If it turns out that the Joseph Ratzinger indeed knew about and personally approved of the return of a sexually abusive priest to parochial service and as a result the pontiff is forced to abdicate, who will be his successor? One envisions the election of a new pope from the college of cardinals by the college of cardinals being immediately followed by questions from the press about the possibility of his involvement in cases of abuse cover-up. In fact, why would the press even wait that long? At the time of the election there will no doubt be a group of papabile, those cardinals considered among the most likely to be elected, and their careers will be scrutinized by hordes of investigative journalists from around the world. We can be certain that at least a couple of the frontrunners will be dead in the water before the second cloud of black smoke is emitted from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. The papal election will become a farce and whoever emerges as the new Holy Father of the Catholic Church will have gone from “popable” to laughable.
The tragic story of sexual abuse and its cover-up by bishops and chancery officials, which is no longer simply an American story reflecting so-called American liberalism and secularism, has exposed to Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world the failure of the post-Vatican II restoration of a monarchical papacy, a blindly loyal episcopacy, and a complacent and obedient laity. The Church hierarchy—and the entire hierarchical system—has lost all the trust it needs to lead the faithful. It is time for the People of God to take responsibility for their Church and return it to its proper place as the loving, welcoming, child-protecting home of Christ.
If a new pope is elected from the ranks of the cardinals, or even if the cardinals are bypassed and a bishop is found who has not been tainted by cover-up or other misdeeds, the likelihood is very high that the hierarchical system and the clerical culture that allowed this tragedy to continue for so long will remain in place. John Paul II was pope for 26 years; his successor—and close friend and loyal supporter—Benedict XVI has been pope for five years. Nearly every bishop in the world has been appointed by these two; and nearly all of them will have sworn an oath of loyalty to the orthodoxy promoted by the restoration papacy. Even a bold and courageous bishop would have difficulty opposing his brother bishops.
I have a suggestion: Benedict should stay. He should humbly bow his head and apologize to all victims of the post-Vatican II Church, including children who were abused; women, who have been denied their rightful place in the Church, to its tragic detriment; gay and lesbian people, who have been marginalized by the Church; the large majority of priests, who have toiled faithfully in the vineyard but whose voices for truth have been silenced by the stifling pressure of doctrine. He should then call a new Vatican Council, one that has equal representation from the laity (men and women) and the clergy; clerical delegates would include ordinary parish priests, male and female members of religious orders, and theologians, as well as some bishops. At the council, the Roman curia would only be allowed an advisory role; it would have no voting rights. The agenda, from which no issue could be excluded, would also be determined by balanced representation. The pope would pledge publicly to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the council’s decisions.
Or we could allow the present pope to resign and then insist that the college of cardinals as well as the entire episcopate be considered ineligible for election and instead elect a humble and holy priest as pope. In this case, I have a few recommendations. How about Jim Martin, the Jesuit from America Magazine? He seems to understand that the Church can peacefully and productively co-exist with modern secular culture. He recognizes that women and gay people have been wounded by their Church. Or we could elect Hans Küng, who after all was one of the chief architects of some of the most important documents to come out of Vatican II. There is also Richard Rohr, the Franciscan who believes in the emerging church, which loves the tradition but recognizes the need for reform.
Of course, none of this is going to happen. The point is, however, that we need a new Church, not just a new pope. We need people of courage and vision from both the laity and the clergy to share their vision of a reformed Church with the grassroots. Sure, the vast majority of the faithful may be as conservative as Benedict XVI and his curial comrades, but are we content to allow a majority that trusts a hierarchical system that enabled abusers of children, that discriminates against women and gay and lesbian people, that silences all dissenters to prevail?
It appears that the structure is beginning to crumble. It can be shored up for a while perhaps, but eventually it will fall. We should be concerned with how the Church will rebuild itself when that day comes.