17 November 2015


For your (or at least, my) amusement, I will from time to time reproduce an old post which seems to me to have something to say about current circumstances. This piece is from June 4 2015. I was reminded of it by the Holy Father's recent final Allocution to his Synod, which seemed to me, marked as I am by the 28 years I spent as member of Common Room of an English Public School, to be exactly the sort of address one gets from a Public School head master who dimly senses that he is, quite simply, failing to take very many his colleagues with him on some enterprise very dear to his heart. I heard so many such talks ...

If the head master of an English public school addressed Common Room and angrily listed the seventeen ways in which its members were corrupt, and did it just before Christmas [as the Pope did to the Curia in 2014], something would happen. The Governing Body would know about it within hours ... because there always seem to be members of Common Room who are on easy social terms with members of the Governing Body. So, sometime in January, two or three senior members of the Governing Body would be detailed to have a private, completely friendly, unofficial and entirely off-the-record chat with the head master ... sort of ... er ... about How He Saw His Future. But, of course, the Catholic Church is not like an English public school.

Is it like a British governing party? Mrs Thatcher was a powerful prime minister. But, in the end, too many people felt that they had just about had enough. In were sent the Men in Grey Suits. Perhaps the one blow that most deeply wounded the Iron Lady was delivered by the very greyest of all the grey men who have ever lived, Geoffrey Howe [who died a few weeks ago]; of whom some wit (Dennis Healey, I think) had averred that being attacked by him was like being savaged by a dead sheep. Mercilessly, in a House of Commons where you could have heard a pin drop, he destroyed her with an elegant metaphor drawn from the game of cricket. Within weeks, she was History.

What, of course, has made the Papacy different from both of those institutions is that the pope does not retire. He carries on until death. So, apart from murdering him ... a solution with "First Millennium" precedents ...  there is no way of getting rid of him. He can't be manoeuvred into retiring. Strategies designed to isolate him, to put pressure on him, to plot against him, to ambush him, to stack up coalitions against him, simply don't make any practical sense. You just have to put up with him until Providence sends in the Grim Reaper. There are no men in grey suits, or greying cassocks, to put a friendly knife in.

Or rather, that is how things were until the abdication of Benedict XVI.

I do not think that the implications of his abdication have yet been fully recognised. Not since the Council of Constance had a living pope receded from the See of Rome. In 1415, the Council deposed the 'Pisan' pope John XXIII (who accepted deposition on 4 June ... six hundred years ago ... how time does fly ... ), and then accepted the resignation of the 'Roman' pope Gregory XII on 4 July. In 1417 it deposed the 'Avignon' pope Clement VIII, and elected Martin V. No subsequent pope has abdicated or been deposed. Since then, the assumption that the pope is a Given whom only God can loose from his pontificate, has, surely, been one of the most potent protections of each succeeding pontiff.

After Benedict's abdication, nothing can ever be the same again. No future pope can ever be as immovable as every pope was from Constance until Benedict.

Eventually, this will sink in. Eventually, popes will become as disposable as head masters and Mrs Thatcher.

And this implies a consequential loss of power; a vulnerability.

[I wonder if (I wouldn't put it past him) Pope Benedict XVI realised all this. I wonder if his abdication was his last and most masterly coup to undermine the post-Vatican II construct, against which he had so vigorously argued, of the Pope Who Can Do Anything, who is an Absolute Monarch; and to restore the Vatican I model of a strictly limited papacy with its limitations clearly and lucidly described.]


Anonymous said...

Father, I am not sure that "weakening the Papacy" is a good thing. What we need is a pope who truly understands the limitations of his power in the Papacy - which is (according to my understanding),LIMITED to SAFEGUARDING the revealed truths of the Catholic Faith that have been handed down by Our Lord through the apostles.

Unfortunately, we have at present a pope who does not understand his primary duty whatsoever; While I know by faith that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Catholic Church, (assured by Our Lord Himself), I think it does not mean that the attempt to prevail will not be made. And perhaps with the very assistance by Pope Francis himself:

Rorate Caeli is reporting that the Vatican Secretary of State has said that the Year of Mercy is open to Muslims. ofcourse, there are no details given by the Vatican on what this actually means in a practical way.

Eponymous Flower reports on the latest Pope Francis spontaneity with respect to the Lutherans, "One Faith, One Baptism, One Lord" -- Papal Riddles: Is Pope Francis Calling for Inter-communion?"

At the very least, this is all causing confusion to Catholics who are not well grounded in what the Church teaches. (These Catholics includes many clergy no matter what their rank - as evidenced by the recent Synod)

Kathleen1031 said...

