The television coverage of Benedict’s leave-taking of the Vatican, the helicopter flight over Rome, the arrival at Castel Gandolfo, his final blessing as pope, the closing of the doors of the papal apartments and the departure of the Swiss Guard--comprised a moving portrait of a shepherd doing what is best for his flock.
At his final address to the College of Cardinals at the Vatican on Thursday morning, February 28, Benedict’s mind was on the nature of the Church. He recalled the words of his old and departed friend, the philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini:
The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ.
Benedict went on in his own words, referring to his last Wednesday audience, held on February 27 in St. Peter’s Square:
This was our experience yesterday, I think, in the square. We could see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God. She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, as we saw yesterday.
Now that the Chair of Peter is vacant, thus begins the season of the dissident theologian--brought to you by the New York Times. Over at the Times on Thursday, Fr. Hans Küng, a former university colleague of Benedict’s, was busy comparing Benedict to a Saudi Arabian autocrat and expressing his fervent hope for something different out of this conclave. The Church needs a pope, he writes--
who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn’t let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based “shadow pope” like Benedict and his loyal followers.
There are many items on Küng’s papal wish list, but there is one that is most fundamental and disruptive: his call for a brand new notion of the Church Herself. Küng wants the College of Cardinals in March to abjure the Church’s “medieval” constitution. He desires a new ecclesiology in which the Church takes the form of “an appropriate democracy” such as what he thinks was present in the early Church.
In similar fashion, back on February 12, the day after the announcement of Benedict’s abdication, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills took to the pages of the Times to call for a new democratic understanding of the Church:
As this election approaches, some hope that the shortage of priests, and their damaged reputation and morale, can be remedied by adding married priests, or women priests, or gay priests. But that misses the point. Whatever their sexual status, they will still be priests. They will not be chosen by their congregations (as was the practice in the early church). They will be appointed from above, by bishops approved for their loyalty to Rome, which will police their doctrinal views as it has with priests heretofore. The power structure will not be changed by giving it new faces. Monarchies die hard.
Both Küng and Wills abhor the hierarchical structure of the Church. They both set in opposition, to use Wills’s phrase, “the church as the people of God and the ruling powers in the church.” Both would like radical change to occur in which authority structures fade and “the people of God” emerge triumphant.
Wills despairs of such radical change ever occurring. After all, his Times essay is entitled, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope.” But rather than joining him in predicting what the conclave will or will not do, let’s take a step back and try to understand the motivation behind Küng’s and Wills’s arguments for a democratic Church. A clue can be found in Wills’s Times essay itself, particularly in his remarks about the events that led up to Paul VI’s July 1968 promulgation of his encyclical condemning contraception, Humanae Vitae.
The Summer of ’68
On Wills’s account of these events, the papal commission assigned by Paul VI to re-examine the morality of contraception concluded that the perennial teaching banning contraception should be overturned. But then Paul, under pressure from conservatives in the Vatican, decided to reject the findings of his own commission and, as Wills puts it, double down and add “another encyclical...to the unrenounceable eternal truths that pile up around a moral monarch.”
This is one account. A very different one has been offered by Germain Grisez, a theologian who in 1966 assisted commission-member Father John C. Ford S.J. in his efforts to uphold the Church’s traditional condemnation of contraception. According to Grisez, Paul VI put together his commission in the sincere hope of generating a diversity of opinions on the morality of contraception. With the help of the commission the pope genuinely wanted to think the matter through, though he had no intention of simply ceding his authority to the commission. But while a majority of the papal commission were indeed in favor of overturning the ban, the pope himself was never convinced. In 1967, in order to put pressure on the pope, statements of the majority opinion were leaked, which served to give to the world the impression that the Church was about to overturn the ban on contraception. So when in the summer of 1968 Paul VI upheld the ban in Humanae Vitae, a furor erupted among many theologians and lay people who had been expecting a very different pronouncement.
Why are these events important?
They are important because they are the Gettysburg at which the 20th-century progressive cause within the Church fell. They are important not only because of the crucial importance of the ban on contraception, but also for what they reveal--returning to our main point--about the nature of the Church. For Humanae Vitae confirmed the Church as a structure of authority in which the pope’s authority is final.
The Church as Human Construction?
