Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No Lunch with the Prefect -- Future of Faith #8

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 8: No Lunch with the Prefect:
How to Fix the Papacy

It is intriguing that non-Catholics find the papacy intriguing. Indeed, it’s even more intriguing to see someone who has strong anti-clerical, anti-hierarchical, anti-creedal, anti-imperial predilections find great value in the papacy. Yet, that is the message of chapter 8, which begins with an account of Harvey Cox’s meeting with the current Pope, Benedict XVI, back when the pontiff was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cox's account, it wasn’t a long meeting, but it was an opportunity to explore the possibility of a reform of the papacy for the purpose of giving leadership to a new age of Christianity.

Cox has had the opportunity to meet several Popes, including Paul VI, who spoke kindly of his book The Secular City (I guess I need to read the book!). He asked the current pope, who had silenced Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff, what was the main source of heresy in the modern world. Interestingly enough Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t name Küng’s liberalism or Boff’s political views, but rather syncretism. What he discovered in this conversation was that the current pope is still deeply rooted in a European world view – while his church has become predominantly non-European.

The point that needs to be made here, however, concerns the discussion that has preceded this one. He notes that Ratzinger said that the way they would deal with these issues that affect the church is through the bishops. Those few words spoke volumes. Yes, he was saying, the old malignancies on the mystical body are still there. They might be assuming a new form, but they will be dealt with as they always have been: by those who, as the only legitimate heirs of the original apostles, hold the unique right to do so (P. 117).

Hierarchy is the solution, a hierarchy that has its roots in the fiction of apostolic succession. And, added to that, you have a papacy that is undergirded by papal infallibility. Now, this power (at least officially -- Popes carry the aura of infallibility in the minds of many, Catholic or not) has been only used once, by Pius XII to affirm the Assumption of Mary as a doctrine. Now, you would think the Pope would speak to something a little bit more relevant, but that’s not the case. All the other statements, ones with great impact on society, were done without this benefit. From Cox’s point of view (one I share), the problem isn’t with the way it is used, but the idea of infallibility itself. The problem, and here he connects the conversation with the basic premise of the book, is that by requiring unbending assent to the dictates of a church leader, such a doctrine “requires not faith, but belief” (p. 120).

The subtitle of this chapter signals Cox’s interest in the papacy. As a non-Catholic, why would he be interested in fixing the papacy? Well, perhaps it’s because, the papacy has a certain aura, a certain authority that is inherent in it that allows the occupant to speak to the world in a powerful way. Few other religious leaders have such an opportunity -- not even Anglicans pay much heed to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps the Dalai Lama is the only other figure to have such an impact, and in the case of the Dalai Lama it’s more about personality than office. With the papacy, it’s the office. Sure a John Paul II or a John XXIII gives a certain depth and personality to the office, but in the final analysis it’s the office. Just look at the current occupant. He’s not a charismatic figure – but we pay attention, even when we disagree.

Back to Cox’s points, he notes that as a result of his studies of the papacy and encounters with popes (despite his religious foundations) he’s concluded that maybe there’s “an important role for the papacy in the Christianity of the future” – despite this thing about infallibility. He finds value in the fact that this institution has lasted so long and survived its occupants, some of whom have been less than savory characters.

The person whom Cox believes best embodied the qualities that a pope will need to be a lead figure as we move forward isn’t John Paul II, despite his charisma, but John XXIII. It is this pope who in his own person redefined the papacy. Perhaps it will be the Pope (likely not the current occupant) who can lead us – whether Catholic or not – into a new day.

We will need to ponder this, for it is odd that a good Baptist would put such hope in a Catholic Pontiff.

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