By Hans Küng
Note: This commentary was first published February 27, 2013 by The New York Times.
The Arab Spring has shaken a whole series of autocratic regimes. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, might not something like that be possible in the Roman Catholic Church as well — a Vatican Spring?
Of course, the system of the Catholic Church doesn't resemble Tunisia or Egypt so much as an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. In both places there are no genuine reforms, just minor concessions. In both, tradition is invoked to oppose reform. In Saudi Arabia tradition goes back only two centuries; in the case of the papacy, 20 centuries.
Yet is that tradition true? In fact, the church got along for a millennium without a monarchist-absolutist papacy of the kind we're familiar with today.
It was not until the 11th century that a revolution from above, the Gregorian Reform started by Pope Gregory VII, left us with the three enduring features of the Roman system: a centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy.
The efforts of the reform councils in the 15th century, the reformers in the 16th century, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries and the liberalism of the 19th century met with only partial success. Even the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of the reformers and modern critics, was thwarted by the power of the Curia, the church's governing body, and managed to implement only some of the demanded changes.
To this day the Curia, which in its current form is likewise a product of the 11th century, is the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches and world religions, and to any critical, constructive attitude toward the modern world.
Under the two most recent popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a fatal return to the church's old monarchical habits.
In 2005, in one of Benedict's few bold actions, he held an amicable four-hour conversation with me at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Rome. I had been his colleague at the University of Tübingen and also his harshest critic. For 22 years, thanks to the revocation of my ecclesiastical teaching license for having criticized papal infallibility, we hadn't had the slightest private contact.
Before the meeting, we decided to set aside our differences and discuss topics on which we might find agreement: the positive relationship between Christian faith and science, the dialogue among religions and civilizations, and the ethical consensus across faiths and ideologies.
For me, and indeed for the whole Catholic world, the meeting was a sign of hope. But sadly Benedict's pontificate was marked by breakdowns and bad decisions. He irritated the Protestant churches, Jews, Muslims, the Indians of Latin America, women, reform-minded theologians and all pro-reform Catholics.
The major scandals during his papacy are known: there was Benedict's recognition of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's arch-conservative Society of St. Pius X, which is bitterly opposed to the Second Vatican Council, as well as of a Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson.
There was the widespread sexual abuse of children and youths by clergymen, which the pope was largely responsible for covering up when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And there was the Vatileaks affair, which revealed a horrendous amount of intrigue, power struggles, corruption and sexual lapses in the Curia, and which seems to be a main reason Benedict has decided to resign.
This first papal resignation in nearly 600 years makes clear the fundamental crisis that has long been looming over a coldly ossified church. And now the whole world is asking: might the next pope, despite everything, inaugurate a new spring for the Catholic Church?
There's no way to ignore the church's desperate needs. There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into internal emigration, especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church.
One shouldn't be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.
In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who's not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn't champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn't let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based shadow pope like Benedict and his loyal followers.
Where the new pope comes from should not play a crucial role. The College of Cardinals must simply elect the best man. Unfortunately, since the time of Pope John Paul II, a questionnaire has been used to make all bishops follow official Roman Catholic doctrine on controversial issues, a process sealed by a vow of unconditional obedience to the pope. That's why there have so far been no public dissenters among the bishops.
Yet the Catholic hierarchy has been warned of the gap between itself and lay people on important reform questions. A recent poll in Germany shows 85 percent of Catholics in favor of letting priests marry, 79 percent in favor of letting divorced persons remarry in church and 75 percent in favor of ordaining women. Similar figures would most likely turn up in many other countries.
Might we get a cardinal or bishop who doesn't simply want to continue in the same old rut? Someone who, first, knows how deep the church's crisis goes and, second, knows paths that lead out of it?
These questions must be openly discussed before and during the conclave, without the cardinals being muzzled, as they were at the last conclave, in 2005, to keep them in line.
As the last active theologian to have participated in the Second Vatican Council (along with Benedict), I wonder whether there might not be, at the beginning of the conclave, as there was at the beginning of the council, a group of brave cardinals who could tackle the Roman Catholic hard-liners head-on and demand a candidate who is ready to venture in new directions. Might this be brought about by a new reforming council or, better yet, a representative assembly of bishops, priests and lay people?
If the next conclave were to elect a pope who goes down the same old road, the church will never experience a new spring, but fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect.
Hans Küng is a professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen and the author of the forthcoming book Can the Church Still Be Saved? This essay was translated by Peter Heinegg from the German.
See also the previous PCV posts:
An Open Letter to Josef Ratzinger
The Best Choice for Pope? A Nun.
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