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The new Pope must be “a truly spiritual man.” So said Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, a week or so before conclave to elect a pope in March 2013. O’Connor was already too old at 80 to attend, but he had a view of what the attending cardinals would likely discuss. Foremost on the agenda would be how the church governance could be reformed so as to deal better with the past and future sexual abuse scandals involving clergy. Relatedly, the question of clerical celibacy would likely come up.

That the unnatural practice of adult celibacy had been a factor in the errant priestly sexual practices is perhaps the implication. Giving things up for God is surely praiseworthy, but not perhaps at the expense of such a vital or engrained biological element as an organism’s sexuality. Try as we might to the contrary, we cannot cut ourselves off from our basic biology without risking aberrant dysfunction.

O’Connor stressed that the new pope would not be a saint, but that the world could count on the occupant being “of irreproachable character.” This is not to say that being “a truly spiritual” person reduces to virtue ethics; rather, the point is that a sensitivity to matters of conscience is a byproduct of an orientation to experiencing transcendence. How, it may be asked, can a group of Vatican insiders select such a man?

In his interview, O’Connor related how Joe Ratzinger first replied, “No, I can’t” before saying he accepts. As what name he would be called, Ratzinger quickly answered “Benedict.” O’Connor concludes that Ratzinger had already selected the name, making his first response something less than forthright. Such subterfuge does not belong to the sort of character that comes from being “a truly spiritual man.” The question therefore is how a good pope under this criterion can be picked.

O’Connor offers a hint by observing that the new pope may not be a cardinal. Reaching out beyond the Vatican’s walls to put a man unlike themselves at the apex would not be a bad idea. Ideally, the more political and bureaucratic men would be held to one who is not so inclined. The problem is that a basic pragmatism is often needed to see to it that reforms are actually being carried out. Even so, pragmatism in a sort of “trust but verify” sense can be a response to the distance between a truly spiritual person and those who are politically or bureaucratically inclined. Ideally, the Church should have such an arrangement, wherein the political and bureaucratic do not occupy the “soft” center. Direct access to that center would be vital though given the size of the organization such appeals can be difficult. The challenge would be that of transcending the political and bureaucratic for those outside the Vatican’s walls. If God is love, then the core of the governance should also be love, with the more practical impediments being like an egg shell rather than the yoke.

See Jessica Elgot, “Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor ‘Saddened’ By Cardinal O’Brien Scandal, Says New Pope ‘Will Not Be a Saint,” The Huffington Post, February 26, 2013.

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