Pastor to his church
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Theologically speaking, the pope's announcement bears witness to one of the most important promulgations enshrined in Vatican II's teachings. That promulgation is the commitment to collegiality. Collegiality can be defined as a commitment to collaborative partnership, particularly within the institutional structure and its leadership channels. Benedict's choice to step down from his papal role embodies the best of Vatican II's vision of collegiality. He is of sound mind and body, and although there have been reports that he is unwell, he wishes to responsibly hand over the task of being pastor to the world's Catholics to someone more able. It is important to note that the pope did not resign. He renounced his ministry as the Bishop of Rome, harkening to the fact that the pope cannot "resign." There is no one to resign to. The pope is the supreme head of the Catholic Church and for the past 600 years, no one has renounced their role as pope. In so doing, Benedict acknowledges that the papacy is a role that was "entrusted" to him by his brother Cardinals. No one has a divine right to be pope, or to remain one.
In his speech, the pope asserts that the papal ministry has an essentially "spiritual nature", one that is carried on with words and deeds and with prayer and suffering. This is an astonishing view of religious leadership. Benedict has been perceived by many as one with entrenched and rigid views on Christianity, the Roman Catholic priesthood, sexuality and human reproduction. While this is true, it is equally true that the pope, a theologian, asserts his critiques of secularism, globalisation and economic disparity with the same conviction.
The pope's acknowledgement that the role of the Bishop of Rome is essentially spiritual has far-seeing implications for any hyper-masculinised view of male leadership. What the pope has done is reveal that the papacy is more than himself, more than the institutional Church and more than the goodwill and care of its adherents. The papacy, like all forms of Christian leadership, is, in the final analysis, subordinate to divine providence. And, in the manner of its founder, Christian leaders have to be unafraid to empty themselves of the trappings of power and ceremony to address the immediate and urgent needs of the world. The technical word for this, kenosis, which means self-emptying, is to be found in one of the earliest Christian hymns. Such a disavowal of a pyramidal hierarchy overturns the notion held by many that Christian ministry is always enacted, or should be enacted, in a top-down way.
Perhaps it is precisely such a theological and spiritual view of leadership that confounds secular commentators attempting to interpret the pope's decision. Even a cursory look at the frenzy of opinions, tweets and blogs generated globally bears testament to the extraordinary presence of the global "church in the world". Or, perhaps, secularism presumes that effective leadership must always be democratically elected. Secularism, without a doubt, created the conditions for democratising political and social processes and brought gains for women and minority groups within the nation-state. Yet, as is amply evident in continuing gender, domestic and religious violence, the gains are only partial. Democracy neither ensures nor guarantees liberation.
Secularism, in the Western case, attempts to limit the role of religious agency in public and political life. In the case of India, such public religious agency is not necessarily denied, but religious majority and minority dynamics generate contexts of inclusion and exclusion to expose the failures of secularism. For Benedict, the worst excesses of secularism are expressed in the instrumentality with which human life is viewed. A careful consideration of his positions reveals a nuanced and complex mind attempting to be a pastoral presence in a globalised world of inequality and dehumanisation. Many of his contemporary writings address the contending modernities, secularisms and Catholicisms of our world.
The pope has been candid in acknowledging that there are great pathologies of religion. He is equally critical of the pathologies of reason that lead us into thinking that violence is violence only when it is religious. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he urges us to think of economic development more holistically than simply as having the capacity to be more prolific consumers. Rampant consumption, he argues, perpetrates environmental and economic violence.
The pope's departure does mark an extraordinary moment in the life of the global church. His tenure has been evaluated as turbulent, ineffective and a failure. It is true that the theologian Joseph Ratzinger did not live up to his creative potential to deal with the problems facing a contentious world and church. His many missteps on Islam, women, sexuality, the priesthood and Vatican transparency on sexual abuse are horrifying witness to a human institution prevailing in sin. But it is mystifying that the secular media, obsessed with the global prominence of this man, expects him to miraculously provide unambiguous answers to the neuralgic questions of our times. Benedict, renouncing his role as pope, reminds us that all of us must approach our finitude and the moral ambiguity of our choices with humility. In this one act, he has redeemed an institution flailing for relevance and moral righteousness by being a pastor to his church. Any future pope, wherever he is from, can only aspire to as much.
Susan Abraham is assistant professor of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, US