Zero Hour at the Vatican: Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

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And then there are the devastating results of a recent study by the Sinus Institute, based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, on the growing isolation of the Catholic Church in most social environments. The study makes it very clear that it isn't just external critics, so-called enemies of the church, but also the core and even the substance of loyal Catholics in the church that no longer has any confidence in the pope and the bishops.

The crisis has reached the center of the church, and the bishops are at a turning point. Business as usual isn't an option, and yet the bishops are only thwarting one another. "No one wants to come out from cover first," says a bishop's aide. "No one dares to go it alone, because everyone fears that the others will attack him and that, in the end, there will only be trouble with Rome."

This culture of making statements on the quiet is reminiscent of the final stage in East Germany, when an atmosphere of fear and suspicion had taken hold. But how can a church be attractive when it is internally divided, disunited and demoralized? Pope Benedict XVI and his most loyal representatives in Germany, be it in Cologne, Limburg or Regensburg, have allowed this disunity to develop, or they have even promoted it.

Referring to this issue, one cardinal's spokesman says: "You have to be able to say something without being immediately assailed, and without denunciation in Rome or on the Internet. If this climate of mutual suspicion isn't put to an end now, we will fail in our efforts to launch a new beginning. The church must be able to tolerate more criticism, more diversity and more freedom without its ranks." The role of the bishops, he adds, will be more important than that of the pope in the future, and the local mood will be crucial to people, be it in Germany, Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Easter Deadline

Catholic youth groups are calling on their bishops to address current debates from the center of the church, and not to leave the field to ultraconservative Catholics. This, they say, also includes a discussion on what "can be left up to the conscience of the individual," when it comes to sexual morality. Helmut Schüller, the co-founder of a pastors' initiative, says that the Vatican can no longer be the center of a universal church that "emanates fear and terror, where people are harassed, removed from office and denied the right to teach."

For now, such critique has been but a murmur. But it is rapidly getting louder.

Under the current papal rules, the secret election of the 266th pope, the conclave, must begin between 15 and 20 days after Benedict's resignation. As such, in mid-March, 117 cardinals will be locked in seclusion "cum clave" in the Sistine Chapel. There, they will pray, carry their folded ballots to the altar, count them, burn them and begin all over again.

Days -- in the past, even weeks and months -- can pass before a two-thirds majority materializes. But this time the electorate won't have much time. The new pope is expected to complete the traditional foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday, preside over the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday and, on Easter Sunday, pronounce the Urbi et orbi from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the blessing for the city of Rome and the rest of the world.

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