Apr 22, 2005

Benedictus Catholicus: A Pope for the 21st Century?

I've been debating with myself whether to post an essay about the election of the new pope, but, in the end, I couldn't resist. No other church has such a world-wide identifiable figure at its leadership like the Catholic Church while having a big influence in people's lives. The last pope arguably was the most identifiable person on the planet. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is not as famous but he is a known quality. If the past is a guide for the future, he will be a very conservative pope.
But, what does this mean? Should the church change because of the times, or just because its members don't follow all of its doctrines? Is religious dogma true for ever and ever? How about the infallibility of the pope? There are many questions that we get to ask on this historic occasion. I think any authoritarian institution has little room to wiggle on the basic tenets, but the pope's own views and sensibilities can shape the Catholic Church's policies. These policies are the result of Vatican Councils, papal edicts, tradition and the pope's own interpretations.
For example, why is the use of condoms or birth control against Catholic dogma? Is in written in the holy book somewhere? My answer is that the church is still uptight about human sexuality. While condoms have been proven to prevent deadly diseases, why is the church against them? And, it's against them even within the confines of marriage! In Africa, the most dangerous act a woman can do is to get married! Most HIV-infected African women are married and the culprits are their husbands! Yet, the Catholic Church and the Bush administration are against condom distribution, any sex education that mentions birth control and HIV-AIDS.

Amidst the litany of praise for the new pope, it's worth taking a closer look at Cardinal Ratzinger's views and actions. Once the church wants to play a role in our political discourse, we have every right to engage it in critical discussion. Remember last summer when many church leaders came out against John Kerry and every Democrat who supported a woman's right to choose? In 2004, the Vatican's guardian of theology, Cardinal Ratzinger, ordered bishops to
refuse communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. In a letter that was obtained by the Italian magazine L'Espresso, Ratzinger wrote that abortion supporters "would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present themselves for holy communion." I wouldn't care as much if this were kept strictly within church membership, but when the issue became about not voting for anyone who favored a woman's choice then it became a whole different matter. Anyone can believe in the devil and that Kerry was Satan's pupil, but a religious view can't be imposed on the rest of us. Not that the argument about "cooperating with evil" was particularly convincing if I may say so. Zeus, for one, told me otherwise! Now, back off because my religious claim is just as valid as yours!

Something that was way too obvious to me since John Paul II fell into his death bed was the absence of women in the whole process--in the funeral, the religious ceremonies and the eventual selection of the new pontiff. Not even ..altar girls were allowed. Well, I did see lots of nuns in St. Peter's Square, but like women elsewhere they were just observers. Women have been kept subservient, second class if you like, and out of leadership positions in the Catholic church. Don't expect this to change soon. Ratzinger has written a letter to bishops worldwide decrying a sort of feminism that makes women "adversaries" of men! I wonder if he's in favor of any other sort of feminism? I doubt it.
The new pope is a very convinced man for he believes in the absolute truth; a truth that apparently has been discovered by his church. On Monday, in what was essentially a keynote address for the conclave, he delivered his last homily as a cardinal, attacking "the dictatorship of relativism," which he said denies absolute truth. He took a shot at critics who regard views like his own as out of the mainstream. "To have a clear faith according to the church's creed is today often labeled fundamentalism," he said. I suppose that he's even more certain now since his stance was confirmed, no doubt by divine intervention, when he donned the cloak of papal infallibility! That's another resounding "no" to liberation theology. Dissent won't be encouraged, and the take-it-or-leave-it will be the order of the day during his pontificate.

OK, we agree, Ratzinger is not a modern guy. This brings me back to sex! The Catholic Church forbids priests from getting married. I know that this is not written in the holy book. Originally, this had nothing to do with celibacy--though celibacy was added as a reason later--but it had to do with land rights and inheritance. You see, the early church was losing property and wealth when its married priests died. Get it?
Of course the biggest hang-up is about recreational sex, you know, sex for pleasure. It might be the self-indulgence aspect of it that bothers the church, though supposedly a person can be celibate but gorge himself in all sorts of indulgent excesses not explicitly forbidden by the dogma! So, recreational sex is no good, hence the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control and to proper sex education by the way. Not only you're not supposed to do it, but you shouldn't be exposed to the proper academic/scientific knowledge of human sexuality. President Bush agrees on this one. No wonder why teenage pregnacies and abortions have been steadily increasing under his tutelage! Oh, yeah, you've guessed it, the rates are higher in the so-called red states and the Bible-drenched South.

