Thursday, March 7, 2013

'Vacancies' of Papal Administration

The great ecclesiologist Fr. Joseph Komonchak, emeritus John C. and Gertrude P. Hubbard Chair in Religious Studies at Catholic University of America, has a good article in the latest issue of Commonweal entitled, "Benedict's Act of Humility: Now it's Rome's Turn".  The full article can be accessed here.

Komonchak made two points in the article that were of interest to me.  First, he argues that Benedict's resignation may be his greatest contribution to ecclesiology.  Benedict's admission that he no longer had the strength to continue as pope, Komonchak argues, "not only humanizes the pope himself but helps bring the papacy back within the church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called its 'pyramid-like isolation.'"  Komonchak here suggests that there is something ecclesiologically important about Benedict's resignation, for it implicitly counters unhealthy elevation of the office of the papacy.  He writes: "All those unique titles that seemed to place the papal office above and beyond all other offices and ministries in the church suddenly have to yield to what their occupants all have in common: a fragile, sinful, and mortal humanity."

Could it be possible that Benedict's resignation, this act of humility, might contribute to the kind of collegiality arguably envisioned by the council fathers at Vatican II?  Time will tell.

Komonchak's second point has to do with what he refers to as the 'vacancies' of papal administration that marked the tenures of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Neither pope, Komonchak writes, was all that interested in the details of administration.  John Paul II demonstrated this through his continuous travels.  Benedict's lack of administrative prowess, however, was due to his academic inclinations.  Thus, "Pope Benedict retreated into his study, where he composed not only his official homilies, speeches, and encyclicals, but also three books."

This isn't the first time that I've heard of Benedict's studiousness getting in the way of administration.  From a few 'insiders' I've heard that Benedict greatly cut down on meetings with the curia and other administrators in favour of spending more time in his study.  As an academic and theologian I understand and greatly respect Benedict's desire to read and write.  But Komonchak writes that Benedict's penchant for academia was disastrous:
"The result of this approach to the office—call it the two “vacancies” of papal responsibility—has been not only the sort of unedifying spectacle of curial rivalries we saw in the “Vatileaks” scandal, but a return to, and even heightening of, the centralized theory and practice that many had hoped Vatican II would bring to an end. Instead, after modest efforts at institutionalizing the council’s ecclesiology, we have seen over the past forty years the atrophying of structures for co-responsibility and cooperation at every level of church life."
Ideally it would seem to me that what we need in our next pope is someone who can combine the courage and reforming zeal of John XXIII, the charisma of John Paul II, and the theological genius of Benedict XVI with exceptional administrative abilities.  Is that asking for too much?

Photo of Fr. Komonchak courtesy of

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