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Radical Benedict


Pope Benedict's resignation shocked the Church and the world. A papal resignation has not occurred in almost 600 years. Benedict did something that was considered 'not done'. It was not against the rules, but it has changed the institution of the Church. 

It makes him look like a radical in the tradition of Christian radicalism. Biblical commentators note that the term radical 'is derived from the Latin word radix meaning 'root', referring to the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship', and that 'one way Christians achieve this is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels'. 

Such re-orientation is informed by conscience. Accordingly, Benedict wrote in his statement last week: 'After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry ... In order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.'

The logic of what Benedict did implies that his successor could choose to overlook practices that are arguably no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ in general, such as priestly celibacy. 

It is true that relaxing the celibacy requirement would involve revising laws in addition to overturning modern tradition. But Benedict has established the principle of the Pope 'examin[ing his] conscience before God', in order to promote the primacy of the exercise of the ministry for which the Church was founded. Accordingly, laws that fail to uphold primary principles can and should be changed.

The upshot of Benedict's resignation is that the Church has grounds for hope that did not exist a week ago. As the blogger Andrew Sullivan put it:

Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.

Moreover it would do no harm for the reverberations of Benedict's radical and conscientious action to be felt beyond the Church, inside institutions such as political parties and unions, where more attention is often given to particular rules and conventions than the purposes for which they were founded.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, pope, Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, priestly celibacy, Andrew Sullivan



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Existing comments

I like all things to do with any churches.Even though I was brought up Baptist.Deuteronomy 31 verses 30 - 31 How should one chase a thousand, to flight,except their rock had sold them,and the Lord had shut them up.For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges. For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps. Is not this laid up in store with me, and sealed up among my treasures? To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.Verse 36 For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.My lottery numbers I played for Mega Millions today was 23 24 31 37 03 30.And For Cash 4 2324.I believe in dreams, dice and Gods Holy Word.

Shawna Watson | 15 February 2013  

It isn't surprising that the Catholic bashing set is taking pleasure in Benedict's resignation, because it does fundamentally call into question many of the ideas these anti Catholics cannot abide.The papacy has never traditionally been viewed as a mere function, a position one occupies for a period of time, but rather as something more mystical and binding. Not anymore. Now we know that there isn't much mystical or infallible about being Christ's vicar on Earth. What about his spiritual status? Doesn't matter, it seems. Being pope is just a position, like CEO, and as Michael Mullins has excitedly put it: "laws that fail to uphold primary principles can and should be changed"

DavidSt | 15 February 2013  

Benedict was, indeed, quite a radical in many ways, Michael. He was much criticized by those within and without the Catholic Church because, with the best will in the world, he would be unable to deliver their agenda. Armchair critics, often of what is called a Liberal Anglo-Catholic background, i.e. Anglicans who like ceremony but are flexible on matters doctrinal, love giving advice as to what sort of new Pope is needed and what direction Rome should move in. Looking at the worldwide Anglican Communion and the de facto schism in it I would hope their advice is ignored. Radical Catholicism, as embodied by those such as the late Michel Quoist - a real return to the spirit of truth rather than talk - is a bracing thing. Benedict was a complex and sincere man. I suspect his health to be far worse than reported. Giving up such a high office after consulting your conscience is a mark of humility. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, my favourite papabile, has been a consistent voice against paedophilia and open to the idea of marriage among secular clergy. I think the Church does need to move ahead, keeping what is good in its coherent Tradition, but adapting non-doctrinally binding rules and regulations to better reflect its Truth to the modern world. These are heady times. Hopefully the next Pope will be up to the job. I think Benedict left him a good ship.

Edward F | 16 February 2013  

Thank you for your valid reflection Michael. There is a stirring of a breeze in these recent events that has whispers of a window open, just ajar. Open to the whispers of the Holy Spirit!? Peace.

Ben from Redfern | 16 February 2013  

Exactly, Michael. I was particularly impressed that His Holiness reached "certainty" by examining his own conscience before God. No mention of experts (theologians, doctors, etc) or friends. What a dramatic expression of the supremacy of conscience. May he enjoy serenity and comfort in his retirement.

Uncle Joe | 18 February 2013  

Radical "re-orientation ... informed by conscience" requires a willingness to question the flawed governance of the Church which has led us away from the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels. A new radical Pope could start with the naivety of creeping infallibility and an unerring magisterium. A new radical Pope would look again at the plethora of dogma that has developed through a simplistic expectation of divine guidance of fallible humans, resulting in the alienation of so many good Catholics. A new radical Pope could recognise the importance of gender balance in the hierarchy which, while removing unjustifiable discrimination against women, would lead to some more enlightened approaches to Christ-like governance and doctrine based on love rather than prejudice.

