered aimlessly until a new and energetic successor could emerge.
Benedict releases that the Church is more important than the Curia; that the bureaucracy (largely insular and Italian) are incapable of keeping the ship on course without vigorous supervision.
Of course, Benedict will keenly recall the decline of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose praiseworthy efforts in the 80s were followed by a long, painful decline. That the pederasty scandals broke during his convalescence inflicted even more damage to the faith and its institutions as functionaries ran for cover and obfuscated rather than came clean.
It is for that reason that I was interested to read Walter Russell Mead’s take on the current state of the Church. As a fan of erudite style and the seriousness with which he approaches questions of religion, I looked forward to digesting his thoughts. Having read them, I am profoundly disappointed.
Instead of analyzing the challenges confronting the Church, he falls back on the all-to-familiar boilerplate that Rome is just too old-fashioned for these thoroughly modern times. He even uses the infamous crutch of a journalist who has an opinion but prefers not to state it in order to appear impartial – the “many”:
Via Meadia is not inclined to deliver ex cathedra judgements on points of Catholic doctrine so we take no stand on the theological validity of the case against the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, but the Catholic Church’s belief in an exalted spiritual and political role for its all-male clergy puts it at odds with what many in the West have come to see as a vital moral principle of gender equality. This not only creates resistance to Church teaching on a key issue among many members and potential members, it legitimates anti-clericalism among many advocates of women’s rights in the West. The Catholic Church, with its ‘retrograde’ and ‘medieval’ outlook on women’s rights, many feel, must in the name of justice be pushed aside from social and political power wherever possible.
The commitment to an all-male clergy also taints Catholic moral stands on issues like abortion and homosexuality for many people. [Emphasis added]
Who are these “many?” And why should the Church care? Near the end of the passage, Mead gives the game away:
The Church’s opponents have an easy time characterizing Catholic beliefs about sexuality as a form of misogyny and backwardness, and can point in indignation and derision to the sight of an all-male College of Cardinals convening once again to elect yet another male pope.
Oh, so the people who don’t like the Church anyway will criticize it? I'm sorry, I almost had a heart attack from that total lack of surprise. I imagine that the enemies of the Church will have bad things to say no matter what the doctrine is or who is ordained. All the more reason for the Church to adhere to its ancient and eternal beliefs instead of catering the popular whims of the moment.
This in fact was Benedict’s message and one he delivered well.
However, Mead’s critique is even weaker when we consider that Protestant churches have essentially embraced the kind of changes the Church’s opponents demands: women ministers, gay clergy, and support for both birth control and abortion.
The Church of England and its American affiliate have ordained women and invested practicing homosexuals, yet their communion is riven with dissention and their church attendance is collapsing. They are not alone – the United Methodists, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestant organizations are all losing worshipers at alarming rates.
To turn Mead on his head, many believe that the short-sighted decisions of these denominations to dump their core beliefes in an attempt to curry popular favor have utterly undermined their moral standing.
We already have several flavors of “Catholic Lite” and none of them are doing well. Indeed, I defy Mead to produce someone who would be a Catholic if only they made a woman pope and let gay priests marry each other. (Note: Andrew Sullivan does not count.)
Yet if Mead has completely missed the point of Benedict's ministry, David P. Goldman, who channels Spengler for Asia Times, understands it completely.
Goldman distilled this concept as "I have a mustard seed, and I'm not afraid to use it." Rather than fall back on tired liberal theological tropes, Goldman actually read what His Holiness has to say. He quotes this brilliant passage from one of Benedict's works:
We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.
It is, as Goldman says, a stunning assertion.
It also perfectly refutes Mead’s concerns. Better that the Church endure persecution and privation than that it surrender its sacred doctrine. Holding to eternal truth is not a popularity contest.
How can Mead be unaware of this?
As I've said, Walter Russell Mead has a great deal of insight, but his knowledge of the Catholic Church seems to be an area where he needs to do more research.