Understanding the Pope, Understanding the Church

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation has drawn much commentaries and opinions from everyone. Many of these comments are about the Church’s present state and its future.

Take for instance Inquirer’s February 15, 2013 editorial: “Did he push back the reforms of Vatican II?… Did he make the Church more conservative? Set aside the fundamental futility of applying essentially political terms to religion, but the record does seem to skew toward conservatism, with important exceptions of a liberal or even progressive character.”

I agree with the supposition that it is futile to apply political terms to religion and to the Catholic Church. The Church is really is mystery in more meanings than just one. It is enigmatic, puzzling, and difficult to understand. In Christian theology a mystery means a visible reality that has an invisible and supernatural dimension. And so it will really be futile to apply political categories to the Church. It is at the same time conservative and progressive. It is ancient and current. It is old and new. It preaches death and Life. A mystery.

But just like in any institution the Church is best understood from the “inside”. It is not a spectator sport.

About the Church’s future, we can read this comment from Conrado de Quiros in his February 15, 2013 column, Crossroads: “Far more than Benedict’s actual resignation, it’s the relative lack of impact it had for much of the world that’s the more dismaying. It shows more than anything else how the Catholic Church has been epically diminished in the eyes of the world. Indeed, it shows more than anything else how the Catholic Church stands at a watershed, or crossroads, in history between continuity and obscurity, relevance and irrelevance, life and death. If you’re one of the faithful, of course, it won’t occur to you that the Church can possibly die. But if you’re not, which much of the world is, it most certainly can.”

The general tone of the comment, so it seems to me, is negative and pessimistic. The Church is dismissed by the world, the Church is between life and death and it can die. The usual problem with a negative and pessimistic outlook is that objectively it is not realistic. Reality is black, white and gray and all the colors in between. Moreover, because we lack perspective, it is usually difficult to just the present from a historical viewpoint.

Historically, when the Church was just beginning and Christians were few the Roman Emperors vowed to destroy it. Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Decius, Valerian and Diocletian tried to exterminate the Church. It could have died. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant reformation seemed to succeed in diminishing the Church’s numbers and sucking life out of it. In the same century, it spread to America and the Philippines. In the eighteenth century the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution aimed at destroying the Church in France. It survived and the French Revolution is now history; though Enlightenment ideas are still here with us.

The Church can die? The Church is a mystery: though it has a human component – it is made up of men – has also a divine dimension: God, Jesus, his teachings, the souls in heaven, grace,.. Can you kill God? Can you kill Jesus? Can you kill an idea? Can you kill a soul in heaven?

For twenty centuries people have been claiming the Church is dying. And yet the Church is still here with us with more than a billion members.


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