Peter Johnstone | 18 February 2013  

"It makes him look like a radical in the tradition of Christian radicalism." No, it shows him to be an old man who knows he has reached the end of his working life and has resigned before he becomes an empty shell. This sort of commentary reminds me of a Python sketch, where Brian's every move is interpreted to appease and cement some pre-ordered view. He's old, he's tired, he resigned. However, if you think this speaks straight to the question of priestly celibacy (everyone holds a thong above their heads) then what does it say about the end of the contraception ban? Or the Church hatred towards homosexuals? Or the loathing of women built into Vatican thinking? Davidst repeats my point from the other day, or shares his own understanding in the same words anyway - quite right he is too. Just stick a cashwise greedy CEO in the job and then you might be able to pay your fair share of taxes around the world.

janice wallace | 18 February 2013  

The celibacy rule should not be a problem. After all, it only applies to some Catholic priests, generally those in the Latin rite. Any change would involve simply recognising that the latter have the same basic human rights as their Eastern Rite colleagues.

Peter Downie | 18 February 2013  

There was indeed a certain logic in what Benedict decided to do. I fail to see, however, that although he describes his decision as coming after examination of his conscience, that his decision is contrary to a moral position or a position demanded by his priestly obligations. Equally, there is no logic to be found in the statement that [priestly celibcacy] is "arguably no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ". What on Earth does marriage offer to Christ's ministry other than the load of domestic responsibility for the minister and perhaps a primary moral obligation to any issue of his marriage which might conflict with his moral obligation as a priest. Please don't tell me that Jesus was in fact married (to Mary Magdelene, perhaps?) and that the dreadful Eurocentric Papacy has been hiding that fact from us for all these years.

john frawley | 18 February 2013  

John Frawley, What does marriage offer to Christ's ministry? You are joking or are you denigrating marriage like so many in the early centuries did? How about the grace of the sacrament or does that not figure in your theology? Why would Paul counsel that bishops and deacons should be the husband of one wife and capable of managing their households? Why were clergy commonly married throughout the first millenium? Why are Eastern-rite Catholic priests allowed to be married (a very ancient tradition in the Church). Is their ministry less valuable than a that of a non-married priest? We don't know whether Jesus had been married or not.

Francis | 18 February 2013  

Allowing the clergy to marry will only be a problem for closeted and repressed homosexual priests for whom their celibate (i.e.) carefree bachelor lifestyle) will no longer be viewed as such a noble sacrifice. And what on earth does marriage have to offer Christ's ministry? Well, John Frawley, you hit the nail on the head! (We are still on earth, not living as the angels with no human desires)

AURELIUS | 18 February 2013  

Actually, the papacy has always (since about the fourth century anyway) traditionally been viewed as a function, a position a bishop occupies for a period of time. Nothing has changed in that respect. This person is the Bishop of Rome. It’s a big job and someone has to do it. It is in this respect no more mystical and binding than any other vocation or calling. Benedict’s very revealing resignation statement is saying the same thing. Rome is quite a big place, it has to be said, bigger than a lot of other places. Vicar of Christ has been used since the early church to refer to any bishop, not just the one in Rome. I like Tertullian’s use of the term Vicar of Christ, which he liked to think was the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is available to all we poor mortals on Earth, even the Bishop of Rome, then we may be visited by the Vicar of Christ day and night. Bring it on, I say. I certainly don’t expect a home visit from the Bishop of Rome anytime soon. Meanwhile, the analogy to a CEO is more telling than DAVIDST would like to imagine. One of the grouses about CEO culture in our own society is the way it vests too much power and influence in one person who may not have all the skills necessary for the job, but who nevertheless has much of the power and many of the side benefits. The real foundation of DAVIDST’s blog is the unquestioning belief that the Pope is the top of the pile, the head of the hierarchy. Too many people in the church want to believe in this rather than in Tertullian’s Vicar of Christ. For them, infallibility means certainty, whereas uncertainty is the place where faith grows. The kind of ‘mystical’ they want is a mystical that won’t be put to any kind of test.

