With each subsequent revelation of curial negligence in cases of clerical sexual abuse, and especially with allegations of calculated indifference to victims of abuse aimed at then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the calls for the resignation of Benedict XVI increase in number and in decibel. The Vatican and bishops throughout the world continue to vigorously defend the pope and excoriate the press for misrepresenting the crisis and attributing blame where it does not belong. Meanwhile, the pundits - journalistic, clerical, or otherwise - offer up celibacy, homosexuals in the priesthood, or clerical culture as underlying causes of the crisis; global warming has not yet been cited, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. My point is that, as in any crisis, few wise voices and words emerge until the crisis has passed and there has been time for reflection and study. I do not pretend to be one of those voices; there are others far wiser and more experienced and knowledgeable than I. I only offer a humble opinion - or two.
In the unlikely event that Benedict does "retire," who will replace him? Is there an eminence among the members of the College of Cardinals who would have the courage as pope to first acknowledge that the current crisis, tragic and painful as it has been for victims of sexual abuse and their families, is a symptom of a chronic illness rather than the illness itself? The disease from which the Church suffers is complicated and difficult to cure because it has afflicted her for a very long time and has spread throughout her body. What is this illness? It is the loss of humility and compassion in the leadership of the Church; it is the lust for power and the desire to exercise unquestioned authority over others; it is the failure to recognize and to accept the pastoral role of bishop to love and to nurture and to protect his flock.
After many years away from the Church, I was advised that the best way to fully become Catholic again was to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In my first confession after thirty-five years, the confessor told me that one of the keys to being Christian was to make a commitment to imitating Christ. What does imitating Christ mean? I do not think it means fostering a cult of royalty and a culture of exclusion. To imitate Christ does not mean that the Church needs a monarchical leader; it does not mean that the Church should exclude women from ministry; that it should marginalize priests who have married, those who have divorced and remarried, and unmarried couples who live together; or that it should refuse a place in Catholic school for children of lesbian (or gay) parents. These attitudes and actions are anathema to the teachings of the Jesus we see in the Bible. I have failed again and again since that first confession to imitate Christ. I am not alone.
While the crisis may eventually bring about the retirement or resignation of the current pope, the election of a new pontiff will be of no significance if the one elected is not a man of extraordinary vision and courage. He must have the strength, as did John XXIII, to take a stand against the prevailing forces in the Roman curia and to maintain that stand with a balance of authority and humility until others have been inspired by his vision and change is initiated. In the present hierarchically organized Church, only the pope can create the conditions that will bring about reform. We have seen time and again that courageous theologians, individual priests or bishops, and organized lay groups that call - usually respectfully and lovingly - for change have been shut down and marginalized.
Let us pray for a pope who truly understands the meaning of imitatio Christi.