As Pope Benedict XVI concludes his papacy with his remarkable abdication, he leaves the worldwide Church and in Louisiana better than when he ascended into his position.
The great struggle the Church must face in the future is the effects of the hubris of man, where increasingly many believe their wisdom is greater than God’s and, from a political perspective, threatens to put into practice public policy that encourages disordered relations among men and between men and God. As an accomplished scholar, Benedict illuminated the proper relationship, and in performing his papal duties he put them into practice – and the American Church needed this perhaps more than any other.
In matters of faith and doctrine, he initiated a long-overdue review of the consistency of affiliated organizations and practices, some of which were drifting in the direction of embracing ephemeral, social causes with views founded more on human ideology than on Scripture. Louisiana played a significant role regarding one of the most notorious, when at the 2009 meeting in New Orleans of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that group continued on a path of creating its own, inauthentic version of Catholicism, last year Benedict finally had to appoint apostolic overseers to begin steering the Vatican organization of nuns back towards proper understanding and application of doctrine.
In matter of behavior, Benedict’s record was less successful regarding scandalous activities of a tiny segment of priests who nevertheless caused outsized damage to the faithful and Church. Still, building on efforts he had initiated in his previous position heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he accelerated the Church’s painful process of acceptance of guilt for its hesitancy to deal with immoral and deviant sexual behavior of the clergy, and reconciliation, even as these actions should have come sooner within the entire Church.
At least in Louisiana, where clergy abuse initially became a matter of national public outcry after the horrific revelations in 1983 of widespread abuse committed by a Diocese of Lafayette priest, during Benedict’s reign incidents appear to have dropped close to zero, with only one incident allegedly committed in this time frame. And Benedict has installed a majority of the state’s active bishops, who to date have proven to be excellent pastors of their dioceses.
Particularly noteworthy has been Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans. He has not hesitated openly to criticize politicians and Catholic institutions when their actions stray from the appropriate, and even where he does not have the authority to do so, has engaged in symbolic actions designed to illuminate to the faithful a proper understanding of the activity in question. As such, he continues the notable legacy in the Archdiocese of the late Most Rev. Philip Hannan.
The unusual nature of Benedict’s decision launches the Church into an addressing an interesting, introspective question. Pleading inability to perform at a high level, this contrasts with his predecessor John Paul II who spent his last years in office in great suffering as an extended exploration of Christ’s own suffering on the cross, in effect instructing on how to die with grace and humility to God’s will. Benedict has chosen a different, perhaps controversial, message to convey, but one with which Louisiana bishops have appeared to agree (such as here).
As cardinals enter conclave at the beginning of next month, the faithful should pray that Peter’s next successor be a servant of the same caliber, in intellect, wisdom, and understanding of the Church’s true role, as Benedict.