A time of soul-searching for a leader of 1.3 billion who has lost his way

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am


The immense crowds that greeted Pope Benedict in Cuba, with hundreds of thousands of people turning out for his mass in Havana's Revolution Square, shows the popular strength of the papacy, but cannot obscure the fact that the Catholic Church is facing a deep crisis on many levels.

This is Holy Week, the most solemn time for Christians: it is time for the Pope to do some urgent soul-searching, not just on the sacred mysteries but on the organisation and future of the church.

People in Hong Kong may yawn and say, 'Who cares?' Easter is a secular holiday. Religion to most people is a superstition that distracts from the practical business of daily life. But the nominal roll call of Catholics is about 1.3billion, the same as the population of China, and in many countries of the world, Catholicism can enormously affect public policy for good or ill.

As a baptised and confirmed Catholic, I will not pretend to neutrality. To me, the life and death of Christ is a fantastic love story, a man prepared to die for love of his people. This week commemorates the last days of Christ's life, his entry to Jerusalem, his Last Supper with his close friends, his betrayal and desertion, his trial and ignominious death on a cross as a criminal.

But it was not quite the end - because the gospels tell that, on the third day, Christ rose of his own power from the dead, an action which not only showed that he was God but repaired the broken links between God and humans. In simple story terms, it is a wonderful read, a good and pacific life betrayed to politics and greed and ambition, but triumph comes from beyond the grave.

Secularists will dismiss it as fantasy, though to my simple mind the story requires less suspension of belief than Harry Potter or modern magic tales that hoodwink children of all ages. This God-Man also laid down loving but very demanding instructions on how his followers should live. John Dear, the Jesuit priest, claims that Jesus established a covenant of non-violence: 'in the loud cry of the crucified Jesus ... I hear the cry of the poor and oppressed throughout history today; in the victims of all wars, injustices and empires. I hear Jesus begging humanity to wake up, reject the insanity of violence, become non-violent, and turn with compassion towards others.'

Christ also left behind a timorous band of followers who formed the basis of a fledgling church that grew over the centuries to become the wealthy and powerful Vatican-based Catholic Church headed by the Pope, setting rules of dogma and morality for Catholics worldwide.

Benedict was chosen as Pope as the consummate Vatican insider, a safe and elderly choice after the unpredictable youth of John Paul II. He has lost his way in leading the church.

He laments that millions have left the church, especially in its European heartland. John Dear says that 30 million American Catholics have left in the last few years. Many were scandalised by priests abusing children and by bishops covering up the sins and crimes. On this, Benedict has not been given credit for, belatedly, trying to set things right.

Others have left because of the narrow teachings of the church, especially on sex, which have a lot to do with priestly power play and little with love. Others have left because the church seems irrelevant.

The reaction of the official church has been to close ranks and to wish the problems away.

In October, it will be 50 years since the start of the Second Vatican Council, which sought renewal of the church, introduced mass in local languages and the concept of 'the people of God' embracing all Catholics and not just priests and bishops.

In the face of an undoubted crisis of faith in the West, with priests becoming elderly and dying faster than their congregations, the official church has declared taboo many of the questions that might offer a solution, such as married priests or women priests.

Worse, in the last few months, scandals have reached inside Vatican City. Some of them seem far-fetched, such as an alleged plot to assassinate the Pope. But others are well-attested, including leaked letters to the Pope by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano - then the No 2 official in Vatican City and now the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the US - complaining of corruption in Vatican finances, and a campaign to get him out of the way.

Benedict's defenders say that he is a teaching pope and neither a governor nor a leader, although he has tried to reduce the role of patronage and personality politics inside the Vatican and the Italian-dominated curia.

A Vatican insider told me: 'If you look at Benedict's teachings, his books about Jesus, his comments on issues of global development, war and peace, they are remarkably wise and holy. But, as pope, he cannot shrug off his job as leader. He is an innocent who has not chosen his allies wisely. He should remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.'

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the largest-selling English Catholic newspaper