Interesting, Fr. Hunwicke. I wonder if that is so. Five hundred years from now they will no doubt understand more about his resignation than we do today. It remains a baffling thing. As an outsider though, just a layperson and not even a terribly informed one at that, as far as the inner workings of the Vatican go, I must say this papacy has illuminated me on the Church and how She works. Prior to this papacy I had starry eyes about the pope, the Magisterium, the Cardinals, bishops, and so on.
I do not any longer. My opinion is now that it is as secular, worldly, vicious, cunning, and harsh, as anything we can find in the secular world. Entirely political. I wouldn't be surprised if this impression was shared by many outsiders such as myself. My impression is confirmed by the quiet response of Cardinals and clergy to what this pope does and says. I have robins in my backyard that make more noise than these men. But the robins are quiet when the hawk is around. The birds all stop tweeting, and they don't even fly from their hiding spot, while he circles overhead, making a great deal of noise.
But we aren't birds, and at some point, some Cardinal/s are going to have to throw themselves out there in full view of the hawk and take it like a man.

Thank you for another great bit of commentary, Fr. Hunwicke! I enjoy your writing so very much.

Melinda said...

But would such pressured, manipulated resignations be valid? This may not simply be a question about future contingencies; it's been on my mind about the events of 2012-13 as well.

Anonymous said...

Kathleen, I love your analogy. May each of our Cardinals throw himself out there, in full view of the hawk, and take it like a man. I believe Cardinal Burke has done so, for sure.

Donna Bethell said...

Alas, most of the robins are huddled in the trees. One who is not is Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary of Astana, Kazakhstan. On Nov. 4, Rorate-coeli.blogspot.com posted his analysis of the Synod's Final Report, particularly the paragraphs on reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried. He finds an inescapable ambiguity and an opening to allowing those who are committing adultery to receive Holy Communion. Bishop Schneider states: "Indeed, every candidate to the episcopacy promised: 'I will keep pure and integral the deposit of faith according the tradition which was always and everywhere preserved in the Church.' The ambiguity found in the section on divorced and remarried of the Final Report contradicts the abovementioned solemn episcopal vow."

He ends with a call to fidelity for all:

Non possumus!” I will not accept an obfuscated speech nor a skilfully masked back door to a profanation of the Sacrament of Marriage and Eucharist. Likewise, I will not accept a mockery of the Sixth Commandment of God. I prefer to be ridiculed and persecuted rather than to accept ambiguous texts and insincere methods. I prefer the crystalline “image of Christ the Truth, rather than the image of the fox ornamented with gemstones” (Saint Irenaeus), for “I know whom I have believed”, “Scio, Cui credidi!” (2 Tim 1: 12).

So far I have seen no response to Bishop Schneider's challenge to his brother bishops. I suppose they are giving him the silent treatment, although he has an international presence and reputation and the Rorate post was copied to other sites. They can hardly argue with him. The third option would be to send him to the boonies, like Kazakhstan. Oh, wait, he's already there!

Nicolas Bellord said...

Kathleen: I think you are a bit too pessimistic. We have faced with a Papal Egg which is similar to a curate's egg but bigger. Maybe it is being kept warm by a cuckoo?

Banshee said...

I think Pope Benedict XVI was primarily concerned with establishing that popes retained the right to resign, for good and sufficient reasons. There have been many popes who have established the right to hang onto the office despite difficulty, and his saintly immediate predecessor did so in a particularly impressive way.

But if nobody uses a public right-of-way, it can get fenced off. I think Benedict had the kind of mind that finds the loss of a legitimate historical right to be something very bad, and that it is always a good idea to fight a disappearance of rights - even if it requires trouble and sacrifice. OTOH, if one can (even temporarily) achieve one's goals and thwart one's enemies while re-establishing a right, that is particularly satisfying. Benedict's eyes and ears were shot, and he seems to have believed himself to be almost about to die; so he resigned and killed two birds with one stone.

(However, it is possible that his health problems and his view of them had become exaggerated by stress, though he really did look very bad at his resignation time. The German/Swiss side of my family comes from the same area as the Ratzingers, and tends to claim to have one foot in the grave while actually being long-lived and spry. Then they just up and die one day, usually after seeming unusually healthy and in good spirits. This makes the family take an ominous view of perky old people.)

However, I think there are many indications in his writings that he did want people to regard the office of pope and its powers in a sensible way, and not in a more mystical way than can be justified by normal Church teaching and dogma. So you're probably not wrong about it.

OTOH, I think he also established the principle for us moderns that a papal resignation feels like a kick in the gut. I never expected to see my contemporaries going after Benedict like Dante going after Celestine, but some of them surely did. So I don't think it's likely that we'll go to set terms, or obligatory resignations at a certain age. It will probably stay an emergency provision.

Jacobi said...

In retrospect, I think that Benedict's resignation might be one of the most damaging of all assaults yet on the Papacy. From now on, it can be considered just a job, not an immutable rock.

He is not as young as he used to be, but I know people who are as old and as ill as he and yet soldier on.

Rocks don't normally just crumble away. If they do they have not been rocks, just shale or other residues perhaps.

I do not think that is what Christ had in mind!