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Pope for a polarised Church


Silhouette drawing of black and white cowboys facing offBacking candidates in a papal conclave is a notoriously unrewarding enterprise and in my case, with limited inside knowledge of the field, reasons for abstaining abound. I do, however, have a broad 'person specification' in mind. Both the Church and the modern world need a pope with a deep spiritual life and uncommon wisdom.

The challenges facing the Church extend far beyond the Vatican into local communities in which countless saints live simple lives of self-giving love, foster the faith of their children, provide hospitality to refugees, and face suffering and death in the hope of resurrection. Their faith moves hearts and transforms the world around them.

Papal leadership can also awaken faith. I remember as a child finding my father sitting, early morning, in our semi-darkened lounge room, crying over the news of Pope John XXIII's death. And my father was not one to cry easily. John Paul II's pilgrimages for world peace and economic justice also moved many.

In my view, the major challenge facing Benedict's successor is that of leading the Church to live with the advances as well as the flaws of this age so that our common life communicates the good news in a vibrant manner to the broader culture. But that's where uncommon wisdom is necessary.

At least in the West today, the Catholic Church is bedevilled by polarisation, a pattern found in social and political life fairly broadly. Traditionalists, judging that this age is in steep decline, turn to the Church's leadership for tighter control over doctrine, liturgy, and Church practice. Progressives, strongly valuing modern expressions of freedom, look to the Church's leadership to remove constraints in the very same areas.

Much debate is defined by the contrast between these extreme positions, which may be held by few individuals yet nevertheless set the terms of public interaction. Middle positions abound. However, since interlocutors define themselves by the extremes they reject, those who hold middle positions end up talking past each other.

Neither of the polarised stances adequately accounts for the great advances and the terrible flaws of the present. We can only move beyond polarisation by developing a discriminating, multi-layered approach to our age.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's ground-breaking work, A Secular Age, is widely recognised as the best phenomenological and analytical account of the place of religion in our time. One central line of his thought is encapsulated in an earlier essay:

In modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both authentic developments of the gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and of a closing off to God that negates the gospel. The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken or could have been taken within Christendom.

In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realisation that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.

Leading the Church in such a culture requires a capacity to discern between those elements of modern life that are of God and can lead to a fuller faith, and those that negate transcendence, shutting people into acquisitive, aggressive, or egotistic worlds. Such discernment can only be accomplished by entering into the culture.

Essential here is an engaged, open stance, sensitive to the struggles of contemporary seekers, rather than pushing pat answers to over-rehearsed questions. And having entered the world of contemporary seekers, such leadership then requires the imagination to present the gospel and the Church's theological tradition in a way that garners their attention — in fact, that opens up the mystery of God already present.

Could we have a pope who patiently attends to the action of God in the broader culture while being utterly faithful to the gospel way of life?

James McEvoy headshotJames McEvoy teaches theology at Flinders University and Catholic Theological College, Adelaide. He is an Adjunct Lecturer at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: James McEvoy, Benedict, conclave



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Existing comments

Anyone who takes on the position of Pope faces an extremely challenging world. I find the insights into this of George Weigel extremely useful. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324196204578300234222299360.html

Edward F | 11 March 2013  

The counter-cultural or dialectical demands of the Gospel are an inherent condition of Christ's liberating suffering,death and resurrection. They are also part of a Christian's baptismal character as a new creation in Christ. How could her distinctive 'sign of contradiction' missionary character be abandoned by the Church and her leadership in an age whose exclusively secular premises increasingly negate faith, Christian teaching and public religious expression without radical compromise to the Gospel and the Church's identity themselves? The Church will continueto affirm all that is good in culture and society:for instance,the inviolable right to life, traditional marriage and art that respects beauty and the dignity of humanity;and yet in the very affirmation of these goods,she experiences now often meets with rejection. May the new successor of St Peter have wisdom and fortitude in abundance. And may he find receptivity to Christ's message in the hearts and minds of all people of good will.

John | 11 March 2013  

There is something sad, pathetic even, in the levels of faith being put into the 'right choice' for Pope. It's as if this yet to be chosen person were about to be idolised as something that will show the way, or should that be Way? Not much point in choosing the perfect Virgin Pope if the people he leads are all at sea themselves, because they will not recognise this person as anything beyond a total oddity, a bit like the Queen is regarded. Far too much is being demanded of this position so it is bound to keep failing, since it, and the people who inhabit it, will never really measure up.

Janice Wallace | 11 March 2013  

In his last paragraph, James offers his image of a pope for today's polarised church: Could we have a pope who patiently attends to the action of God in the broader culture while being utterly faithful to the gospel way of life? I would ask: Without such a pope, can the current trend of people leaving the Church be reversed? When the Church can celebrate the work of God in the secular world instead of only hearing the militant atheism of some of that world's speakers; when the Church can recognise how its views on human sexuality are so dismissive of the insights of physiology and psychology; when the Church challenges its own structures of authority; then and only then will the faithful Catholic, trying to balance Church teaching in his/her modern life feel accepted by the official Church of pope, hierarchy and teaching magisterium. For many, the disappointment is too great and leaving the Church is better than remaining to hear in so many ways that your beliefs put you outside the communion of the Church. And the challenge for the new pope and through him, the magisterium? - To help us integrate the gospel into our modern lives rather than continuing the present polarity by trying to keep the modern world at bay.

Ian Fraser | 11 March 2013  

Edward F, do you mind not quoting a reference to an article to which you must subscribe to read it in full? It is bad internet manners. You should also mention George Weigel's role as a writer for "First Things", a very conservative American Catholic Magazine. John, I think that the notion of Christ (and thus the Gospels) as being "counter-cultural"is misguided. Christ was so popular as a preacher that he at least once drew a crowd so large He had to feed them with the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The people who disliked Him was the Establishment in the form of the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and other Temple Police. And as we know they plotted against him, ultimately successfully. No, I think the general populace received His mesage well, and that's what really threatened the Establishment.

Bruce S | 11 March 2013  

Bruce S: "Counter-cultural" might indeed be a bit broad, because Christ certainly affirmed all that was good,true and beautiful. And yet he was also severely critical of cultural distortions - manifestations of faithlessness and sin - of his cutural milieu. This prophetic character must also be evident in his followers today within the miaaion of the Church.

John | 12 March 2013  

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