Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Popish Fruit

The other day it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would step down from the position he has held for some eight years. He is only the second Pope in history to leave the post while still living – one suspects that several have stayed in the Papal Throne for some time post mortem. The first to exit while living was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. The circumstances were rather different, however. Gregory occupied the Holy See at a time when there was a rival pope based at Avignon in France. Gregory’s abdication paved the way for a resolution of the schism.

Cardinal Ratzinger will step down from the office on the 28th of February due to ill health, and an inability to carry out the papal duties. This is surely preferable to seeing him propped up and operated by remote control. It is refreshing to see a tiny spark of common sense prevail over tradition, if only in a fairly benign and non-controversial fashion. Would that a few other minor traditions, such as clerical celibacy and an exclusively masculine priesthood, could be sidelined by common sense. But, of course, the world would implode if common (or any other kind of) sense took root in the Catholic Church.

It astonishes me to see how much influence the Catholic Church continues to have in the world today. It reminds me of a tree that has been ring-barked or poisoned, but takes a long time to realise that it is dead. It’s quite sad to see such a tree, or the trunk of a tree that has been cut down, lying on the ground, continuing to push out new growth even as it dies. The Catholic Church continues to bear popish fruit from its crown, even though it died at the roots years, if not centuries, ago.

Of course the Catholic Church continues to have influence, not only at the global level, but also in the lives of individuals; and not exclusively among those who continue to identify with its teachings. We are all too painfully aware of how the Church has influenced and continues to influence people, long after they thought to have escaped its grasp. I am not referring only to those individuals who have been sexually abused by Church members, although that is obviously deplorable. More generally, guilt is one of the chains that still weighs down many former Church members. I have no problem with guilt per se as long as it arises from acts that warrant it. I think that one should feel appropriately guilty for murdering someone, or for voting for the Republican Party (US) or the Liberal/National Party (AUS). But for masturbating? For having sex outside the bonds of matrimony? For taking the contraceptive pill? The Catholic Church has long since lost the moral authority to pronounce on serious ethical issues. Yet there are its doomed branches, waving in the wind, bearing overripe popish fruit. Strange fruit indeed.

We shall watch the Vatican over the coming days and weeks, waiting for that white smoke to inform us which overripe fruit will take the current Pope’s place. Let’s hope it’s not too much on the nose.

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