Thursday, February 28, 2013

The election of a new pope and the Holy Spirit

by Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
February 14, 2013

The commendable attitude of the former Pope Benedict XVI in leaving the government of the Roman Catholic Church was followed by interviews with some bishops and priests on radio and TV stations across the country. Certainly an event of such importance to the Roman Catholic Church is news and leads to predictions, speculations of various kinds, especially about suspicion, intrigue and conflict within the Vatican walls that could have accelerated the pope's decision.

In the context of the first news reports, what struck me was something small and insignificant at first sight for analysts who deal with Vatican affairs. It was the way some of the priests who were interviewed or those who are TV show hosts responded when asked about who would be the new Pope by going off on a tangent. They referred to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- or its will -- as being the element on which the election of the Roman pontiff depended. Nothing about thinking of specific people to respond to the challenging world situations, nothing about stimulating reflection in the community, nothing about talking about the current issues in the church that have led to a significant slump, nothing about listening to the cries of the Catholic community for the democratization of the anachronistic structures that support the institutional church.

The theological training of these priest-communicators doesn't let them get away from a well known trivial and abstract discourse, an argument that keeps having recourse, as an explanation, to occult powers, and so, in a certain way, confirming their own power. The continual reference to the Holy Spirit from a mysterious hierarchical model is a way of camouflaging the real problems of the Church and a form of religious rhetoric to avoid revealing the internal conflicts experienced by the institution.

The theology of the Holy Spirit continues to be magic for them, expressing explanations that can no longer speak to the hearts and consciences of many people who appreciate the legacy of the movement of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a theology that is causing the passivity of the faithful in the face of many forms of domination, including the religious kind. They continue to repeat formulas as if the latter would satisfy most people.

It saddens me to note the fact once again that men and women religious and some lay people working in the media don't perceive that we are in a world where arguments have to be more assertive and characterized by consistent philosophical references, in addition to traditional scholastic ones. A humanist reference would make them much more understandable to ordinary people, including those who are non-Catholic and non-religious. The responsibility of religious media is huge and includes the importance of showing how the history of the church depends on the relationships and interventions of all the histories of countries and individuals. It's time to abandon this abstract metaphysical language, as if a God were to take special care of electing the new pope, regardless of conflicts, challenges, inequities or human qualities. It's time to face a Christianity that acknowledges the conflict of human wills and recognizes that at the end of an election process, the choice made can not always be considered the best for all. To face the fact that Church history is a history built by us all and to bear witness to respect for ourselves by showing the responsibility that we who consider ourselves members of the Roman Catholic community all have.

The election of a new Pope is something that has to do with all the Catholic communities scattered around the world and not just a minority elderly male elite. Therefore, it's necessary to move beyond a discourse that justifies papal power and face the real problems and challenges we're experiencing. Undoubtedly, this presents many difficulties and addressing them requires new beliefs and the real desire to promote changes that favor human coexistence.

Once again I'm concerned that we aren't more openly discussing the fact that the government of the institutional Church is being given over to elderly people who, despite their qualities and wisdom, are no longer able to easily and vigorously face the challenges that these functions require. How long will the papal male gerontocracy be like a double of the image of an old white God with a white beard?

Might there be any possibility of getting away from the schema or at least starting a discussion with a view to a different future organization? Might there be some possibility of opening these discussions in the grassroots Christian communities that have the right to information and a Christian formation better suited to our times?

We know how much the strength of religion depends on the challenges and behavior that are the result of convictions capable of sustaining the life of many groups. However, religious beliefs can't be reduced to a static view of tradition or to a deliberately naive view of human relations. Religious convictions also can't be reduced to the wave of various devotions that are spread through the media. Moreover, we can't continue to treat people as ignorant and incapable of formulating intelligent and astute questions concerning the church. However, priest-communicators think they're dealing with passive people and among them, many young people who have developed a romantic cult around the figure of the pope. The religious maintain this often comfortable situation out of ignorance or greed for power. Proving divine intervention in the choices that the Catholic Church hierarchy makes, regardless of the will of Christian communities around the world, is a glaring example of this situation.  It is as if they wanted to erroneously reaffirm that the Church is first and foremost the clergy and cardinalitial authorities to whom is conferred the power to elect a new pope and that this is the will of God. The thousands of faithful are only supposed to pray that the Holy Spirit chooses the best one and wait for the white smoke to announce again that "Habemus Papam". They are always trying ably to make believers evade the real history, their collective responsibility, and appeal to higher powers to direct history and the Church.

It is unfortunate that these shapers of public opinion are still living in a world that is theologically and perhaps even historically, pre-modern, where the sacred seems detached from the real world and placed in a higher sphere of power to which only a few have direct access. It's heartbreaking to see that critical awareness in relation to their own childish beliefs has not been awakened, for their personal good and the benefit of the Christian community. It seems we even highlight the religious obscurantism present in all ages, while the Gospel of Jesus continually calls us to mutual responsibility for one another.

Knowing the many difficulties faced by Pope Benedict XVI during his short papal ministry, Catholic media companies only highlight his qualities, his commitment to the Church, his theological intelligence, his vigorous thinking, as if to hide once again the limitations of his personality and political stance not only as Pontiff, but also, as prefect for many years of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office.

They don't allow the human contradictions of Joseph Ratzinger the man to appear, or his legalistic intransigence or the punitive treatment that partially characterized him to be remembered. Since his election, they speak of his mainly as a transitional papacy. No doubt that is so. But, a transition to what?

I would like the commendable attitude of resignation of Benedict XVI to be experienced as a privileged moment to invite the Catholic communities to rethink their governance structures and the medieval privileges that this structure entails.

Those privileges, both from an economic and a political and socio-cultural point of view, keep the papacy and the Vatican as a separate male state. But a male state with influential diplomatic representation and served by thousands of women worldwide, in the different bodies of its organization. This fact also invites us to reflect on the kind of social relations of gender that this state continues to maintain in current social and political history.

The pre-modern structures that this religious power still retains must be confronted with the democratic aspirations of our peoples in the search for new forms of organization that more closely match the times and diverse groups of today. They should be confronted with the struggles of women, racial minorities and majorities, of people of diverse sexual orientations and options, thinkers, scientists and workers in the most varied professions. They need to be reworked in the prospect of greater and more fruitful dialogue with other faiths and with the wisdom scattered throughout the world.

And finally, I want to return to the Holy Spirit, to that wind that blows in each of us, that breath in us that is greater than us, that brings us closer and makes us interdependent with all living beings. A breath of many shapes, colors, flavors and intensities. A breath of compassion and tenderness, a breath of equality and difference. This wind or breath can not be used to justify and maintain power structures of privilege and ancient or medieval traditions as if they were laws or indisputable and immutable norms. The wind, the air, the spirit blows where it wills and no one should dare to want to be its master, even once. The spirit is the force that draws us near to each other; it's the attraction that allows us to recognize ourselves as similar and different, as friends, and that together we are seeking ways of coexistence, peace, and justice. These pathways of the spirit are those that let us react to the oppressive forces that arise from our own humanity, those which lead us to denounce the forces that prevent the movement of the sap of life, that lead us to un-cover the hidden secrets of the powerful. Therefore, the spirit shows itself in acts of mercy, in bread broken, in power shared, in the healing of wounds, in land reform, fair trade, weapons transformed into plowshares -- in short, in abundant life for all. This seems to be the power of the spirit within us, power that needs to be awakened in each new moment in our history and be awakened in us, among us and for us.