Pope Benedict’s resignation sends an important message to our own religious leadership. Know when it’s time to step down. What humility it takes for someone to realize that he does not have the strength or the capacity to lead such a significant movement. No pope has had that quality for over six hundred years. Like most geriatric leaders, they have invariably held on until the Almighty (or His agent) has put them out of their misery.
Religions have always faced the challenges of how to get the faithful to behave in practice according to the ideals and original visions of their founders. Haven’t you noticed how they love to talk about peace and goodwill on earth and loving one’s fellow human being, yet at the same time tend to disregard the feelings and sensitivities of others? They seem to believe that only the faithful deserve love and concern and all the rest had better either agree with them or face the consequences. All religions now face the challenge of self-indulgent materialism, to which the overwhelming majority of humans on earth subscribe, regardless of faith. And all religions suffer from the abuses of power, of petty men and women seeking to control, bully, and fight their internecine battles as though this was what they were created for.
It is true that religions also have their saints and altruistic souls who toil and struggle to improve the human condition and to help individuals of all sorts cope with the pressures of life. They may actually be the majority. But on balance it’s the abuses and misuses that get the publicity.
A public religious leader has to be charismatic and of saintly disposition; ideally a scholar too. But he has also to be a strong CEO controlling an unwieldy organization; a disciplinarian to rope in rogue clerics; a fighter to hold firm against the inroads of secularism and fanaticism; a warm empathetic healer of souls. Such a person doesn’t exist. But to come close requires strength and energy. Normally large organizations and parties promote up through the ranks and the safe men of consensus tend to get the job. Think of the Russian Communist party; but then think of the exception in Gorbachev. Similarly, the papacy with its exceptions like John XXIII and John Paul II.
The Catholic Church has been facing very serious internal issues of sexual abuse and financial corruption. The very size of the papal bureaucracy–with its rival departments, interests, and theologians–has been compounding its difficulties. In Europe the Church is in serious decline. The largest Catholic communities are in the Americas; yet there too it is shrinking and facing the growing popularity of Pentecostal churches. And in the Middle East, Pakistan, and China, the Catholic Church is actually under serious assault.
The last seriously reforming pope was John XXIII, but those who have followed him have been conservative. They have fought to preserve a hard line orthodoxy that in fact has proven to be an ineffective response to the challenges they face.
The single most notable change in the Catholic Church in my lifetime has been its attitude towards the Jews. The history of the papacy has been one of persecution. The norm was to attack Jews and Judaism. Only rare exceptions extended any sort of sympathy. Pope Pius IX, who died in 1878, supported baptizing and kidnapping a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, and refusing to ever hand him back to his parents. Pope Pius XII was accused of not condemning Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and although he may have turned a blind eye to sheltering some Jewish victims, many in his Church stood in the way of returning Jewish children who were rescued by Christians.
We owe a tremendous debt to John XXIII for beginning the process of reconciliation that Benedict XVI has so formidably championed. From a Jewish point of view, the last two popes have both been influenced by the Holocaust and have been the most positive and supportive of Jews and Israel. From being the branch of Christianity least well disposed towards the Jews it has now overtaken by far most of the established Protestant churches who are now solidly sadly in the thrall of anti-Israelism. Even so, they have faced opposition within their own house.
The Church is not monolithic. The record of the South American Church on anti-Semitism is a lamentable one. The leading candidates for the papacy from South America have been caught on record making anti-Semitic statements. We have no idea what the next one will be like. Nevertheless, for their sake, I hope the Church chooses a young, dynamic, and aggressive leader who will stem the collapse in Europe and allow a more progressive mood to shake up the old order.
All this reminds me of why we should take a leaf out of the pope’s book. Who are the leaders of the Jewish religious world today? One thinks of the late Rav Shach and Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shteinman today, to mention only the most prominent. They are a gerontocracy of men who, in their nineties, might still have amazing brains, honed on years of study and analysis. They might also be the most pious of men. Yet it is also clear that they are tired and weak and out of touch with the world around them. Rav Shteinman refuses to make any compromise on allowing those Charedi young men who do not want to sit and study to go into the army. Rav Yosef calls Naftali Bennett worse than a non-Jew because he refuses to abide by Charedi authority. Because of their infirmity, they are surrounded by warring family heirs, political fixers, gatekeepers, and secretaries who shelter them and filter through what they want to let the great man see and hear. These men have been and are national treasures. But just as Benedict will now relinquish the burdens of leadership to younger, stronger men and devote himself to study alone, so too ought these wise men in Judaism.
The challenges Judaism faces in Israel, mainly for that is where it is strongest, are so important and yet the present reactions of its leadership are akin to paralysis. There is no sense of the need for new perspectives and new ways of dealing with the challenges. Orthodoxy, like the Catholic Church, is awash with sexual and financial scandals. It thinks it can deal with them itself when clearly it can’t, and as a result it is allowing an impression of corrupt decadence to emerge as the face of ultra-Orthodoxy. When this happens, it is time for either a peaceful change or a revolution. And as we know, most revolutions are dangerous and painful things.
And I must get in a PS against that despicable travesty of “moderate” Islam, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, and his foul-mouthed abuse of Zionism before a UN audience again. He pleads for Islamophobia to be outlawed, and I agree with that. So long as he includes Israelophobia, Zionaphobia, and Kurdophobia on his list of moral outrages. But of course he can’t, because that’s precisely what he’s guilty of. What a two-faced hypocrite.