Thursday, March 7, 2013

The times need to get with the Church — UPDATED

Fox News offered its unique perspective on the coming conclave, with a report entitled “What kind of new pope would America’s Catholics like to see?” I don’t know about you, but I’d be more interested in knowing: “What kind of American Catholics would the new Pope like to see?”
Phil Lawler, Popular misconceptions IV in CatholicCulture.org, 3/5/13


“Roman Catholics in the United States say that their church and bishops are out of touch, and that the next pope should lead the church in a more modern direction on issues like birth control and ordaining women and married men as priests, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll,” reads the lede in the New York Times.

So okay, the story already has two strikes against it: 1) The poll was conducted by NYT, which is pretty much the closest thing American progressives have to a party organ like Pravda; and 2) the story is co-authored by Laurie Goodstein, who has her own axe — or rather, Jeff Anderson’s axe — to grind. But the sampling methodology looks as though they took reasonable care to get random picks, and I’m satisfied that the numbers reasonably reflect the current state of American Catholics. Here is the link to the full report.

The URL, however, tells the story as well as does the lede, if not better — POLL SHOWS DISCONNECT BETWEEN US CATHOLICS AND CHURCH.

For instance, while between 66% and 79% of American Catholics are in favor of such liberal action items as allowing priests to marry, ordaining women and using contraceptives, only 46% hold that the Pope is not infallible in matters of faith and morals, while another 14% don’t know or didn’t answer. This (seemingly) proves that there are Catholics who disagree with the Pope even though they admit he can’t be wrong, and who follow their consciences in opposition to Church teaching knowing that they can only err in doing so.


More important, for our purposes, is the 83% of Catholics who hold that “you can disagree with the Pope and still remain a good Catholic”.  For one thing, that’s a terribly vague, equivocal statement. Yes, it is possible to disagree with the pope … but only if the pope isn’t actually speaking ex cathedra on a matter of faith and morals. For instance, Benedict XVI wrote the first two books of his Jesus of Nazareth cycle under his baptismal name (Joseph Ratzinger) to emphasize that he was writing as a scholar and not as Successor to Peter, leaving other scholars free to challenge any conclusion not already enshrined in dogma.

But when the Pope does speak “from the chair”, whether he is simply reaffirming what the Church has always believed (e.g., Bl. John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), or uttering a definition to be held infallible by the authority of the Keys (Ven. Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus)? Then it usually turns out that “good Catholic” merely means the person regularly warms a pew at St. Baldric’s and has some kind of moral compass … nothing more.

The key to understanding the Catholic Church is really quite simple: The gospel message the Church exists to preach is not her own — it belongs to Christ.

Jesus’ earthly mission was spent in preaching definite things in a single, coherent evangelium. He did not come to preach a socialist revolution. He did not come to destroy political and social power structures. He did not come to affirm the special okay-ness of the outcast. He came to preach forgiveness in return for repentance, to bring back souls onto the path of righteousness, to bring us into communion with God … a communion he would facilitate through his death and resurrection. It’s a multi-faceted message with ever-unfolding implications, but the salient fact here is that it was only one message — not five, not twenty-four, not forty thousand-plus, and most definitely not “whatever I want it to be”.

Protestant critics of the Church insist that Christ, not the pope, is the head of the True Church. We respond, “Exactly.” The pope as successor to St. Peter is vicarius Christi, Christ’s proxy, a substitute brought in to tend the flock while the Good Shepherd is away (Jn 21:15-17; cf. Jn 10:11-16). But the flock is not the vicarius’ own, to lead where he pleases, in what manner he pleases, to what end he pleases. The authority to bind and loose (Mt 16:19) is an awesome power, but it comes with inherent limitations and responsibilities; it isn’t a blank check.

Jesus entrusted the apostles with the mission of spreading the evangelium to all nations (Mt 28:18-20). By doing so, he entrusted them and their successors with the terrible responsibility of preserving the message intact down through the centuries. For this reason, the Church is reluctant to plant her doctrinal flags without plenty of time for clear consensus to form; the doctrine of the Blessed Virgin’s assumption into heaven is perhaps the most notable case. For wherever she plants those flags, there they must fly until Christ comes again: there is no retreat. What is infallible must be recognized eventually as irreformable.

Naturally, I simplify quite a bit to save space. There are some areas where doctrine isn’t permanently settled or authoritatively defined, about which Catholics of good intention and education can disagree with the prevailing opinion without breaking communion.  And while what the Church believes is mostly unchangeable, how it teaches and applies those beliefs is somewhat flexible. Still, it’s disingenuous to pretend, for instance, that the Church’s teaching on birth control is temporary, or that women’s ordination is an unsettled issue. Roma locuta est: causa finita est.[*]

The Church’s first obligation is to teach people to observe all that Christ commanded (Mt 28:19-20), not just those mild, easy bits that fit in with the current ethos. It most certainly isn’t to adopt the current ethos and dress it up in Catholic jargon. If anything, part of the Church’s mission is to critique the status quo, to challenge it and provide counterexamples, to be intolerant because she can’t be indifferent: what people believe and how people behave does matter. The cliché is exactly backwards: the times need to get with the Church; the Church must bring the rest of the world out of its dark, barbaric Age of Unreason.

There is a disconnect, no doubt about it. However, the proper response for the Church is not to change the substance of its doctrine but to change the manner in which the Church evangelizes and catechizes. If the NYT/CBS poll serves no other purpose, it shows us the size of the challenge before the bishops of the Church in America.

Beyond that, calls to “modernize” the Church, to bring her “out of the Dark Ages”, are so many clichés imitating thought. The Word of God is not bound by clocks and calendars.

UPDATE: March 11, 2013
As perhaps befits a successor to the apostles and an elector — perhaps the next Pope? — Cdl. Timothy Dolan has spoken to this point more clearly and forcefully than I:

A second common misperception is that a new Pope can “change doctrine.”  That, of course, is impossible.  Catholicism is a revealed religion, meaning we believe that God has told us about Himself and about the meaning of life, primarily by sending us His Son as the “Word made flesh.”
To preserve this truth, to “pass on” the faith to our children, is at the very essence of the Church, and the “job description” of the Pope.  He cannot change the deposit of faith.
Some have the impression that we are electing a man who has a “platform,” who can decide new “policies” for the Church.  We are not.
Yes, a new Pope can develop fresh, new strategies to better, and more effectively, teach the doctrines of the faith. In fact, this is a big part of what we call the New Evangelization: to express the timeless truths of the faith — especially the message and mystery of the Person who called himself the Truth, Jesus — in a timely, radiant, more compelling way.
Remember the way Good Pope John explained it on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council?  The faith of the Church is a gift that cannot be altered, he remarked.  But, the way this gift is “wrapped” can!  That is always a challenge for a Pope.
In other words, the how of our teaching can change; the what of it cannot.
Because, as Billy Graham used to say, the aim of life is to change our lives to conform to God’s will, not to change God’s will to match ours.  We let God re-create us in His image; we do not attempt to create God in our image!


[*] “Rome has spoken; the matter is at an end.” Said to be derived from a sermon of St. Augustine of Hippo against the Pelagians: “Two councils have already been sent to the Apostolic See on this issue; and from there rescripts have also come. The matter is at an end; if only their error too might sometime come to an end!” (Sermon 131:10)