Ratzinger has called homosexuality a tendency toward "intrinsic moral evil." I wonder if active homosexuality is considered grounds for excommunication? Probably not! Getting divorced or having an abortion are. The latter are considered greater evils than the sins of Catholic priests (all male remember?) who sexually molested thousands of young boys! I haven't heard that anyone of those perverts being excommunicated. Have you? Hold your breath, not because it'll happen soon, but because it stinks!
As the Vatican kept in the limelight the disgraced Cardinal Bernard
Law (read the earlier post, Cardinal Sin) it reminded the American Catholics that their recent most painful experience barely registered in the Holy See. Would you guess that Cardinal Ratzinger played a role in this? Three years ago, when the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States, he blamed the resulting uproar on a media conspiracy! "I am personally convinced," he told reporters in Murcia, Spain, in 2002, "that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the U.S., is a planned campaign." Ratzinger's Vatican office was in charge of reviewing cases of priests charged with sex abuse. I wonder if he's changed his mind since. Just the other day, the Vatican claimed "statehood" to escape culpability in a sex abuse lawsuit and urged Condi Rice to intervene on its behalf.

I understand that many people feel uncomfortable or turn hostile when their faith or church are being criticized, but once their beliefs and their organized religious institutions become part in the shaping of public policy, then I believe it's fair game. Why is it OK to debate and ask for proof,use reason to reach a conclusion in other matters, but when a religious argument is put forth the treatment should change? When they say that abortion should be illegal--even if it only leads to millions of unsafe abortions (especially in South America and the developing countries)-- then we do have a fight in our hands.
When they say that homosexuals are evil doers and shouldn't have equal civil rights, then we liberals have to object. If a woman is being excommunicated from the church for having an abortion it's one thing, but we have to object to the church's drive to influence public policy on this issue and restrict a woman's right to reproductive choice.

Take for example what happened in Argentina recently. Bishop Antonio Baseotto suggested in March that a high Argentine government official should be subjected to the biblical punishment of being "cast into the sea" for suggesting abortion be legalized. In response, Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, refused to recognize the bishop, prompting the Vatican to make the odd and unexplained charge that Buenos Aires was restricting religious freedom! The issue, while mollified slightly in recent days, challenged relations between Buenos Aires and Rome and reopened the abortion debate there. Activists and organizations have been making public appeals for legalization, while dozens of pro-choice supporters ran ads in major Argentine papers calling for legalization of abortion.

In Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has come under fire from the church for proposals to lighten restrictions on abortion. In an interview published in early April, Rio de Janeiro Cardinal Eusebio Scheid charged at the left-leaning president, saying "a real Catholic cannot be in favor of abortion." Lula has defended his faith while refusing to back down. Pope John Paul II himself fell at odds with Lula's government and many Brazilians on issues such as contraception, abortion and "Marxist liberation theology."
Actually, there is a study done by
Catholics For A Free Choice regarding the views of people in Latin America regarding traditional church doctrine. It's an eye-opener! Well, maybe not for Pope Benedict's Vatican, but for those who realize that the times are leaving the Catholic Church behind.

There was a time when the church was the sole authority, it explained the universe, but that was then. Now there has to be a debate within its fold about the direction and the role the church should play in the 21st century. In Europe, very few people attend religious services any more and church membership is rapidly shrinking. In the U.S. the Protestants and Catholics are losing to the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity. The Vatican is hoping that the Third World will bolster the ranks of the faithful. Yet, Ratzinger thinks it's a good idea to have mass in the Latin language! [no, Latin Americans don't speak Latin as the former VP Danny Boy Quale once told us!] It seems to me that the church has to think hard about its conservatism. Too much change within a closed, authoritarian system can result in everything falling apart, I do realize this. As a matter of fact, closed systems that are more rigid and offer a more absolute truth seem to have been attracting new converts, the "born-again" and the rapture right in this country! Perhaps an accommodation can be reached without undermining the foundations. After all, what's good about a foundation when it stands supporting something with no one in it?

I don't understand, for example, why Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that communion must involve wheat (gluten) and therefore, in essence, denying communion to a person with
celiac disease! The new pope probably subscribes to the slippery slope theory--once you allow a revision, god knows where it'll stop. Yet, it was Jesus who challenged society and whose gospel message was radical. Has everything been settled since? Have the Catholic Church and Benedict XVI found the only path to heaven? You may choose to believe so, but I prefer a more humane and flexible church, because the church does provide comfort and moral guidance to those who need it or can't find it elsewhere.
On the other hand, this doesn't mean that life should be viewed only as a catharsis stage before a person enters heaven. The church has to be a bit more practical and try a bit harder to enhance the quality of life for the most underprivileged persons here and now. There has been a symbiotic relationship between the lay people and the hierarchy because both needed each other in order to survive. But, the equation is changing, so the question for the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict is: which is the needier party today? One of the two apparently has more choices than the other.

Andrew Sullivan, who's a devout Catholic, conservative, and openly gay, is been following the deeds of Cardinal Ratzinger for the last 10 years. He writes along the same lines of this blog on the issues, but has some additional "gems" regarding the views and policies of Ratzi, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI.
4/26/05: I watched Wide Angle on PBS tonight titled White Smoke on the selection of the new pope. I urge you to read the articles on PBS's web site, especially the interview of James Caroll. He is also a devout Catholic advocating progressive change in the church. For those who feel threatened or insulted by a secular person like myself when I ask questions and offer criticisism, it may be easier to hear views from people who have accepted the basic doctrine but also think that some changes are necessary if not overdue already.


Anonymous said...

Another excellent article that raises serious questions and provokes the thought. Regardless of a person's religious identification there are choices to be made. I haven't heard this kind of discussion anywhere, at least in the mainstream media.
I assume the author is not a religious person, but he is not offensive to the Church, though I can see some people being offended by his comments. I don't know but I'd imagine it'd be good for Catholics to ponder about their new pope and his views. There are many Catholics who are deeply religious but disagree with certain aspects of Vatican policy. Isn't Catholics for a Free Choice such a group?

Anne, NY

Anonymous said...

Too much hoopla about the selection of the new pope. So what if he's "too conservative"?
I think you're overestimating the impact and for that matter the inlfuence of the Vatican.

Anonymous said...

You have a thing with women, don't you? If God wanted women equal partners he would have said so. Nowhere in the Bible the women are given authority roles, so why should the church change today? Women are very important, but every person has a role to play, in family, in society, in the church/temple!

Anonymous said...

This Sunday (April 24th) Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) will participate in an event called “Justice Sunday,” where he will join right-wing religious groups in a telecast denouncing progressives as “against people of faith."

Are you such a "progressive?"

Anonymous said...

As a American Catholic I have to tell you that although we respect the Pope and the Vatican, we want our church here to be more with the times. Like you said, many doctrines followed by the official church today are the result of later pronouncements, not written in the holy books.

Teresa, NC

Anonymous said...

Pope Benedict XVI has responded firmly to the first challenge of his papacy by condemning a Spanish government bill allowing marriage between homosexuals.
The bill, passed by parliament's Socialist-dominated lower house, also allows gay couples to adopt.

A senior Vatican official described the bill - which is likely to become law within a few months - as iniquitous.

He said Roman Catholic officials should be prepared to lose their jobs rather than co-operate with the law.

There you go Ratzi!

Benedick III, Padua

Anonymous said...

It's proposterous that the Vatican is so strict about following papal edicts but when it came down to its priests sexually abusing thousands of children it showed how morally shallow it is. Ratzinger even suggested that it was a conspiracy (no doubt by the ..liberal, atheists, homosexuals, and feminists). Tsk, tsk....

Anonymous said...

Ratzinger has said that the Vatican's Inquisition acted correctly and with more intellectual honesty than Galileo when it prosecuted the astronomer for claiming the earth wasn't the center of the universe!
Yes, Ratzi (the head of the Inquisition, which was renamed under JP2 to something like the Guardian of Faith) actually argued that Galileo JUSTIFIABLY was prosecuted!!!!!
Wow. OK, some of you may not believe this and will launch the usual attacks against the ..left, the liberals, progessives, etc....
But, what would you say if this is true? Can you handle the truth? Do you dare to find out?

Geeshus, NY

Anonymous said...

I think the Catholic Church will encounter many more problems in Europe where even the devout followers have more liberal views than church orthodoxy. The rift in Spain is one of them, but modern societies have women who are more liberated and want choices and expect respect.
Ratzinger may be right about tightening the reigns but it won't work in Europe. Perhaps in the less developed countries where there are more uneducated people with authoritarian traditions the Catholic Church can hold its own... for a while longer.
Even Germans, the very religious Bavarians, think that Ratzinger is a bit too conservative.
In the end, it's like you said, there is a marketplace of ideas and attractions, even for the faithful folk.


Anonymous said...

The scope of this article is not about whether the church is a good thing, but I do have a question: if my children are not safe in the house of God, then what's good about any church?

If God won't interfere to protect my children from being molested [or, how about the 50,000 children who lost their lives in the recent Asian Tsunami] then God is either incapable of stopping "evil" or doesn't want to! Either way, it shows the absurdity of church.... I mean these people are paid and live good lives while peddling nonsense.


Anonymous said...

You so-called liberals are not tolerant of people of faith. Every time someone in a position of power makes a religious reference, you jump up and down protesting. America is a christian nation, and the majority of its citizens are deeply religious.
I think when you attack the Catholic Church you do it not because of the isolated problems it has but because you hate religion in general and want to see our country fall into atheism and immorality.
It's my right to be religious and you shouldn't try to take this right away from me, IF you care about rights as you proclaim.
Suzie K, SC

Andros said...

First, if you mean Christians are the majority in America, then you're correct. However, contrary to popular belief, this country wasn't founded on Christianity. A scholarly research into the writing of the founding fathers can reveal a great deal about their religious beliefs--some of whom were deists but totally different than you and today's Christians.
Susan Jacoby's FREETHINKERS, and Alan Dershowitz's AMERICA DECLARES INDEPENDENCE are excellent reads on the subject.

Now, my point is not to "attack the Catholic Church" because I'm anti-religious, but to pose the greater question or rather the dilemma this church faces in the 21st century. Its base is shrinking, so, how does it approach this problem? With conservative doctrine or more liberal attitudes...

[The following is from a response I wrote to Thinkprogress.org regarding a similar posting about religious rights and public policy...]

..The problem is that if we introduce religious practices in our public policy, then the question is, which religious practices? Mine, yours, the Taliban's? Unless you claim that your religious myths are more valid (maybe the only absolute truth) than those of others.

Would you accept that religion is a system of beliefs and practices taken on faith? Isn’t a set of "divinely-inspired" values and ideas not subject to revision?
But, what happens when my religious views dictate that only my truth is the absolute currency and that you & all other Christians are servants of the ..devil? [like Pat Robertson once called the Presbyterians and other “loose Christians"!]

Therefore, it seems to me, that you should maintain your faith and live your live according to your heart’s desire. I have no problem with that. Yet, because we have so many and contradicting faiths, and, some of us have no religious affiliations, it’s best when the public sphere is left to people who, although maybe religious, keep their faith to themselves & outside public policy.

A tolerant liberal is your best friend, because a true liberal wants you to exercise your choices and belief system. It’s the religious types that, because they’re so convinced that they know the mind of God so they want to limit your version of faith.

I am not threatened if people like you chose to believe in the supernatural. I don’t even care to make you adopt my views. But, can you say the reverse? Can you honestly say that the religious right, the born-again, the rapturists are OK with me not accepting their version of Christianity? I think not. Otherwise, they wouldn’t seek to impose a theocratic state! It's really sad that in the 21st century we have an American Taliban.

Life is about choices. I want to maintain this, for you and me.

Alone Again said...

First of all, besides yourself, I will be the first to leave a message with my username, I am not afraid to. Also, VERY good article. Honestly, I don't think the Catholic church will ever change its ways. On the birth control bit, I completly agree with you. I mean hell, if they are against birth control, condoms, etc, then it's a shock there's as many Catholics as there are anymore because of diseases, AIDS, and such. ANd the way Ratzinger speaks of women, as you wrote, it looks like women are becoming slave-like. " Women have been kept subservient, second class if you like, and out of leadership positions in the Catholic church." Almost sounds slightly like the way women are treated here in means of leadership in the Whitehouse and such. One more thing, I dunno if you have mentioned it at all in your article, but isn't it a bit IRONIC that this German pope was elected on Hitler's birthday? Conspiracy maybe? I would respond more on your article, but it's really long and there would be too much to comment on. In other words..good article. I enjoyed it...er what I read of it.