CONTRA DAVIDST | 18 February 2013  

Marriage is an ordinance of God, and Christ has made it a sacrament—yet there is a higher state, and the jews did not understand.Their whole idea was to associate religion with pleasures of this world. They did not know, commonly speaking, what it was to give up this world for the next. They did not understand that poverty was better than riches, ill name than good name, fast and abstinence than feasting, and virginity than marriage. And therefore when the woman in the crowd cried out upon the blessedness of the womb that bore Him and the breasts that He had sucked, Our Lord assents, but instead of dwelling on the good words of this woman, He goes on to say something further. He speaks of a greater blessedness. “Yea,” He says, “but blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” He taught her and all who heard Him that the soul was greater than the body, and that to be united to Him in spirit was more than to be united to Him in flesh.Cardinal John Newman.

Mark | 18 February 2013  

"the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship',... "to revisit the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Mark," ........ Why not go to the real radix, which was the Teachings of Jesus? The first community had no Gospels; only the Words of Jesus, who had collated (a),the two Great Commandments (from the Old Testament), and which Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE), declared to be a summary of religion,and that everything else was mere commentary, (b), the Golden Rule (from the 500BCE Confucius) (c) the ideal of Universal Love,(Mo Tsu, 400BCE), and the idea of a Universal Judgement,(from Daniel 12:2,3). it was these teachings which the 2nd C. Bishop said were gathered by Matthew and written down in the Hebrew language, that were the inspiration that launched "The Way" which was later called Christianity by Greek converts. The person of Jesus did not loom so large among these first communities. There was no popular outcry when he was taken by the soldiers, and even his closest followers fled. The spirit of the first communities was changed radically first by the Greek converts, and by the Romans, as they adapted it to their ideas.

Robert Liddy | 18 February 2013  

From Joseph Ratzinger's 'Journey to Easter': "Good things have their beginning in the desert in silence, in poverty'. The Anglican Church whose hands are also soiled as well as the catholic Church has been speedy to act- in the self-defensive way, and too slow to go to the desert leaving all of the claptrap behind and listen and admit that the voices of perceived complaint may well be promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Stuart Blackler | 18 February 2013  

@Robert Liddy, the real radix, which was the teachings of Jesus, has nothing to do with the adaptation of ideas. NB- "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "BEFORE ( 2000 BC ) Abraham was born, I am.( John 8:58 )

Game Theory | 18 February 2013  

To my way of thinking celebacy is an economic restraint. At the moment the Church only has to find funds to support single men. What would it cost to support a wife and presumably a big family - seeing as no contraceptive is allowed except family planning - which has proven from time to time to be a little bit iffy!

Bernadette | 18 February 2013  

"Contra- DavidSt" is disingenuous. The truth is there have been only few papal resignations in history. But even when this handfull of popes did resign, nevertheless the strong prohibition against it remained. This has always been so. So if you want to talk about tradition then that is the tradition. No, the gleeful applause directed at the pope simply betrays today's unease and nervous discomfort with the whole notion of a lifelong commitment to a sacred vocation. It has a preference for public confessions of frailty and weakness over the determination to commit; to go all the way in genuine Christ like fashion and slogging it out through thick and thin.

DavidSt | 18 February 2013  

This resignation, while welcome in many quarters, does nothing other than confirm what we all suspect-namely that the ship of state known as the Vatican is beyond discipline or control Why then should we derives hope from this action.

graham patison | 18 February 2013  

Basil Hume was once asked what would come first, women clergy or married clergy. The answer was women clergy, because the church cannot afford the upkeep of all those houses full of families.

quote for bernadette | 19 February 2013  

Quote for Bernadette, Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,'she said.Lewis Carroll.

Game Theory | 19 February 2013  

It appears the "new conservative" Catholic Church view (aka Abbott's DLP worldview) sees celibacy, virginity and environmental issues in the same way - burning fossil fuels is a bit like having sex - a necessary evil to keep the engines of society burning (procreation and energy) to service the needs of the elite few.

AURELIUS | 19 February 2013  

As someone who is from an Eastern Church that has the discipline of optional celibacy, it would be great if they opened the priesthood in the Western Church to permanent deacons who have served for at least 3-5 years. But of course, there are practical issues to tackle. More importantly, the Catholic Church itself recognises that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood, but it is something preferred by the Western Church in order to prefigure them closely to Christ. No one is forced to be a priest. And as for allowing priests to get married, that simply violates a canon instituted since the 4th century, which states that an ordained man who is married must remain married, but cannot remarry in the case of death. The Church sees Holy Orders as an impediment to marriage, and rightly so.

