Institutions Opinion

COMMENTARY: Pope Benedict XVI’s missing mea culpa

(RNS) I wish I could see Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to resign on Feb. 28 as a mea culpa for having led the world’s largest Christian body backward for eight years.

Alas, he has made no apology for cementing Roman Catholicism’s reputation as male-centric, homophobic and uninterested in sex abuse scandals beyond their litigation costs.

In an eerie tone-deafness, he announced his retirement in Latin and had it translated into seven languages of Europe, where the church is close to extinct, and not into any of the African, Asian or Middle Eastern languages spoken by emerging Catholics.

The 85-year-old pope simply said he was physically too frail to do the job. That was a humble admission, and there are countless old men around the world’s power structures who might take a cue from him about the wisdom of letting go.

But so much more needed to be said. The Counter-Reformation ended a long time ago. The days when Rome declared its superiority over other Christian faiths became absurd in the face of Rome’s actual performance as the Body of Christ.

Rome’s obdurate stands against oppressed peoples are shameful. Its harsh treatment of women and gays are not only anachronistic but bad theology. Its institution-first responses to sex abuse by clergy are appalling.

Thanks to Benedict’s assiduous appointments of arch-conservatives to positions of power in the church hierarchy, it could be another generation before modernity gets close to the Roman Catholic Church.

That is a sad legacy. The world has needed more. Not just the insular world of the Roman Catholic Church has needed more, but the world itself, for the pope is the public face of global Christianity. With its largest force stuck in the 19th century, providing safe cover for oppression and intolerance, Christianity has a reputation that smaller denominations and individual congregations struggle to escape.

When young American adults are asked what “church” means to them, they answer with words like “harsh, judgmental, intolerant, angry, old and dull.”

I doubt anyone expects an eruption of progressivism in the upcoming papal election. But a sign of moving forward would be welcome to many Catholics — and more than a few non-Catholics. Those crying for kindness and tolerance, justice and courage, aren’t just a ragged bunch of malcontents or anti-Catholics. These are the faithful — not all of the faithful, of course, for faith comes in many forms, some of them quite conservative — but large cadres of 21st century believers yearning for a 21st century church that’s capable of hearing their needs and proclaiming a gospel set free from the reactionary attitudes of self-preservation.

How will Benedict be remembered? It’s hard to say. My guess: as a placeholder. He tried to turn the tide of history because he disagreed with that tide and found it theologically dangerous. I hope the next pope does what Jesus did: hearing the beggar’s cries, against his disciples’ wishes, inviting the beggar closer and then healing him.

It is time for Christianity to throw off the mantle of its yesterdays and come, like the Gospel of Mark’s Bartimaeus before the Lord, eager to see, eager to follow, eager to serve a God who is making all things new.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

About the author

Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is


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  • Fr. Ehrich,

    And so now you want us to go out of our fold and elect retired Bishop Shelby Spong? The two of you are eaten up with indicating what you think the Catholic Church should do in so-called “spirit of Vatican-II, the documents of which you both have misinterpreted for your own purposes, along with scores of would-be Roman Catholics. Christ’s Church will not become a new-age church, founded, not on the “Rock,” but on the new age philophy: Relativism!
    Jesus never started a democratic institution, but I guess you could say that if 51% of Roman Catholics were in favor of adultery, the Church should stop declaring it a sin.

  • With all due respect to Mr Ehrlich, he is quite confused about the modern world, so-called. The modern world is mostly a return to the pagan practices of pre-Christianity, These practices are very seductive because they work on the level of superficial hedonism. But the Church is there not to be changed by “modernity” but to change it, to make it godly, to show that there is something more important: The Christ. Benedict stressed the issue of Truth during his pontificate, believing that people of open mind are trying to find Truth even if only for themselves. It is that Truth that so many today avoid in the “advanced” countries because it spoils their fun in all that a modern pagan-like society offers, particularly in the sexual realm. Curiously the “backward” Africans see that Truth, and the Church is growing there like in Nigeria, whereas the “progressives” of the “advanced ” countries, such as Mr Erlich it seems, do not, even though their pagan-like institutions are dying. Sorry, but a Church that seeks the Truth shows its superiority over those church-like institutions that think the modern pagans have the truth. Indeed, I hope the next Pope is from Africa, a place that is closer to the Truth than the “advanced” countries of the West.
    In this respect I would also ask that American Imperialists whether wealthy philanthropists such as Melinda and Bill Gates or the so-called liberal ecclesial communities stop trying to destroy the cherished values of Africans with their hordes of money.

