The text of this piece is an edited excerpt from Michael Coren's new book, The Future of Catholicism, just published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, became Pope Francis in March 2013, there were almost 6,000 journalists in Rome to cover the Papal election. Some of them reported on the conclave with expertise and empathy, but others -- either out of ignorance or just some jaundiced agenda -- insisted on asking the same questions again and again, and almost all of these questions centred on the premise and title of this book. Is the Church going to change; will the new Pope be flexible; is Catholicism going to adapt to the times and alter its teaching on same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, female ordination, celibate clergy, divorce, and so on. Interestingly, the questions centred almost exclusively on moral and sexual issues rather than directly theological topics, and they were almost all based on the stubborn, virtually religious (forgive me) conviction that the Church was wrong, outdated, and in need of fundamental transformation. This book, then, is obliged to answer the following question in its general tone and various clauses: Does the Church need to change, and if so, where? Where it cannot change, why is this so?
Even before the conclave, and as soon as Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world with his announcement that ill health prevented him from continuing in what must be one of the most physically demanding jobs on earth, the New York Times editorialist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof tweeted, "At some point, the church will accept contraception and female and non-celibate priests. Could it be in the next papacy?" Well, Nick, there are three different issues there, and that you lump them all together reveals a certain ignorance of what you are discussing. But to answer you on at least two of them, no, not this papacy nor the one after that nor the one after that. Kristof is an intelligent man, he has been praised for his writing, his mind is alleged to be sharp and focused. But that tweet, so typical of the mood of the time, would be akin to stating shortly after the ending of the Obama presidency that the United States would soon become a province of Canada, or the retiring head of state would become a host on Fox News. The idea that the Church could contradict Scripture and ordain women as priests, for example -- remember, the prime role of a Catholic priest is to represent Christ at the Mass -- is simply unthinkable, but would simply mean the Catholic Church was no longer the Catholic Church. This is not change but destruction.
Many of the underpinnings to the questions those journalists in Rome and their international counterparts insisted on asking were staggeringly naive, but in all honesty, they did represent the views of many ordinary non-Catholics and even numerous "sort of" or cafeteria Catholics out there. Answering them can be a little frustrating at times because we would hope, perhaps naively, that these critics would have at least a basic understanding of Catholic theology and apologetics. But it is nevertheless, and largely because of this baleful ignorance, that an informed response is absolutely necessary. At the risk of sounding banal or facile, the Pope is the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church is the Roman Catholic Church. There are major commentators and influential pundits who seem to want the Church to be anything other than Catholic and the Pope to be anything other than Papal. Sorry and all that, but the Pope cannot change certain aspects of teaching anymore than he can suddenly decide that Christ is not the Messiah or God not God. It's not a question of changing with the times; good Lord, the times can be bad just as an idea or a person can be bad. We would not have asked a German in 1938 to change with the times. Fashion is by its nature entirely unreliable as a guide to what is true, right, moral, and just. Catholic teaching is not the same as a dinner party opinion or a water-cooler suggestion, and just because it might be difficult to accept does not mean it is impossible to justify or vital to believe. Change, then, is often a euphemism for compromise if not downright surrender.
Then again, we have to understand what change actually is. Let's take the example of one of Pope Francis's first public actions, and one that some saw as indicative of their particular fetish for a changing Church. During his first Easter as Pope, Francis continued to conduct the ancient Maundy Thursday commemoration as he had done as an archbishop in Argentina. Rather than wash the feet of selected people in a church as is usually the case in Rome and elsewhere, he ventured out in public to demonstrate his love for the marginalized and for the ostensibly unloved. He had washed the feet of men dying of AIDS in Buenos Aires, and in Rome as Pope he visited a juvenile detention centre and washed and kissed the feet not only of young offenders, but of two female young offenders, one of them a Serbian Muslim woman. It was a magnificent event, and an example of pristine Christian love. It was also, though, a microcosm of the misunderstanding of the Catholic Church, both by mainstream media and perhaps ultra-conservatives as well. Pope Francis was breaking with a minor tradition, but in the fulfillment of a far greater and more profound one. Only men's feet had been washed in the past, but here was the Pope affirming the tradition, the grace, the supreme vocation of servitude. A woman exiled from her country, her religion, her community, and even the law, having her feet cleaned by the Holy Father. It was a new way of demonstrating the oldest virtue -- the divine paradox of the leader of more than a billion Catholics reminding the world that he was here to serve. This was not novelty, not trendiness, not fashion, not changing with the times, not trying to appear "relevant" but explaining to the world in the most transparent and golden manner that the Pope and his Church was at the epicentre of the body politic and body theological. The underlying tradition was continued and even extended and magnified, but the cosmetics were slightly changed.
Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury in Britain and is one of that country's most dynamic Catholic leaders. He had fascinating things to say about all this in the May of 2013, when he addressed the Union of Catholic Mothers. The Bishop said that Pope Francis had become "the focus of fascination" in the press because of three factors: his "evident goodness," his "informal style," and his "Christian simplicity." Because of this, he continued, the media assume that all sorts of changes and reforms will shortly take place. That, he said, was certainly not the case. The Holy Father "leads us not towards abandoning the demands of the faith, as some commentators might hope or suppose, but directly to those demands in their most radical, beautiful and uncompromising essence. I can't remember how many times I have been asked, everywhere from radio stations to petrol stations, whether I liked the new Pope. To the Catholic mind this is a strange question as the loyalty we owe to the Pope is not based upon personal "likes" or "dislikes." My invariable reply is that "We love the Pope whoever he is." This may seem just as puzzling to my questioners. Those long experienced in the media warn of something we may already see taking shape and will require of us the very supernatural perspective Pope Francis urges. They tell of how a public personality can be built up in the media. In this case, it is based on the Pope's evident goodness and an informal style which is then contrasted even with his most saintly predecessors. Expectations are subtly or less subtly raised that this is the man who will change the Catholic faith itself in accordance with the commentator's own wishes and agenda. I noticed only last week a concern being expressed in our national media that our Holy Father is proving as "hard-line" as his predecessors. We know, as Catholics, that the loyalty we owe to the Pope is greater than the passing loyalties people give to political figures or celebrity personalities." A roaringly direct and disarming explanation and analysis of Catholic obligations and beliefs, and media and public misunderstanding and confusion.
Something has to be stressed at this point. We do not become Catholics so as to be loved, we become Catholics so as to love. If Catholics want the first, they have almost certainly come to the wrong place. To be genuinely counter-cultural is a dangerous place to be, and Catholicism is always counter-cultural. Being loved is actually relatively easy, whereas loving is often extremely difficult. Television hosts who make politically correct noises are loved, compromising semi-Christians who travel the road of contemporary sexual ethics are loved -- firm, resolute Catholics far less so, and sometimes are positively hated. This is crucial to a discussion of the future Church and the challenges that will be faced by Catholics in the coming years.
Being loved, however, is not the same as being relevant. We are often told that Catholicism is not relevant, being a prerequisite for the demand that it changes. This is sloppy reasoning. The Church is more relevant than ever, in that it's often the sole voice crying out for genuine justice, but it's less loved than it might be precisely because of its acute relevance. A small but telling case in point: Have you noticed that whenever Hollywood brings out yet another movie about the devil, the man standing up to old Nick and giving Satan a kick between the horns is never -- with the greatest respect -- a United Methodist minister, never a Unitarian, never even an Episcopalian!
No, it's always a Roman Catholic priest. So, when the going gets tough, the toughs get Catholic. That heroic priest defying Lucifer and all of his works is seldom lovable, but he's always relevant. Boy, is he relevant. This, of course, is the same Hollywood that routinely marginalizes, mocks, and even abuses Catholicism and its clergy and followers in its movies -- those, at least, don't mention the devil at all.
Many of the people most critical of the Church and most vociferous in demanding change and a different future play the moral prince in public while living as ethical paupers in private. It's more than mere hypocrisy and directs us to a malfunction, an arrogant presumption, at the very heart of demands for Church change. The fiercest critics insist on change because they are convinced of their own righteousness, but refuse to question whether their moral certainties are anything more than projections of their own desires and insecurities. They claim to be looking down on Catholicism from the intellectual high ground, yet more often are looking up to something they cannot understand and have no intentions of trying to do so. As I said earlier, when critics or even occasional friends of the Church call for change, they are seldom speaking of theological reforms. Actually, theology doesn't play a major role, perhaps not any genuine role at all, in the general attack on Catholicism. Theologians might regret and dispute this -- well, they would, wouldn't they -- but it's an absolute, I'm afraid. It's perhaps regrettable, but certainly undeniable, that very few people are rushing to the morning newspaper to find out the latest pronouncement from a theologian. "Have you seen the evening news, dear?" "Yes, amazing stuff. An obscure German theologian has demanded a rethink of Thomas Aquinas's early writings!" No, it is not theology itself that people want changed but the moral, ethical, social, and personal consequences of Catholic theology: specifically, where Church teaching affects their own lives, which frequently concerns issues of divorce, sex, and birth control. Indeed, "invariably" might be more apposite than "frequently," and in some cases "exclusively" will do the job rather well. So it's generally not the virgin birth, the immaculate conception, or transubstantiation, but condoms, remarriage, and your gay son being able to marry his partner that cause concern. Which is fair enough, I suppose, and in some ways entirely understandable, but please be honest about it.
So, whether we like it or not, many of these issues will have to be addressed in this book. And I make no apology for doing so, because they matter very much in themselves, and in particular to those who are struggling with them, often in great emotional pain. But they can be understood in Catholic terms only in the context of understanding what the Church teaches and believes.
Excerpted from The Future of Catholicism by Michael Coren Copyright © 2013 by Michael Coren. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd. All rights reserved.
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