More humble tone from Benedict a cause for hope
The news on April 19th last that the College of Cardinals had elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as pope reached me by text.
My initial reaction was one of deep disappointment and despair.
I was conscious of the manner in which the then Cardinal Ratzinger had carried out his function at the aforementioned congregation: how he appeared to suppress authentic debate on theological and ecclesiastical matters; how he had "silenced" theologians of outstanding ability and of deep faith (such as the great Swiss theologian Hans Küng) without genuine dialogue; how he approached issues such as homosexuality, women and the priesthood, clerical celibacy, etc. It seemed that his model of church was stifling (almost claustrophobic), dangerously centralised and unnecessarily hierarchic.
Of course, he was very much in tune with the thinking of the late Pope John Paul II, about whom I had also felt much of the above.
Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, in my view, have undone much of the potential of the second Vatican Council.
They were not in tune with its spirit (the Holy Spirit perhaps?). Pope John XXIII, by contrast, appeared to offer a new model of church and of the papacy.
His church would be more open; the pope would act in communion with the bishops world-wide ("collegiality" was the term used); there would be a greater role for the laity. The pope would be primus inter pares, first among equals.
It has pained me greatly to have witnessed the alienation of so many committed Catholics - lay, clerical and religious - from the church over the past two decades. It has been so unnecessary.
There has been no room for discussion, debate or exploration of what it means to be Christian, except within a very narrow, pre-determined framework, decided upon exclusively by Rome.
Theologians of previous "good standing" have been disciplined.
In the so-called developing world, particularly in Latin America, the great hope and inspiration that sprung from liberation theology was frowned upon and largely condemned.
Liberation theology inspired me to critique injustices and unjust structures. It concretised what a theologian friend of mine called "the subversive memory" of Christ (subversion meaning to change from below). It emphasised orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.
All is not doom and gloom, however. The institutional church is but one aspect of church. The community of believers in Jesus Christ is also the church and is a source of hope and inspiration.
The spirit does not work exclusively through the pope, cardinals and bishops!
If Hans Küng, who suffered so much at the hands of the authorities in Rome, can give Pope Benedict XVI time to learn, it behoves us all to do likewise.
Pope Benedict XVI, so far, appears to have adopted a more conciliatory and humble tone than characterised his style as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is leader of the Catholic church, not "The Enforcer".
The great (a much abused term!) Pope John XXIII was elected pope almost at the same age as the current holy father. (Pope John was 77, Pope Benedict is 78)
Pope John was viewed by many, at the time of his election, as an interim, safe, conservative figure, who would continue to lead the church in a similar manner to his predecessor Pope Pius XII.
How wrong they were.
Let us hope that Pope Benedict XVI will also surprise us. Peter Hebblethwaite in his book, In the Vatican, referred to the need to "discern the difference between the essential and the non-essential, while dwelling all the time in charity". He quoted an old patristic maxim, which I hope and pray will characterise the new papacy: "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas". (In essentials unity, in doubt liberty, in all things charity).
Nessan Vaughan has described himself as "an ordinary Dublin Catholic with an interest in church affairs"