Apr 6, 2005

The Pope Has to Be Catholic. But the Times Have Changed

With the passing of Pope John Paul II, we take the opportunity to peer into the legacy of this extraordinary man. Obviously, there are varying evaluations of his pontificate for the things he tried to change and for those things he wouldn't. Much of the talk centers around this pope leading the Catholic Church into the new millennium, the "new springtime of Christianity," as he called it. That he did. But, a church is not a very flexible institution. Actually, its positions are dogmatic since they represent values and ideas inspired by God and are not relevant to space and time. Or are they? At least that's the concept behind a system of beliefs that are based on divine revelation; it's a take it or leave it proposition.
I do not hold such view, I confess. I do not believe that truth is found by divine revelation. It is rather found by research, examination, rationality, science, and it's based on human experience. It allows for the possibility of revision once something better comes along. Errors in judgment should be corrected. It's a Catholic tenet that the pope is infallible, at least when it comes to interpreting religious doctrines, but this applies only to those who choose to believe it.
I'm not going to go into a dissertation on the basis of human morality and human behavior--especially the need for religious dogma and institutions. There will be other opportunities for such. This is about John Paul II, and one thing certain about him is that he acted on principle. He, like any other pope, had to fight secularism and, to some extend, modernity. Granted, the church isn't there to explain the physical universe any longer, but it has to draw upon its tradition and centuries-old authority to maintain its leadership among the faithful. Arguably, closed systems must remain authoritarian to survive, otherwise revisionistic tendencies usually bring the demise of them.
For example, Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost didn't improve the communist system but brought about its collapse. China will follow too. [its economic reforms are not matched by political reforms so it's more stable right now, but inevitably it will have to surrender some political control to continue its economic growth; plus the Chinese are getting more educated, more in touch with the rest of the world, and having increasing expectations]

When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, many, especially American priests ordained in the 1960s, hoped that he would break with tradition and bring some change in the Catholic Church. He didn't. On the contrary, he embodied religious conservatism. Under his leadership, there was no elevation of the position of women in the church--ordination of women wasn't seriously discussed, if at all--and he locked in the church for many years to come by appointing almost all of the cardinals and by his actions as the pontiff.
The question is how much a pope or any church can change religious doctrine to accommodate for cultural changes. The pope has to Catholic, in other words, he must adhere to long-established principles and religious traditions. However, there is some room to wiggle. In my opinion, John Paul II had his best years earlier on, when he pressed for change in the communist eastern Europe and even in countries with right-wing dictatorships. I think he played an important and positive role in transforming some of those cruel societies. His church benefited from that change, but a change from oppressing regimes was good nevertheless.
Later, he wrote and spoke about the harsh face of capitalism, and tried to illuminate the role of Jesus and his efforts to elevate human dignity, promote social justice for the society's less fortunate. He was against the death penalty, opposed the war in Iraq and condemned the human rights abuses at the Abu Graib prison. He was critical of the crude materialism exhibited by the U.S. and our lack of a social net for the underprivileged and the sick.

Yet, he remained largely silent about the huge scandals in America regarding the sexual abuse of thousands of children by Catholic priests. This abuse most likely has been going in other parishes all over Europe and the rest of the world, but only in America we make such a big stink over it, and we sue too! This view has been the unofficial reaction in the Vatican, something that most certainly has put any American cardinal out of contention for the papacy. The American Catholics are considered "too liberal" in the eyes of the Holy See.
Sex is a big taboo with organized religion. This pope wasn't much different in his approach. He insisted on a strictly male and celibate priesthood. He opposed abortion (the right of a woman to choose), and birth control.
When dogma doesn't allow room for reality, then we have a problem. If you think that sex is not to be used for pleasure, but only for procreation, then you have a big problem. Most Catholics want birth control. Even within the confines of marriage, Catholic women want options, including abortion and, if all else fails, a divorce.
The issue of contraception is a big one, especially when considering the HIV-AIDS pandemic that has been killing millions, many of whom in Catholic Africa where the Church is gaining most of its new converts.
The stubbornness against the use of condoms in preventing the spread of this horrible and incurable disease is almost criminal. This is a clear case when religious dogma--as expressed by an "infallible" pope--is allowing millions of people to die because they either don't get the proper sex education or are denied access to condoms. Today in Africa, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to get married! The vast majority of women with HIV-AIDS in Africa are married, infected by their husbands! In Mother Teresa's Calcutta (one of the many cities in Asia where prostitution flourishes) teenage girls are being infected by killer diseases because condoms are not available and sexually active persons are not aware of disease-prevention methods.

John Paul II's pontificate obviously has many meanings. As a non-Catholic, I can only evaluate him from the outside. There are big philosophical differences between the secular humanists and organized religion, almost as many as among the various religious doctrines and their followers. Perhaps we can find common ground in the respect and enhancement of human life which should be examined and fully enjoyed. As a liberal, I would like all religions to be more humanistic, more in touch with real-life issues of the common folk. To do whatever possible to help people here and now. To alleviate fear, disease, poverty, and to help people avoid life-wasting predicaments. To elevate human dignity of both sexes, and, frankly, to make the world a better place to be.


Anonymous said...

This pope was also against divorse. I don't know why, but given the fact that most women are the ones who suffer from abuse within a marriage, this opposition has been another obstacle to women achieving equality.


Anonymous said...

In the late 1970s, he issued an encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Matters), in which he clearly cast Marxist Communism and unregulated, free-market, liberal capitalism as equivalent evils, each containing their distinct "structures of sin."
Of course, while being the pope he needed the capitalist state to provide him with money and protection!

Anonymous said...

The situation in Brazil, and I'd imagine in most Latin American countries, is even worse for the condition of women... In Brazil, the Church has done nothing to elevate women, (forget about ordination) but to bring attention to and even stem the spousal abuse so common in Brazilian society that keeps females as second-class citizens.
Carla, CA

Anonymous said...

I see your point about the church representing doctrine that, if divinely revealed, it can't change, but much of what the Catholic church (any church)does is due to tradition, Vatican Councils, edicts,Papal pronouncements, etc. So, change is possible, even within the framework of religious doctrine.
Sal, NJ

Anonymous said...

Without much fanfare, I strongly recommend everyone hit the link on your post "teenage girls".... I did, and it brought back a stark reality.
Independent Lense did a story about the 2,500 women and children that are brought into sexual slavery every day...
Everyone should be aware of this tragedy, of this crime against humanity.

On a related subject, many men in Asia believe that having sex with a virgin can cure them of their disease (including AIDS)! Condoms are seldomly used, so the women, many of them unwilling victims, are infected.

We have a very long way to go as humans and as societies... Sex is a normal human activity, but organized religion has made it a taboo. This is crazy. And, it's criminal not to educate the ignorant or not to provide the sexually active persons with condoms.
We can argue whether abstinence is a good thing, but meanwhile we should confront reality and deal with it. People do have sex, so the question is how to prevent the spreading of disease through sexual intercourse.
Are we so monolithic that we can't do something about it? The US under GWB has been cutting funds to any organization dealing with sex ed., birth control, and the distribution of condoms. This is criminal.

Sandra, MA

Anonymous said...

I'm conflicted. I believe JP2 was a decent man of principle, but I think the Catholic Church can do much more, like finally elevating the status of women.
One day, religious organnizations may become community associations, with a better 2-way communication. Now, all comes from the top down.

Anonymous said...

This morning, the cardinal in charge of the pope's funeral said a prayer to the Virgin Mary, the "head of the apostles"...
Except that the Catholic Church didn't think much of the Virgin Mary until several centuries after her death.... Not much is written about her either in the "holy texts."
She became prominent because the faithful began praying to her. It wasn't even until the 1950s or so when the Vatican finally recognized her saintly status!
But, faith is whatever a person makes of it...


Anonymous said...

My cousin's son was molested by a Catholic priest in CT. He was a repeat offender and after many years of abusing kids, he was convicted and sent to jail (hopefully for the rest of his miserable life). Where was the Catholic Church? Many bishops and other highups knew about the abuses but kept silent. When the rumours intensified, they usually transfered the abuser to another parish where he could find fresh targets! Disgusting. I really don't care if the Catholic Church declares bankruptcy and disappears. Any other company or organization with such a criminal scandal would have gone under....
My "nephew" is an adult now, and he's doing OK, but the scar will remain. My cousin lost faith in the church and, quite possibly, in the concept of God... She told me, if my child is not safe in the house of God, then why bother doing all those religious acts of faith? She can't accept that God used her son for some "higher" purpose. I think God was/is out to lunch and does not partake in human activity. I, too, have given up on the religious myths and choose to spend my time more productively,and to try to make life better for those close (and not so close) to me.
I came to realize that a rational person doesn't need the so-called higher authority, the supernatular God, to be good and lead a decent life.

Anonymous said...

How do you explain all this coverage?... over a billion people tuned in to see the events in Rome, and millions went to the Vatican to pay respects to John Paul II.
Obviously, a lot of people care.

Anonymous said...

Religion is a man-made (emphasis on "man") myth, but it's necessary for the majority of people as it gives a purpose to their lives, provides stability, a sense of protection, and a promise for an afterlife. Life is harsh, and the end is unpleasant. I suppose it's up to the individual to determine whether he can give meaning to his life, be a good person to himself and others, without the need for the supernatural. Personally, I don't have a problem with an organized religion as long as they leave me alone to be my own master and live my life outside their myth.


Anonymous said...

I posted earlier but I feel the need to add something. I read in the Friday (April 10,'05) New York Times that the disgraced archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, was given a major role by the Vatican in the Pope's funeral!
Law was forced to resign because of the sex scandals (priests raping boys to be exact). He knew about the abuses, did nothing, or rather, he allowed the perps to continue their crimes.
Now, what should we make of this "benevolent Holly See?"
This is very offensive and it shows the attitude of the Catholic Church. It's that simple.


Andros said...

Thank you Kelly for the post(s). I got pissed off at that jerk from the Vatican who was touring the media and when asked about the "scandals in America" he replied that "our faith and our church is about forgiveness!" What a proposterous statement. We've been bombarded with ridiculous claims in the last week and not a single talking head from the mainstream media ever questioned any one or any statement from the Vatican and our own religious "authorities."
I'm going to make a new post on this topic.... I'm furious now.