Pastor to his church
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The pope's acknowledgement that the role of the Bishop of Rome is essentially spiritual has far-seeing implications for any hyper-masculinised view of male leadership. What the pope has done is reveal that the papacy is more than himself, more than the institutional Church and more than the goodwill and care of its adherents. The papacy, like all forms of Christian leadership, is, in the final analysis, subordinate to divine providence. And, in the manner of its founder, Christian leaders have to be unafraid to empty themselves of the trappings of power and ceremony to address the immediate and urgent needs of the world. The technical word for this, kenosis, which means self-emptying, is to be found in one of the earliest Christian hymns. Such a disavowal of a pyramidal hierarchy overturns the notion held by many that Christian ministry is always enacted, or should be enacted, in a top-down way.
Perhaps it is precisely such a theological and spiritual view of leadership that confounds secular commentators attempting to interpret the pope's decision. Even a cursory look at the frenzy of opinions, tweets and blogs generated globally bears testament to the extraordinary presence of the global "church in the world". Or, perhaps, secularism presumes that effective leadership must always be democratically elected. Secularism, without a doubt, created the conditions for democratising political and social processes and brought gains for women and minority groups within the nation-state. Yet, as is amply evident in continuing gender, domestic and religious violence, the gains are only partial. Democracy neither ensures nor guarantees liberation.
Secularism, in the Western case, attempts to limit the role of religious agency in public and political life. In the case of India, such public religious agency is not necessarily denied, but religious majority and minority dynamics generate contexts of inclusion and exclusion to expose the failures of secularism. For Benedict, the worst excesses of secularism are expressed in the instrumentality with which human life is viewed. A careful consideration of his positions reveals a nuanced and complex mind attempting to be a pastoral presence in a globalised world of inequality and dehumanisation. Many of his contemporary writings address the contending modernities, secularisms and Catholicisms of our world.
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