Monday, April 04, 2005

Papal Succession and Compromise

Luke 9:57-62 (New International Version)

The Cost of Following Jesus

57 “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good bye to my family."
62Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

The speculation and advice is already beginning. The Roman Catholic College of Cardinals will be meeting soon, sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, to select a new Pope. The mainstream media, with little or no understanding of matters of faith or church polity, is already in a speculative mood. “Politicking Vies With Piety Before Conclave,” says Fox News. ABC News puts it this way – “Guessing Game Begins on Pope’s Successor.” Michael McGough, in a Los Angeles Times piece, asks, “Should the Papacy be Downsized?”

I suppose it’s interesting speculation, but I’m left wondering what credentials, other than press cards, these journalists have. None that I can think of, but knowledge of a subject has never stopped the mainstream media from not only commenting on events, but driving their outcome as well.

Nancy and I watched CBS’s Sixty Minutes last night. There were two segments about the Roman Catholic Church, one about papal succession and another about a group of American priests in training, called “John Paul’s soldiers by CBS. Morly Safer’s piece on papal succession was harmless enough, although you could sense that, while the media had to admit that John Paul was a great leader and a great pope, he had been out of the mainstream of American Catholicism. Given that, Safer asked, “Is the possibility of an American pope just out of the question.” Notre Dame historian and theologian Richard McBrien’s answer was right to the point: “Yes,” says McBrien. “Well, first of all, now this is the first statement I’ll make that’ll get me into trouble. None of them really should be elected pope. Our cardinals don’t tend to, you know, to project that kind of strength. I think the American cardinals generally will line up with the conservatives, and hoping to get a more conservative pope.” In other words, Catholic doctrine will remain firm on issues like birth control, abortion, homosexuality, the celibacy of the priesthood, and so forth. Safer, as he always is, was very dignified. As I watched, though, I noticed that wry smile of his occasionally drift toward a polite contempt. The sense I got from his line of questioning was that the Roman Catholic Church would be far better off if it jumped into the mainstream of American thought as put forth by the mainstream media.

In Sixty Minutes lead piece, Scott Pelle had given Safer all the room he needed. CBS described one of the passions of John Paul’s papacy, the North American Pontifical College, this way:

“Over the last months of the pope’s life, 60 Minutes has been looking into another story at the Vatican that suggests John Paul II will retain, long after his death, a powerful influence over the American church, in part because of young Americans studying at the North American Pontifical College.” ”It’s the pope’s own school for Americans -- the West Point of seminaries. The students there call themselves “John Paul’s Soldiers.” They’re intellectual, passionate about evangelism and much more conservative than the generation of American priests before them.”

There was one exchange that was particularly instructive. It began with the following comments from John Baumann, editor of Commonweal magazine:

“He's the only pope that they've known,” says Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal, one of America's most important Catholic magazines. He says this generation of young men embrace all of John Paul's philosophy, while older American priests do not.”

“There are a lot of issues that American Catholics would like to open up for discussion: the issue of married priests, divorced single mothers taking communion, and genetic research. But John Paul's answer to all of these has been no. And these young men seem to support his position.”
“They're all very much opposed to the direction of which American culture seems to be going," says Baumann. "The pope offers an alternative vision of what American life can be -- what life can be like, what is meaningful.”

The exchange ended this way:

“But the pope's position on many of these issues is opposed to what a lot of people in American pews are thinking,” says Pelley.

“Yes, I think that's accurate,”says Baumann.”

CBS’s opinion is clear to me. The Roman Catholic Church should accede to the dictates of American public opinion, particularly expert opinion like that coming from CBS News.

And wouldn’t you know it, to the consternation of public and media opinion, the Roman Catholic Church is stubbornly refusing to be enlightened. The “Pope’s soldiers,” as Pelle called them, are going to go on believing that truth is something that cannot be compromised:

“While they may not be a large group, they speak with conviction in defense of the church’s moral stands, and the pope’s support of them.”

“They’re looking for truth. A truth. We recognize that certain truths don’t change,” saysBaumann. "Certain things are right, and certain things are wrong, and they're looking for that. And sometimes I think in our culture, it's suggested that the truth is a question of majority rule. Well, certainly John Paul II has said that's not the case. The truth is something that you can recognize -- that is not up to majority rule and that we need to protect.”

Yes, at a time when our mainstream media deem anything with the label “liberal” as enlightened and wise and anything with the label “conservative” as ignorant and archaic, the Roman Catholic Church is stubbornly resisting.

After listening the CBS pieces I was reminded of a conversation I had with woman years ago in New Jersey. It was one of those casual workplace conversations that began with her complaining about the requirements of the Roman Catholic Church on marriage. She had said she wanted to be married in the Church and when she requested that privilege she was told that she would need to fulfill Roman Catholic requirements in order to have the marriage sanctioned and blessed by the Church. On hearing this she was indignant. “Who are they to be telling me what I need to do in order to get married?” “Who are they to tell me what’s right and wrong?” “They just need to do what I want them to do.” I listened and then tried to make sense of her rationale, but couldn’t. I tried my best to respond. “They’re not telling you that you can’t get married, they’re just telling you that you can’t do it your way, that it has to be done theirs. They’re telling you that you cannot be a Roman Catholic in good standing unless you do.”

My argument didn’t get anywhere. But then I didn’t expect it to.

I’m not a Roman Catholic; I don’t believe everything that Roman Catholics believe. But I really admire their willingness to stand for things they believe are true. I think it’s rather refreshing, actually.

In the current American environment, where the media and public opinion seem to carry an inordinate amount of weight, the Roman Catholic Church is standing fast. Good for them!

At a time when “seeker sensitivity” is the rage I only wish that we evangelicals would stand as firm.


Sanctimonious Hypocrite said...

I'm not a Catholic, so I speak subject to correction, but is it even true that divorced single mothers per se can't take communion? In the absence of remarriage, common-law or otherwise? My understanding was that anyone who confessed and repented was eligible.

Many people's objection to the Catholic church seems to be that it's not the Episcopal church. At the same time I hear Catholics say, "Oh, well, I'm pro-choice and I don't really acknowledge papal authority, but I'm a Catholic too." No, you're not; You're a protestant. And that's fine. I'm a protestant. Don't want to attend a church where the priest decides who get communion? Then don't. But don't complain that Catholics aren't Protestants.

violet said...


Our Prime Minister (Paul Martin) is a Catholic. There were pics of him on the telly, the day the pope was near death, ducking into a church to say prayers for him. He says he takes his faith seriously.

At the same time, he's championing the cause of gay marriage--believes it's the absolutely right thing to do, becomes impassioned when he talks about how his stand upholds their Charter rights.

I just don't see how people can compartmentalize their lives like this.