Pope Francis preaches humility. Benedict XVI demonstrated it. Can the church learn it?

From the sexual abuse crisis to the synod, the church hierarchy has a chance to address its hubris.

In this June 28, 2017, file photo, Pope Francis, left, and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI meet each other on the occasion of the elevation of five new cardinals at the Vatican. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool photo via AP, File)

(RNS) — It’s hard for any of us to learn humility, but it’s even harder for an institution. The Roman Catholic Church has shown just how difficult it can be since its sex abuse crisis exploded anew in January 2002 with the Boston Globe exposé, depicted in the 2015 film “Spotlight.” That investigation has been followed by others around the globe, which have documented decades of abuse by priests covered up by bishops who transferred pedophiles to other parishes rather than turn them in to civil authorities. 

Worldwide Catholicism took a massive credibility hit. Part of the problem was the arrogance of the pedophiles, who, as priests, enjoyed a certain deference that protected them, and of the bishops who thought their decisions were outside the law. 

Too many priests and bishops, and even vocal laypeople bound to their system, continue to hide behind the arrogance of clericalism, despite a concerted campaign by Pope Francis attacking the phenomenon as sinful, most recently criticizing it as “a scourge” in the last days of the Synod on Synodality.

Clericalism, a closed mindset in which one group self-righteously sets itself above other groups, is in its very essence hubris, as is the competition among Catholics to be more Catholic than other Catholics. 

One antidote Francis offered was humility. “And God’s people, God’s holy faithful people, go forward with patience and humility, enduring the scorn, mistreatment, and marginalization of institutionalized clericalism,” he told the assembly of cardinals, bishops, priests and lay Catholics gathered in Rome, and to consider, among other things, how power is used in the church.

Francis has taken direct aim at these tendencies as long ago as November 2015, in his address at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Picking up on themes about which he’d spoken before and would continue afterward, Francis slammed a certain pelagianism and gnosticism — heretical theologies of ancient times that today signal a claim to truth by a self-selected few.

Pelagianism, he said, “spurs the church not to be humble, disinterested and blessed. It does so through the appearance of something good. Pelagianism leads us to trust in structures, in organizations, in planning that is perfect because it is abstract.”

A humble attitude, on the other hand, might open church leaders to the possibility that their view isn’t the whole picture. In Florence, Francis linked this bold, brave openness — “parrhesia,” to use his favored Greek term — to reforming the church. Opening his first synod in 2014, Francis invited the bishops to engage in “speaking with ‘parrhesia’ and listening with humility.”

He has often encouraged people to speak their minds and hearts without fear, but this can only be done when hubris and the fear of humiliation are dropped.

The virtue of humbly listening is at the core of the current synod as well. The synodal way asks them to start with the premise that no one has all the answers, and in listening sessions around the world over the past two years and this month in Rome, the church is listening to itself, not from the dais or pulpit or altar, but sitting at round tables with nobody at the head. Voting delegates — 54 of them female, far too few, and 311 male, lay and clergy, vowed and ordained — are trying to hear what the Holy Spirit is breathing into life. 

A number of theologians and church historians have taken the church’s current state of affairs as a moment of self-reflection. While preaching that all were equal in God’s eyes, it became clear that priest-pedophiles were excused and protected while survivors were victimized again by the institutional church in not being believed. They were manipulated into keeping quiet “for the good of the church.” In trying to control the narrative, complicit church leaders created another scandal. Hubris conquered humility.

Sister Margaret A. Farley, the former Gilbert L. Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity School, used a helpful phrase to describe the humble attitude that chastened church leaders should embrace: the grace of self-doubt. She believed this attitude could counter priestly authoritarianism, imposed obedience, threatening tones and false certainty.

Building on Farley’s concept, Paul Lakeland, a leading theologian, declared that the problem lay in the notion that it was an exclusive club that could keep others out even by protecting criminals within.

But now was a teachable moment: Humiliation could lead to humility if church leaders realized that they needed help. Without humility, church leaders would continue to engage in a monologue and cast down edicts rather than have a dialogue in which they owned up to the impact of their failures.

Will the church truly embrace humility in a transformative and lasting way? That is not a question a church historian like me can answer. But within recent memory, a shocking exercise of humility gives us hope. On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI declared he would resign at the end of that month, ending his 8-year-old papacy.

The consummate company man who at times wielded his power with a heavy hand, an Old World courtier with a taste for elaborate vestments: Benedict seemed like the last person to display his own frailty openly. But he was quite honest and forthcoming in the announcement: He simply realized, after taking a hard look at himself, that at 85 he was no longer up to the job physically or emotionally.

Benedict’s act was astounding. In a world of power, who walks away from the longest-lasting monarchy in world history, from the title of vicar of Christ on earth?

The answer is someone who realized, for all of his achievements and missteps, for all of his successes and failures, that the office of the papacy is bigger than the person who holds it.

In stepping down as pope, Benedict demonstrated that humility is still a virtue. Perhaps the church as a whole can still learn that lesson.

(Christopher M. Bellitto is a professor of history at Kean University. His latest book, from which this essay is adapted, is “Humility: The Secret History of a Lost Virtue.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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