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Posts Tagged ‘Hans Kung’

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

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