It is rare in our constant barrage of news that a story bursts onto the scene with as much force as did today’s announcement by Pope Bennedict XVI that he would resign at the end of the month. I was in Chile when John Paul II died and the grief was palpable across the land. Therefore, when Bennedict at the age of 85 announced that he was stepping down he took the world by surprise.
Being the news junkie that I am, I immediately went online and started listening to the BBC’s live coverage (When in England…). It is always interesting when “secular” reporters and historians try and understand and analyze the Church, however, the reporting and response to this story seemed to demonstrate how Church politics should interact with the world.
The BBC news anchors wanted to get comments and responses by prominent Catholics in England, so they turned to a group of people who are never known for being camera-shy, politicians. In this case they chose several Conservative MPs who happen to be Catholic. After getting their initial reactions the anchors began to pivot to his motivations in stepping down, and the ways in which his resignation is going to make the church more conservative or progressive. All very standard questions, and ones which I am sure will be analyzed and debated from now until the white smoke emerges from St. Peter’s, however, none of the MPs were going to take the bait. Ann Widdecombe, getting notably frustrated with the questions exclaimed, “Stop talking about this as if it is politics, this is the Church, this is the Holy Spirit” (approximate quote). It was this statement which stuck with me. “it is not about politics.”
As a United Methodist, I come from a church which has a polity defined by democratic processes and a long history of church politics that is made (often embarrassingly) public every four years at General Conference. Just on Sunday I was explaining to a friend of mine at church what the “confessing” and “reconciling” movements were in the UMC. We are a Church where talking church has all too easily become talking politics.
Stanley Hauerwas is quite fond of saying that “A new political alternative began in the belly of Mary.” When I took his ethics course I was confused for the first part because of his use of the word “political.” The way society (and the Church) has trained me to use this word is in terms of Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat. It was impossible for me to fully understand what he meant with this limited definition. I cam to realize that he used political in its purest form which is to describe the interactions between people in community. In his view, we as Christians by necessity must be reconstituted through our relationship with Jesus so that our Christ-shaped lives interact with everyone else in ways that are a radically different than those of other non-Christ-shaped people. In doing this we exist as a Church with a radically different “politics.”
As we enter into a time when our Catholic brothers (and sisters) are beginning the process to select the new pontiff, there will certainly be many news stories, rumors and secular-sounding “politics” which will dominate much of the coverage. However, it is my prayer that the Church will learn to keep its eye and focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence in this political actions, so that our Christian politics may be a witness to the world that even after 2,000 the Holy Church of Christ still operates according to our understanding of God’s will for our lives and not the petty desires of our own.