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John Allen on Affirmative Orthodoxy and Jim Martin on Price of Restorationism: Two Faces of Benedict

I find it instructive to read Fr. Jim Martin’s fine statement about Pope Benedict’s recent remark to reporters that the abuse of children by Catholic clerics is “truly terrifying,” side by side with John Allen’s declaration that Benedict’s address at the Cultural Center of Belém in Lisbon was a “tour de force” for what Allen calls “affirmative orthodoxy.”

Allen finds Benedict seeking to strike an “optimistic” note about the church’s encounter with contemporary culture.  He notes that Benedict’s address stresses the need for dialogue between the church and secularism; the need to move towards positive appraisal of various cultures and worldviews with the recognition that they can enrich the church; and the need to retrieve Vatican II’s positive appraisal of the Enlightenment and the Reformation.

All well and good.  All needs that the church has experienced urgently from the time of Vatican II forward—needs that have grown more acute as the Catholic church has lurched from its encounter with modernity to its present encounter with a rapidly developing postmodernity for which it is entirely unprepared.

It is unprepared because John Paul II and Benedict, acting as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II and then as Pope Benedict, called a halt to the reforms enacted by Vatican II and to precisely those “optimistic” goals that Vatican II sketched for the church: fruitful dialogue between the church and contemporary culture; the recognition that in this dialogue, the church stands to gain much from the surrounding culture in which the Spirit is active; and the recognition that the church stands constantly in need of reformation and can therefore learn from the Spirit’s leading in non-Catholic churches and from the culture of modernity as represented by the Enlightenment.

The church is woefully unprepared for its encounter with postmodernity because John Paul II and Benedict not merely halted the reforms enacted by Vatican II.  They actively sought to reverse many of these reforms.

And as I’ve noted previously on this blog, one of the most deleterious—one of the most seriously destructive—actions that Benedict has taken in his years of dominance of the Vatican has been to silence one theologian after another.  To send one theologian after another packing.  To tell theologian after theologian that he or she did not adequately or faithfully represent the Catholic tradition, and must therefore stop teaching and/or writing.

Now, when Benedict seeks to accentuate the positive in light of the “terrifying” abuse crisis, those gifted scholars and teachers whom the Spirit called to serve the church in the post-Vatican II moment of its history are gone.  Silent.  They were sent packing.

And so we are now to listen seriously to Benedict proclaiming what he silenced these theologians for saying and doing, and are to applaud him for his “optimism.”

Something is very wrong with this picture.  How are we to take the pope seriously when he is now echoing what he and his predecessor informed one theologian after another that theologians might not say and do, following Vatican II?  Are we to take these ideas seriously now—long decades after Vatican II told us to begin accentuating these themes—because the pope himself finally informs us that they are worth taking seriously?

And only because the abuse crisis reveals that theologians who were following Vatican II’s call to engage in affirmative dialogue with contemporary culture were right all along, and that the church would pay a horrendous price for retreating into the fossilized monarchical stance of Trent and Vatican I?

And so my appreciation for Fr. Jim Martin’s outstanding reflections at America, which note that the abuse crisis is “terrifying” because, even if sexual abuse of minors is as prevalent in other institutions as in the Catholic church, no other institution in the world, when confronted with evidence of such abuse within the institution, has behaved as we have done: with hierarchical “obtuseness, stonewalling, defensiveness, instransigence and sinfulness.”

Jim Martin asks—and rightly and powerfully:

How did we get to this point?  How did we find ourselves with leaders who are not only blind but almost willfully so?  (The old term “invincible ignorance” comes to mind.)  Part of it is the lust for power.  Our editorial this week talks about the “black cloud of flattery” that envelopes the curia, the last Renaissance court.  Part of it is pride.  One of the less-noted aspects of this saga is how shocked Vatican officials are when anyone has the temerity to contradict them, or even to question them.  (Benedict, who many credit with taking a hard line with abusers and with Maciel, while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was not immune to this.  See this video of his slapping a reporter who asked him about Maciel.)  It’s not hard to extrapolate this into a disregard for victims and their families.  That is, if a bishop won’t speak to the police or to the media, why would he speak to a victim or a parent?

These are absolutely essential questions to ask now, following the latest round of abuse reports.  They are absolutely essential questions to ask in light of the “optimistic” themes the pope has just articulated in his Lisbon address.

Unfortunately, the people called and gifted by the Spirit to deal with these questions, who began to do so with great joy following Vatican II, have been to a great extent silenced, driven off, and prevented from teaching and writing by the very person now telling us to explore these themes.  The church finds itself in its current “terrifying” position due to decisions the current pope himself made as John Paul II’s theological watchdog, which he has not effectively reversed through his actions up to this point—as fine as his recent words sound.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 12 May 2010.


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