  • The Peter we see described in the Gospels is a wonderfully flawed character. One minute he comes up with astounding insights–Jesus is the Christ– and the next he says things that seem to indicate he was sleeping through class when Jesus was teaching. I remember a seminary professor saying that we tend to interpret the rock in Jesus’ saying about Peter as a foundation stone upon which great things would be built. In fact, considering the circumstances, it was more likely Jesus was calling Peter a blockhead–dense, insensitive, obtuse. “Even with one such as this blockhead I can build a church.” The same could be said about those who find it a virtue to refuse to adapt to changing times and circumstances. The Church has been constantly changing since the first Pentecost.

  • With all due respect, why an Episcopal priest writes about internal affairs of the Catholic Church? Shouldn’t he be speaking about other matters? Pope Benedict’s resignation, despite its worldwide broadcast, must be dealt within the Catholic Church. Everyone is entitled to give an opinion, but to try to speak this way seems to me at least inappropiate.

  • The author is hoping for a church that would look to popular culture to inform its teachings. The church would then ask along with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” If it has no unchanging, eternal truth to teach us, who needs it?

  • Why would an Episcopal priest have anything to say about what going on in the Roman Catholic Church? Because what effects one of us effects us all. The typical American can’t tell the difference between one denomination and another. We all get painted with the same brush. Scandal in one becomes, to one degree or another, scandal in all. Godly witness in one becomes, at least a little bit, Godly witness in all.
    I’m also an Episcopal priest and have been an ecumenical officer for my diocese. My task was to maintain positive relations with other denominations. Usually that meant working cooperatively with them on various projects and finding ways to avoid public squabbles that would embarass one or both groups. My counter parts in the Catholic Church did the same for me. Sadly, over the last couple of decades that has changed. The Catholic Church turned inward and let the bridges we built erode until there are few left. It has begun acting as if its sister churches didn’t exist. But that doesn’t change the fact that what happens in the Catholic Church effects all Christians. We are right to care about what happens in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • “Translated into seven languages of Europe”

    How unlike your own dear Presiding Bishop, whose messages I see are all given in Tagalog. Er, no. Well, then, Akan, the most widely spoken language in Ghana, whence comes one of our cardinals! No? How about a smattering of Mandarin, at the very least, seeing as how The Episcopal Church has a presence in Taiwan? Not a sign on the home page, so far as I can see. French, at least, in solidarity with Haiti and your fellow-Anglican Communion members to the North?

    Nope, you get English and Español which, I hate to break it to you, Rev. Ehrich, are both European languages. Oh, the Eurocentric backwardness of it all!

  • So,,,if the Episcopal Church has everything a “thinking Christian” wants, why doesn’t its churches have Standing Room Only for all services?

  • Tom is no more than a perfect example of the post-modern, narcissistic, Episcopal cleric jerk. He would remold the world’s largest Christian body, one with a 2000 year long track record of service into a TEo clone? I think not!

  • Re. The Episcopal Church’s use of English and Spanish in its communications. We don’t have dioceses in Africa. These are the dominate languages spoken in our 110 dioceses. The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, has Provinces all around the world. No doubt the Provinces in Africa publish in the dominate language of their part of the world.
    A more important question you should be asking, Martha and Dave, is why you need to attack the author and the church to which he belongs rather than the addressing the ideas in his commentary to which you object. Ad hominem attacks such as these usually suggest that the speaker has no legitimate response to the subject, so attacks the speaker instead.

