Benedict’s “wager”

It makes no sense to send reporters to cover the Vatican who know little about how the Catholic Church works, & are entirely out of sympathy with her cause. What they report will be consistently wrong; crawling with factual errors & silly misjudgements & missed points. In the whole press pool, only one reporter was able to understand Latin. She was therefore the one who broke the story — while her colleagues mulled about looking bored. Nice “irony” there, for if there is one thing every modern journalist knows, with absolutely smug certainty, it is that you don’t need Latin.

The shock attending Pope Benedict’s resignation — not to the public at large, but specifically among journalists — condemns their incompetence. He had openly discussed the possibility of resigning on several occasions over the last three years, & described the conditions in which it would be acceptable. There were two: a moment of relative tranquillity in the government of the Church; when the Pope feels physically unable to continue. These conditions were met. Almost all the banter I have seen in mass media, & all the speculation about “what really happened,” is painfully ignorant & implicitly malicious.

In a farewell to priests in the city of Rome, yesterday, Benedict touched directly on this situation, in its public & political dimension. He spoke of the misrepresentation of Vatican II through mass media that contributed hugely to the catastrophe of the Church in the 1960s. (Not just “progressive” journalists, but “progressive” churchmen using journalists & their media.) Benedict inherited the government of a Church still under siege. Much of what he did through his office was designed expressly to meet the needs of a Church under siege, with limited options. It is a mistake to think the “modern world” is indifferent to Catholicism. It recognizes the Church instinctively as an enemy that must be destroyed.

Reciprocally, the faithful increasingly recognize — more consciously than instinctively — the foolishness in appeasement of their most deadly enemy. It is not Islam, although the rivalry with Islam is ancient & again boiling. It is the quasi-religion that calls itself “secular humanism,” & by any number of other names, each of which implies the self-flattery & self-worship of man in his animal nature, “freed” alike from his supernatural nature, & from God.

Press & popular judgement often fails to grasp that the papacy has always been a multidimensional institution, & is most signally, now. I have noticed from my own mail, & through the Internet, that there is a remarkably sharp “gender divide” on this. Among believing Catholics themselves, women are characteristically blind to the governing function of the Pope; men are characteristically blind to his pastoral function. Both seem to miss what a much older Catholic (by decades, perhaps centuries) would identify as the mystical function: the role of the Pope in prayer.

One of several interesting exceptions is “The Anchoress” — Elizabeth Scalia, an American blogress whose speculations may be overlooked for the sake of focusing on this spiritual acuity: that given the actual existence of God, in the stated relation to His Church, the prayers of the Pope are of very great significance.

And in retiring to a life of prayer, this man elected Pope may be taking upon himself a Gethsemane that only he fully understands, in light of his direct experience of Church government. The weight of the malice directed towards Rome, from the world outside but also from within many Church quarters, is something that must be dealt with not only pastorally, & politically, but in a mystical way, & thus necessarily out of public view. Benedict discerns that all his waning physical powers must be concentrated on that task, leaving the governing, pastoral, & other functions (iconic, liturgical, &c) to a successor. He took the name “Benedict,” which belonged to the founder of European monasticism. It is entirely possible that he knows what he is doing.

I used the term “Gethsemane” with intent. Benedict’s direct experience of non-cooperation, within the Church’s own hierarchy, is telling. He issued very bold instructions to deal with the priestly sexual  scandals, the banking scandals, the liturgical crisis — & has been stonewalled & bafflegabbed every step of the way. At the most intimate level, his own trusted butler stole important personal papers. I am not saying this so gentle reader may feel sorry for him. Rather, he has, with his extraordinary smile (something I once glimpsed with my own eyes from close: something truly unworldly), directly suffered the extraordinary evils now flourishing both outside &, more importantly, inside the Church.

The Church has always coped well with external persecution, & invariably benefited from it, however ghastly the experience. The enemy within is the real danger; & this has always been so. It is prefigured in the Gospel account of Judas. It is more complex than perfect good versus perfect evil: for Judas proved the ultimate “necessary evil,” through whose act the ministry of Christ was completed. These are not shallow waters.

Benedict is taking a grave risk which he clearly understands. The one point he added to the announcement of his own resignation, after the fact — & only this one thing — was an assurance that he understood the gravity of his decision. Sandro Magister, one of the few truly informed Vatican observers, described this in the Italian magazine L’Espresso as a “supernatural wager.” For just as John Paul II made possible the “miracle” of Ratzinger’s election by clinging on, Benedict XVI may by suddenly resigning have created the dynamic by which the College of Cardinals may choose a “miraculous” successor. That would be, I should think, someone other than any of the candidates who have been publicly touted, each of whom strikes me as fatally flawed. (I won’t go through the list with my reasons.)

Unfortunately the term “wager” will be misunderstood, as would my word “risk” — for this is not equivalent to rolling the dice, or flipping a coin. On the contrary, it has become a necessary wager, & its meaning is unmistakably bound in with this unprecedented act of resignation. Benedict is saying, in effect, “Lord you must act in these circumstances, which have passed beyond my power.” And praying thus, as he will continue to pray, with all the gravity of a man who has represented, as Priest before God, more than a billion living Catholics. He is taking the weight of this upon himself, as he has taken the weight of the consequences of his decision.

For his resignation is certainly unprecedented, given the circumstances of the modern world; appears more so to me, the more it is examined. It sets up an unprecedented election in the College of Cardinals, where no time was available for the usual offstage vetting, with the last Pope on his deathbed. In such a sudden gathering, with no “momentum” behind any of the “front runners,” it strikes me that the election of a little-known candidate is possible, even likely. That man might conceivably be the best, even the only suitable candidate. But we must leave this to the College & to God.

We are — we Catholics, & all Christians & other religious & even non-religious who recognize the unique role of the papacy in our world, as a power for good & an obstruction to evil — caught up in this. What can we do? The truth is we can do nothing but pray. But that is not a throwaway. If, as Christians must believe, the drama of this earthly life is real, & we are not random collocations of atoms, those prayers are also real. And God is indeed searching our hearts; & the prayers in question must be in very earnest.