HomeOpinionWhoever he is, new pope same as old

Whoever he is, new pope same as old

It’s the “Roman” Catholic Church, not the Republican Catholic Church or the People’s Revolutionary Socialist Democratic Catholic Church.

World View with Gwynne Dyer

Its rigid hierarchy and its centralising instincts are almost entirely due to the fact it became the state religion of the Roman Empire more than 1 600 years ago. And the Pope is still, in essence, the emperor.

How Roman are the traditions and instincts of the church that Pope Benedict XVI has led for the past seven years? Well, one of his titles is pontifex maximus, usually translated from the Latin as “supreme pontiff”. That was the title of the high priest of the old Roman (pagan) state religion under the republic.

When Rome became an empire, the emperors took it over, starting with Augustus. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth century — the timing is not clear — the title was transferred to the Christian bishop of Rome, who had become the head of the new state religion, Christianity.

This is not to say popes are secretly pagans: They are monotheists to the core. But they are “Roman” Catholics, and the religion they lead is still run like an empire.

Very occasionally, some maverick pope tries to change the model — but the system always wins in the end.

Benedict XVI is the emperor of a shrinking domain, for the Roman Catholic Church has been shedding adherents not only in the West, where it is in steep decline, but also in the Latin American, African and Asian countries where it once held unchallenged sway.

While secularism is the enemy stealing the faithful in the West, evangelical forms of Christianity are seducing Roman Catholic believers away in what we used to call the Third World.

There are many who blame this hemorrhage on the outgoing Pope.

Benedict was chosen by his colleagues because they believed he would fight off fundamental change, and he performed his duty well. His resignation for health reasons is an innovation, but it is the first of which he has been guilty.

He held the line on abortion (a sin in almost all circumstances), homosexuality (likewise, unless the person remains entirely celibate), married or female priests (definitely not), remarriage after divorce (ditto), and contraception (under no circumstances, although he later said HIV-positive prostitutes might be justified in asking their clients to use condoms).

What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernisation, which it sees as moral decline. Perhaps it is right (though I don’t think so), but it is losing the battle. Yet Benedict and the Church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch because they believe, probably correctly, full modernisation would make them irrelevant.

So there’s no point in going on about how Benedict failed to modernise the Church. He wasn’t elected to do that. The only pope who tried was John XXIII, and he died 50 years ago. Every pope since then has seen his task as stemming the tide of change and restoring the old order.

The job was largely complete before Benedict became Pope. His job has been to ensure there is no backsliding into liberalism, relativism and other modernist errors, and he has achieved that by ensuring almost the entire College of Cardinals (the men who choose the next pope) are reliably conservative and orthodox.

The college had already been stuffed with conservative cardinals by his predecessor, John Paul II, so even there Benedict really didn’t have to do much except steer the same steady course. Not one of the cardinals who are seen as papabili (men who might be elected as pope) could be described as liberal or reformist.

There will be a new pope, but nothing is going to change; the hemorrhage will continue.”

Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading