Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

To Those Disappointed

This is not a nyah-nyah post. Although I'm obviously elated at the election of Pope Benedict, many people, including many of my friends Catholic and non-, aren't, to put it mildly. And this makes me sad, because I hate to see people suffering at what seems to me such a joyous occasion.

And yet, I suppose such pains are necessary. The people who are mourning the election of Pope Benedict are doing so, I think, because they've pinned their hopes on any number of doctrinal changes that, to be honest, aren't going to happen. There are never going to be female priests or deacons; the Church is never going to give the OK to contraception, abortion or divorce; the Pope will always be the infallible (when ex cathedra) head of the Church; etc.

None of these things were ever going to change. But many people have talked themselves into believing that they might. If only the papacy could be wrested from the hands of the hidebound conservatives, the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council would be unleashed and a truly modern Church could emerge. So hopes were pinned on each conclave, that a liberal pope would emerge (or at least a moderate who would appoint liberal cardinals, setting the stage for the future election of a liberal). Surely, Paul VI and then John Paul II were just aberrations.

Except: it's now been 40 years since the Second Vatican Council ended. In that span, there have been four popes. One reigned for 33 days, and whatever legacy he would have had is largely unknowable. The remaining three - Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI - were all hidebound conservatives, if that term means saying no to women's ordination, upholding the Church's teachings on sexual morality and marriage, etc. And, all three were actually participants, of one or another kind, in the Council. There's some point where one has to ask whether what these men taught - rather than, say, what Fr. Richard McBrien thinks - represents the authentic "spirit" of the Council.

I'm being typically circumlocutious here, so I'll try to be more direct.

Look, the next conclave may result in the election of a liberal, but I doubt it. Ditto the conclave after that, and so-on, unto the ending of the world. If the only thing that's keeping you Catholic is the belief that if you just hold on long enough Holy Mother Church will come around to your way of thinking on any of the issues outlined above, you are, I think, bound to be sorely disappointed, just as you were with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, again and again.

This is not, however, an invitation for you to leave the Church. Schism and separation are the great tragedy of the last millennium of Christian life; I could never encourage more. Rather, it's an invitation to think about what you do believe, to reflect more deeply on what's actually keeping you in the Church, and to build on that.

My own life has not been without some difficulty understanding and accepting some of the teachings of the Church. My being an American male in his 20s, you won't be shocked to hear it was mostly sexual morality issues, though I also had difficulties with the sacrament of confession and the whole scheme of salvation (I was a bit of a universalist in my day). I basically knew that what I believed didn't mesh with what the Church taught, but like most American Catholics, I "lived with the contradiction". (Oddly, though, I never considered myself a "cafeteria" Catholic - funny how the mind works.)

Even as I was readying to come fully back into the fold, I still didn't understand everything (for example, the ban on contraception) I was preparing to accept. (I understand it now intuitively, but still have a hard time explaining it.) What I did understand, though, was what I thought about the Church as a whole: that it was the same entity that Christ had established on earth, that He promised to protect it, and that the Holy Spirit would prevent it from ever teaching error. Since I believed these things, I could accept doctrines I didn't understand, even doctrines to which, in some sense, I objected. Because I understood that the problem was with me and my understanding, rather than with the Church's teachings.

I understand that this all seems a cold comfort to those disappointed by the election of Pope Benedict. It is, however, meant sincerely. I want us all to be Catholics again, united in love of one another, and of the Holy Mother Church, and of God Himself, as when we were children, before ideology and lifestyle slithered into the garden to sow discord.