Noel Muscat ofm
It is 10.30 pm in Jerusalem on Thursday 28 February 2013. Like many Catholics I have spent time watching the last moments of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. At 8 pm this evening, Rome time, he ceased to be Pope. The end of his 8 years of papacy has been an intense moment of reflection on the part of Christian believers the world over. Many have tried to come to grips with the real motives for his decision to step down for the papacy and retire into a hidden life of prayer and reflection. For those who do not understand the meaning of it all, it simply means to retire into oblivion. That is, if the world out there will permit Benedict, the Pope emeritus, to end his days in peace.
Benedict XVI has led the Catholic Church through one of its most demanding trials during the course of its two millennia of history. The storm clouds were already gathering during the final years of the pontificate of John Paul II, but with the coming of Benedict it seemed that hell broke loose. The Pope came under fire from Islamic ideological militants who accused him of insulting the prophet Muhammad. Hatred against Christians grew to an alarming extent in countries where Christians and Muslims had lived in relative harmony for a long time. Churches were attacked and burned. Christian minorities were persecuted and had to leave their homeland. The story is still unfolding in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, India.
The Catholic Church came under fire from the media because of the alarming extent of the phenomenon of child and adolescent sexual abuse by members of its clergy. Bishops and Cardinals had to be removed from their posts because the media accused them of turning a blind eye on this grave issue. Dioceses and religious institutions in North America, Europe, Australia, were bled dry to the extent of becoming bankrupt in order to fork out millions of dollars in restitution to victims of sexual abuse by priests and religious. Even in this case the story is not yet over. What is truly astounding is the sheer volume of attention focused on Catholic perpetrators of sexual abuse in all its forms, particularly if they are members of the clergy. The impression one gets from media coverage is that this crime is typically found in Catholic clerical circles. The main reason, it is said, is that the Church obliges priests and religious to compulsory celibacy, and this exasperates their need for sexual self fulfillment.
The gay lobby has been another tough challenge for the Church. Gay rights activists have attacked the Church’s view on homosexuality, depicting the Catholic Church and its leaders as homophobic and perpetrators of hatred and discrimination against gay rights, particularly the right to marry and adopt children.
The Catholic Church has been presented as an antiquated and corrupt institution, out of touch with the times. Its views on the family, on divorce, on abortion, on euthanasia, on embryonic experimentation and bioethics have been presented as inhuman and radically against the fundamental rights of the human person. They are seen as the selfish products of a doctrine created by “Vatican crooks” who have no right to interfere with the achievements of a secularist and pluralist democratic society.
In other words, the papacy of Benedict XVI has witnessed a concerted and conscious effort to “deligitimise” the Church. The term is not new. It has been used by others to refer to the effort to make them look illegitimate and wipe them off the map. The same thing is happening to the Catholic Church.
This process is similar to what we call persecution in the history of the Church. True, this is not mainly a bloody persecution. Christians are not being thrown to the savage beasts for public entertainment. But maybe it looks as if people are trying to thrown Christianity “to the dogs” by making the Church look corrupt, ridiculously out of touch with the times, and hence on its way out.
Before stepping down, Benedict XVI glanced at the 200 thousand persons packing Saint Peter’s Square during his final audience, and told them that “the Church is very much alive.” History is a great teacher. Many in our post Christian society tend to forget that this antiquated institution is the only voice on earth that has consistently defended the truth about what human life is all about, and that it has been around doing so for two thousand years.