Collin Nunis | 19 February 2013  

(Game Theory: 18 Feb 2013) . NB- "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "BEFORE ( 2000 BC ) Abraham was born, I am.( John 8:58 ) What Jesus actually taught needs to be sorted out from the accretions added later by well-meaning but misguided writers. I SUGGEST THE ABOVE QUOTE IS ONE SUCH EXAMPLE. The clearest example of these accretions is the Trinitarian Baptismal formula in Mt28:19. This is the only place in the Gospels it is mentioned. This formula did not originate until the 4th Century, so it was clearly added at that time, thus starting a completely new tradition.

Robert Liddy | 19 February 2013  

I wish Jesus would just hurry up and return so we could finally put all these doubts and skirmishes to rest.

AURELIUS | 19 February 2013  

Robert Liddy, if you are a scholar, why haven't you mentioned : The First Epistle of St.Paul to the Thessalonians? Those who know, know.

Game Theory | 19 February 2013  

Benedict XVI bowing to the Primacy of his Conscience!! That's going to put George Pell on the back foot!

Bruce S | 20 February 2013  

Game Theory19 Feb 2013 "Robert Liddy, why haven't you mentioned : The First Epistle of St.Paul to the Thessalonians? Those who know, know." ????? Those who know a bit, fill out their view with their own vision of what they think would be nice. Some one (was it C.S.Lewis?) said, "It's hard to ignore a dragon, if you happen to live near one." We seem to go on happily ignoring the elephant in the room. In this case the elephant (or dragon?) is the new scholarship being recognised, after being suppressed for so many years. 1.The early Church was a Jewish Sect, born and prospered just on the Words of Jesus.It was rejected and persecuted by the Jewish Establishment. 2. It passd into the hands of the Greek-speaking Gentiles, who inserted their old pagan ideas (the miracles of paqan gods which they then attributed to Jesus), into the general story of Jesus.It was they who deified Jesus, starting a new tradition. 3.The Romans adopted this hotch-potch, and suppressed any questioning of it. They then imposed Roman ideas on it. The word "clergy" originated from Constantine who saw himself as the Pontifex Maximus, and Church officials as his 'clerks'. -------------------------------------------

Robert Liddy | 20 February 2013  

Here's a rather revealing comment from the Archbishop Emeritus of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk: “I think it will be harder than when we were choosing the successor to John Paul II. At least the way I see it, there is no one outstanding or extraordinary personality, although there are many distinguished cardinals. So it will be a difficult task to choose someone from this group.” (Link: Radio Praha: http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-catholics-praise-popes-courageous-decision-to-resign#0

Bruce S | 20 February 2013  

There is an elephant in the room, Robert, but the horse has already bolted. PS: I would hazard, by the way, that it is possibly C.S.Lewis who invented the expression about elephants. The first time I ever saw that image was in his essay called (I think it's called) 'Elephant and Fernseed.' I am happy to be corrected about that, but still the horse has bolted.

RESPONSE TO ROBERT LIDDY | 21 February 2013  

The first letter to the Thessalonians was likely the first of Paul's letters, probably written by the end of AD 52, making it, so far as is now 'known' ( re: those who know, know ) the 'first' written book in the New Testament.

Game Theory | 21 February 2013  

Can we take a broader look at what Robert Liddy said in 'part' about the Gospel of Matthew? Jacob Neusner imagined having a dialogue with a Jesus-era Jewish "master" about Jesus' Torah teaching: "He: 'What did he leave out?' "I: 'Nothing.' "He: 'Then what did he add?' "I: 'Himself.'" Neusner asserted that any thoughtful Jew must conclude that Jesus was actually "abandoning the Torah" and reject him. He also suggested that insofar as Matthew's arguments are based in Jewish law, Christianity may be flawed by its own standards.Ratzinger blurbed A Rabbi Talks as "by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."

Game Theory | 21 February 2013  

Perfectly stated. And I never cease to wonder at ordained ministers from other traditions coming over to the Catholic tradition because of women's ordination in the Anglican Church but actively ministering while married.

Bernadette Mary | 24 February 2013  

Why do we have to make every event a reason for a soap box? Benedict has resigned, clearly after prayer and contemplation, due to failing health. That is the fact. My heart and mind tells me there is no reason why there should not be female or married clergy but the issue now surely is to pray for all the Cardinals to, with prayer and humility, vote for the man who they most sincerely believe will endeavour to reflect in all his actions the desire and will and love of Christ. It is tough that the Pope also has to manage a very complex and human organisation. It will take a Pope of strength and intelligence to do so. Lets pray for one!

Mary Hoban | 25 February 2013  

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