  • @Tom Downs: With all due respect to you and to you position as an ecumenical officer, I have to suggest to you that perhaps it was not the Roman Catholics who let bridges erode but rather it was us. Regardless of where we might stand on certain issues, in the past 35 years the Episcopal Church has done nothing but take stands that make fellowship with Rome almost impossible. I agree with you that what happens in Rome effects all of us, and for that reason we (all Christians) need to be praying for the cardnials and for Benedict XIV. However, we (the Episcopal Church) need to take into account how we ourselves have ‘turned inward’. We are just as guilty, if not more so, than those in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Mr. Downs, your church does have dioceses in Taiwan, but it doesn’t put up any messages or translations on its website in Mandarin and Cantonese. And yet, this article faults the Vatican website for not having translations in all the languages spoken by the universal church. Perhaps the Rev. Ehrich is not aware, but even getting a document translated from Italian into English and put up on the Vatican website is quite the achievement, let alone having it immediately issued in Amharic, Igbo or Tagalog! And which particular African language would he like us to issue statements in? Contrary to what he may think, Swahili is not the universal lingua franca of the continent, and choosing one particular language over another might be seen as a snub to those who do not speak that tongue. On the other hand, quite a large number of Africans from various nations can understand French, Portuguese, English and German, due to the colonial history of their countries.

    As a critique, saying “Catholics use Latin, shock horror!” falls somewhere short of the mark. Yes, we’ve been using Latin as the official tongue for quite a while now. I’ll even let the Rev. Ehrich into a shocking secret – some of the original Gospels were written in Greek, yet another European language and not one of the “African, Asian or Middle-Eastern languages” spoken by the “emerging Catholics” of the day!

  • I beg the readers of Mr. Ehrich’s writings to read at least one sampling of the Holy Father’s writings: yesterday’s Angelus would be a good starting place. Everything I have ever read or heard by Pope B 16 has led me closer to the Risen Lord. I thank God for him and I hope that Mr. Ehrich will someday be able to do so as well. Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

  • Rev. Downs,

    You write “The Catholic Church turned inward and let the bridges we built erode …” I would humbly suggest that a more accurate assessment would be that they watched the Episcopal Church dismantle and redesign the bridges.

    Pax et bonum

  • 2 BILLION members + change Tom.

    The Roman Catholic Church does not need to start emulating the Episcopagan sect anytime soon.

    Admit it Tom Ehrich. You’re an atheist just like the high priestess of the Episcopagan cult you follow…..Ms. Schlamori.

  • Wow. Most commentaries and articles here rarely get a comment. It seems this one will never end.
    You all should check out Tom Ehrich’s commentary, “Sorry to burst your bubble,” of February 26. It seems he has been plastered with a host of ad hominem attacks by raging staunch Catholic traditionalists. The fact that he’s drawn such vehement disproportionate outraged says he has struck a nerve… and most likely the truth no one wants to admit.

  • Rev. Downs,

    You write: “(Ehrich) has been plastered with a host of ad hominem attacks…he has struck a nerve… and most likely the truth no one wants to admit.

    Yet you ignore the following ad hominem, and/or logically usupported, attacks on Benedict by Ehrich in the article:

    • “(Benedict XVI) having led the world’s largest Christian body backward for eight years.“—A slur based on a personal opinion, not on a reasoned argument.

    • that he “cement(ed) Roman Catholicism’s reputation as male-centric, homophobic and uninterested in sex abuse scandals beyond their litigation costs.” Personal opinion again unsupported by reasoned arguments from demonstrated factual evidence, of which the remainder are further examples.

    • “Rome’s obdurate stands against oppressed peoples&… Its harsh treatment of women and gays….“—quite unlike the pronouncements of Mrs. Jefferts-Schori, of course, who has never lacked for empty progressive rhetoric rather than acts of corporal mercy for the oppressed.

    • Benedict’s alleged “tone-deafness….”—perhaps Mr. Ehrich should record his articles and listen to them before submitting. If he needs an example of tone-deafness, he has one availble standing across the sink from himself whenever he shaves.

    There are more, but I believe the point is made. Mr. Ehrich has shown by this article that he is little more than a purveyor of unsupported anti-Catholic slander. And your demonstrated inability to recognize it does you no honor. Both you and he seem to have forgotten Christ’s injunction concerning motes and beams.

    Pax et bonum

  • How can I change my moniker from “Mere Catholic” to “Raging Staunch Catholic Traditionalist?” It has a nice ring to it.