Reflecting upon Humanae Vitae in The Ratzinger Report, the book-length interview with journalist Vittorio Messori published in 1985, then Cardinal Ratzinger, at that time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized a “personalist” philosophy which had been influencing moral theologians since the 1930s and 40s. Though Cardinal Ratzinger expressed his appreciation for many of the good aspects of this personalism, he nonetheless lamented its tendency to separate “personhood” from “nature,” especially in discussions of marriage and sexuality. This was a split that had especially disastrous effects upon the reception of Humanae Vitae. Then Cardinal Ratzinger explained:
The Council accepted and confirmed the best aspects of [personalist philosophy]. But at this point in time a new line of development began to materialize. Whereas the reflections of the Council were based on the unity of person and nature in man, personalism began to be understood in opposition to “naturalism” (as if the human person and its needs could enter into conflict with nature). Thus an exaggerated personalism led some theologians to reject the internal order, the language of nature (which instead is moral of itself, according to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church), leaving to sexuality, conjugal included, the sole point of reference in the will of the person. This indeed is one of the reasons that Humanae Vitae was rejected and that it is impossible for many theologies to reject contraception.
If we can exercise a little patience with this specialists’ argument, we can see Cardinal Ratzinger identifying the root cause of much of the opposition to Humanae Vitae, namely, an understanding of marriage and sexuality in which the will, and the will alone, is sovereign. And whether or not they are card-carrying personalists, this is the philosophy that animates Wills and Küng. Back in the summer of 1968, just after the release of Humanae Vitae, Küng went on Zurich radio to encourage Catholics to read the new encyclical with due seriousness and loyalty--but, in the end, to follow their own consciences in the matter. (Küng was later stripped of his authority to teach Catholic theology.)
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that Wills and Küng espouse an entire theory of the Church that diminishes to zero the notion of an authority that can command the obedience of the individual will. It is for this reason that in The Ratzinger Report then Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the crisis in the Church as a crisis of the understanding of the Church, of ecclesiology: “Herein lies the cause of a good part of the misunderstandings or real errors which endanger theology and common Catholic opinion alike.” About the sort of anti-authoritarian ecclesiology for which Wills and Küng continue to be the spokesmen, then Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say:
My impression is that the authentically Catholic meaning of the reality “Church” is tacitly disappearing, without being expressly rejected. Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord himself. Even with some theologians, the Church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one which we ourselves can freely organize according to the requirements of the moment. In other words, in many ways a conception of Church is spreading in Catholic thought, and even in Catholic theology, that cannot even be called Protestant in a “classic” sense.
The Church is Not An Organization
The nature of the Church was again on Benedict XVI’s mind in the waning hours of his pontificate. At his last public audience to the multitudes gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he spoke of the affection shown to him by so many throughout the world in their letters to him, an affection characteristic of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters:
Here, one can touch what the Church is--not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and almost be able to touch with one’s hands the power of His truth and His love, is a source of joy, in a time in which many speak of its decline.”
What Benedict praises here is not the Church in Küng’s sense of “the people of God,” a people for whom the teaching authority of the Church is a nemesis. Not at all. Here Benedict praises a community of brothers and sisters who are the very Body of Christ. Ours is not a Church, in short, made of human hands. It is not, to return to Guardini, an institution devised around a table. The Church, rather, is the embodiment of a supernatural Person, Jesus Christ, into which we become incorporated through Baptism and by receiving His very Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
And, over time, this Mystical Body has grown, in the power of the Spirit, to have certain characteristics rooted in the very heart of Christ, characteristics which include its hierarchical structure. Catholics believe that the hierarchical structure of Church authority is not a political program that can be revised at will. Catholics believe that the papacy, the episcopate, and the priesthood are divine institutions that have their seed in the words that Our Lord spoke to St. Peter at Caesarea Philippi: tu es Petrus, and super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.
Thank you, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for clarifying, explaining, and defending Our Lord’s command at Caesarea Philippi throughout your pontificate and indeed throughout your entire career. We wish you all the rest, reflection, and time for prayer that you deserve. In our own prayers, as you said yourself, we will always remain close to you.
* Those wanting to dig further into the details of the events leading up to the promulgation of Humanae Vitae may want to consult Germain Grisez’s website with all its attendant documents from that era, as well as this summary of Grisez’s assistance to Father Ford written by theologian William E. May. In writing this essay I also benefited from Ralph McInerny’s What Went Wrong With Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 1998).