Why is the dyspepsia of parrots proverbial? I have no idea – though probably some erudite reader of New Directions will write to tell me. It is, however, only too clear why theological liberals are at the moment even sicker than parrots.

The reason, of course, is the election of Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. No sooner had the word ‘Josephum’ emerged from the mouth of Cardinal Estevez than the usual suspects were moaning to the media.

Dyspeptic commentary

Sr Rita, whom the BBC had employed as its token woman commentator throughout the period from the papal funeral, told audiences time and again that she wanted to ‘speak to him’ – leaving one in no doubt of her pious intention, like Aunt Mary with Uncle Harry in the Noel Coward song, ‘to lecture him severely on a number of church affairs.’

On the Today Programme, Lavinia Byrne generously revived the title ‘Inquisition’ for the Sacred Congregation, of which the Pope had been the most distinguished Prefect, going on to say, ‘It’s extraordinary that somebody who is associated with the most right-wing and conservative view of the Church has been appointed to a position where he is expected to be a bridge-builder.’ ‘We wanted a shepherd; and they gave us a German shepherd,’ exclaimed Cristina Odone on Newsnight. And Margaret Hebblethwaite was publicly spitting, on every possible occasion, whatever flows in her veins.

Anglicans were not far behind. Desmond Tutu was predictably irritable, exhibiting at the same time that folie de grandeur which has made him so loveable to so many: ‘If I had been a cardinal, and I had the right to vote, I would not have given my vote to the new pope.’

Frank Griswold exercised his pluriform graciousness by a welcome which was, in effect a backhanded compliment, ‘I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide him in his words and his actions, and that he may become a focus of unity and a minister of reconciliation in a Church and a world in which faithfulness and truth wear many faces.’

The next-pope-but-one

This election was, of course, a disaster for the liberal cause. Liberal Roman Catholics have long been advocates of the infallibility of the next-pope-but-one (who will, of course, agree with them). But they really thought they were in with a chance this time. And most of the world’s media were with them. There was much talk of a Pope from Africa, one who would reverse the ‘murderous’ policy of John Paul II on condoms; or a Pope from South America who would fan in the refreshing breezes of Liberation Theology.

Why an African Pope (presumably a Nigerian) would go against the vast majority in the Nigerian Church, and why a South American from a college of bishops purged by the last Pope of all traces of liberationism should revert to it, no one plausibly explained. But the hope was there. And as the press and television went on about sex (AIDS, condoms, celibacy of the clergy, women’s ordination, homosexuality and the rest) everyone forgot the real problem.

It is one which the media themselves epitomize, and which was in the forefront of the minds of the 112 cardinals: the decline of religion in the West and the alienation of its culture from the life of the Church. And they also forgot that the theological analysis of that phenomenon has been the life-long vocation of Joseph Ratzinger.

An Anglican example

The presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, at both the funeral and the inauguration, will hardly have registered with those Princes of the Church. But it reminded Catholic Anglicans of how important, for us, is the stability and credibility of the Roman Church. If any of the Fathers of the Conclave had deigned to cast an eye on Rowan Williams’s little Communion they would have been able to see, clearly spelled out, what, in terms of incoherence, instability and fractured koinonia, the consequences of a liberal agenda really are.

In 1992, liberal Roman Catholics in England were urging Anglicans to ordain women, as though the Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, were some sort of ecclesiological laboratory for the Catholic Church. ‘You cross the bridge first,’ said they courageously, ‘and we will follow when we see that it can bear your weight.’

Battle plans

We did, and the results are plain for all to see – not only in the divisive nature of the action itself; but in its fissiparous expansion into other areas of faith and morals. Once out of the laboratory, and out of the test-tube, that virus would be immensely destructive of the unity and peace of the Catholic Church. The position of Anglican Catholics would then be untenable.

Liberal Catholics will by now have calmed down a little. It was always foolish of them to show their anger in the first place. They will be licking their wounds. Benedict is, after all, they will be telling themselves, only a caretaker Pope. The Cardinals will be back in the Sistine before long, and like the white smoke, the white hope of the next-pope-but-one will rise again. But I suspect that a part of their anger and frustration came with the internal awareness that it was now or never.

A short pontificate will ensure a similar result next time. A longer pontificate will give Benedict further time to pack the college. Either way, the runes do not look auspicious. And what if Pope Benedict proves to be (in ways a liberal could scarcely imagine) a reforming pope, who grapples with internal problems with tenacity and success? And what if (worst of all, from the liberal point of view) he succeeds in reunion with the Orthodox where John Paul failed?

That would surely be the end of liberal Roman Catholicism as we have known it. The ‘Tablet Tendency’, like Old Labour, would be relegated to the sidelines, never to rise again. ‘Per omnia saecula saeculorum…’, as they used to say.

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