Sunday, March 24, 2013

Realistic Expectations Are More Than Enough

It is very naïve to expect substantial changes in doctrine from Pope Francis. The media has been quick to label him a doctrinal conservative in the mode of Pope Benedict and he is, but that is beside the point.  In the first place the changes that are necessary for the “rebuilding” of the Church are not changes in doctrine but changes in polity and Francis has been quick to signal that there is a new sheriff in town and while the laws may remain as is, the sheriff has a more contextual manner of enforcing them.  But even more important—at least from a historian’s point of view—is that major changes in doctrine, or rather the evolution of doctrine, is something that needs to come about in a slow and considered way.  Knowing history and its patterns, I have no doubt, for example, that the Catholic Church—despite all the current “theological” objections and obstacles—will one day ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate.  Moreover, I favor the ordination of women.  I think all this “stuff” about theologically impossible is, consciously or unconsciously on the part of those who declare it to be so, simply drawing a line to protect the self-interest of a male power establishment within the Church.  I say that not as feminist mumbo-jumbo, but based on the behavior of those who are insistent on this “doctrine” towards women religious and towards women in their own parishes or chancery offices.  I think celibacy has made the priesthood—for many, not for all—a place of refuge and psychological safety from women.  I know that one of the concerns for many in the Church today is that the clergy are becoming—or are perceived as being—a gay club.  I think that is a misreading of the data.  I am more concerned about the clergy being misogynists.  The dysfunction in today’s clergy, I believe, is not as simple as a gay subculture but the more complex and wider issue of its drawing men who are psycho-sexually non-integrated.  Celibacy is a great gift for ministry and a great witness for the Gospel if it is freely given by healthy adults who are fully developed human persons spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically but it has no witness value or ministerial usefulness if it screens an incapacity for human intimacy, warmth, and depth of personhood.  Real men have no problem working with women as equal or superior collaborators.  All that being said, however, one does not overturn a two thousand year old tradition over-night.  One, even a Pope, does not overturn a two thousand year old tradition on one’s own authority.  And one does not overturn a two-thousand year old tradition without paying close attention to the social implications it will create in a multi-cultural society such as the Church.  There needs to be a process by which the universal Church comes to a consensus on such an issue.  Our Anglican brothers and sisters have seen their world-wide Communion torn apart  by the way significant changes have been unilaterally implemented by one Province or another of the communion.   It is important that we take note and not make the same mistake but rather set up careful dialogue among all the local and particular Churches that comprise the Universal Church not only on the question of the possible ordination of women but on any significant development in polity or doctrine.  
Another area in which many may have unrealistic expectations of Pope Francis is the possibility of change in the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Again, perhaps development is a better word than change for history shows us that doctrine develops, or our understanding of doctrine develops, rather than makes abrupt changes.  Is such development possible?  Absolutely.  Pope Paul VI had convoked a panel of theologians, bishops, and laity to study such a possibility when the invention of “the pill” became a game-changer in the practice of family-planning.  In the end the Pope decided, contrary to the majority report of his commission, that “the pill” was an artificial means of contraception rather than a tool to aid the natural processes.  That was forty-five years ago and the situation today is much different.  Advances in understanding of the reproductive processes makes conversations with biologists, embryologists, and other scientists absolutely necessary as we continue to develop our moral theology.  Notice, I said conversations, not dialogue.  Dialogue implies a parity in the discussion while in this case I think theologians and bishops must listen more than talk.  That is not a process with which they are, for the most part, familiar but we must learn from science before we can make credible moral and theological judgments on matters in which science plays a foundational role.  And after learning the scientific data on which the theological judgments can be soundly constructed I think theologians and bishops need to listen carefully to the lived experience of the People of God.  Theology, moral or dogmatic, cannot develop in an experiential vacuum.    This is not to say that the faith of the Church is a majority decision; it isn’t and never has been.  But the faith of the Church is the Wisdom the Holy Spirit has planted in the hearts of the faithful; it is the ministry of the magisterium and the theologians to clarify and articulate that unspoken wisdom. 
To be honest I am not sure that doctrinal development is the most urgent matter in the Church today as much as it is a change of style.  More and more people have felt increasingly alienated from the Church over the past decades because, at least as they articulate it, they have been made feel unwelcome.  Part of this has been the very successful attempts by secular voices in our society to change the public perception of the Church to be an angry, even bitter, opponent of our contemporary world.  But too many Churchmen (and notice that I am being gender specific because I am speaking of the clergy—both hierarchy and “lowerarchy”) have been unwelcoming, arrogant, self-righteous, pompous, and in general poor witnesses to the power of Christ’s Gospel.  As I often write: today everyone knows what the Catholic Church is against; few can tell you what we stand for. 
In just a week and a half Pope Francis has made some huge changes in that perception.  The world has been drawn by his simple ways.  Let’s hope that simplicity inspires bishops and priests and deacons to change their styles as well.  And let us hope that changed style spills over to us too so that when people join us on Sundays they find a welcome and feel at home around their Father’s table.    

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