(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 www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)