Mass Appeal

Reviewed by R. Scott Appleby
Sunday, May 7, 2006


Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future

By Robert Blair Kaiser

Knopf. 261 pp. $25.95

The highlights of the longtime Vatican-watcher Robert Blair Kaiser's account of the state of the Roman Catholic Church are his vividly drawn profiles of Catholics who perform quietly dramatic acts of compassion, creativity and resistance. These agents of enculturation -- that is, adapting Christian belief and practice to local cultures -- resist not only fundamentalists and secular despots, Kaiser observes, but also Vatican enforcers who attempt to stifle "homegrown" forms of Christianity.

A Jakarta nun who describes herself as both a devout Catholic and a devout Muslim; a Sri Lankan Jesuit whose Asian-inflected theology of Christ and the Church has little room for the ancient dogmatic formulas preserved by Rome; the president of a Benedictine college in Manila who has no qualms about celebrating Mass without a priest -- these are among the representatives of what Kaiser terms "the people's Church." Inspired by Vatican II, the worldwide council of bishops that met in Rome from 1962 to 1965, the people's Church is global Catholicism's great hope for the future. But formidable opposition to the growth of this Church exists in the seemingly unlikeliest of places: the Holy See of Rome.

This plot, as it unfolds through Kaiser's brisk narrative, will win no awards for subtlety or originality: People's Church good! Pope's Church bad! Spirit of Vatican II betrayed by Pope John Paul II and his doctrinal enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger! Cardinals deepen betrayal by electing Ratzinger pope!

The fact that Kaiser's reading of the situation is fundamentally correct only underscores the sense of lost opportunity. Yes, John Paul's legacy includes not only a world-transforming opposition to totalitarianism and the groundbreaking papal advocacy of religious freedom but also the autocratic subordination of his fellow bishops and a failure to develop creative episcopal leadership.

The Polish pope's systematic appointment of bishops inclined to see most things exactly his way and his stifling of disagreement violated both the letter and the spirit of Vatican II's call for shared governance of the church. As a result, the Church he leaves behind is unsure of itself. No surprise, then, that the cardinals turned after his death to the familiar prelate they knew. They had not been granted the opportunity to get to know one another.

And, yes, Cardinal Ratzinger, during his long service as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ruthlessly silenced theologians who departed from his own precise but narrow interpretation of Catholic orthodoxy. He was coolly efficient, not only in squelching dissent but also in coaxing John Paul to restrain his generous embrace of other religions. Ratzinger was enforcer and watchdog; that was his job.

And finally, yes, the Church can be a haven for priests and bishops who spike their arrogance with a generous dose of incompetence or moral myopia. Some of Catholicism's highest-ranking officials casually condescend to the laity, treat women with appalling disregard and turn a deaf ear to the cry for social justice by the poor.

But the Church, like the world, is a complex mosaic. Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former leader of the archdiocese of Boston, was also a civil rights leader and an indefatigable champion of the poor. The first encyclical by Ratzinger after he became pope is a capacious and moving meditation on love, including erotic passion. And more than one of the "people's Church" cardinals celebrated by the author are known to have reassigned sexually predatory priests or protected them from prosecution.

Dividing the Catholic world into the "party of change" and the "party of no change" drains nuance and complexity from the profiles of six cardinals that form the spine of Kaiser's narrative. (The decision to focus on the hierarchy as a barometer of how "the people's Church" is doing is curious. This strategy seems to concede the point that the big boys with the birettas -- not the lay ministers, the sisters or the parish priests -- set the tone for everyday Catholic practice.) Kaiser is correct: The Catholic Church is "in search of itself" and faces multiple crises, from the massive financial drain due to sexual-abuse litigation to the decline in the priesthood to lay indifference. "No change" is not an option. The real question is how the Church will change.

Kaiser offers a hint in the closing pages, where he envisions the eventual emergence of a democratic people's Church in the United States. But he leaves the reader wondering how such a radical change could occur in a Church so divided and leaderless. Either the analysis is wrong, or the hope for change is misplaced.

But perhaps the "party of no change" will surprise us. Being composed, like the opposing faction, of human beings, it too is free, unpredictable and open to grace. Therein lies the hope. ยท

R. Scott Appleby is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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