Last week’s announcement of a new pope–made maddeningly more difficult by the fact that St. Peter’s Basilica was declared a “smoke-free zone” last year–was greeted worldwide with groans of disapproval by the usual secularists, leftists, and other non-Catholics. Which is to say, mostly those whose lives were least likely to be affected, like Maureen Dowd. Oh, and Andrew Sullivan was “appalled” by Josef Ratzinger’s selection as the new pope. As a frequent admirer of Sullivan’s work I am appalled at Andrew’s state of appallment–and I’m not one to make up words like “appallment” lightly. I immediately assumed that Andrew’s beef with the new pope concerns his favorite issue: gay marriage. But he assures us that that’s not the case. Surprising, as a truly liberal Holy Father might have moved the Church towards the proverbial, doctrinal hat trick: allowing actively gay men to be Catholics, then ordaining them as priests, and then allowing them to marry their male partners. There’s a name for churches that condone that sort of thing, and that name is “Episcopalian.”
It’s striking how those who seem most upset that the Church hasn’t taken the opportunity of a papal change to set a more liberal course on social issues are the same people who (in the realm of politics) favor a Constitution that’s considerably more open to creative interpretation with regard to these same issues. Well, either striking or utterly, hellishly predictable.
In either case, at issue here is the notion of a fixed set of standards versus the ebb and flow of public opinion over the course of time: Which should have a greater role in determining public (or church) policy? In other words, are the Ten Commandments a living, breathing document that must constantly evolve in order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world? Or to put it another way, where is it written that we all the right to speech, religion, a free press, assembly, and gun ownership, among other things? Well, O.K., I mean besides the Constitution?
The Founding Fathers knew that mores and customs come and go like fashion, and that a new legislature was bound to enact any number of bad laws guided by nothing more than the shifting winds of public opinion. Especially with a nutcake like John Adams in Congress. So they created a standard–the Constitution–with which all new laws would have to be compatible or else they couldn’t become laws.
Among the many things the Founding Fathers wisely anticipated was that they couldn’t anticipate everything. So they also built in a mechanism for amending the Constitution so it could be fixed and rigid, yet still capable of evolving. Which came in pretty handy when we finally figured out that women and non-white people have rights, that slavery is immoral, that alcohol is evil, that no alcohol is worse, and so on. They purposefully made it much harder to amend the Constitution than to just pass a law, though, which is why the Family and Medical Leave Act is something most people either laugh at or just ignore and not a God-given right.
Likewise our Founding Father (is it O.K. to call Him that?) realized the importance of having a set of rigid standards that would supercede the trends and whims of human behavior. Which is why, as the story goes, He dictated a set of Commandments to Moses. Which, over the millennia, among other things, gave rise to today’s Roman Catholic Church. A church whose dogma (as described in its Creed) is almost impossible to change, and whose doctrine (the rules that evolved thereafter based on the Commandments and the teachings of Christ) is systematically dictated by the Vatican, through the ultimate in inspiration.
So having a “living, breathing” Constitution, whose meanings can shift as easily as, say, having an associate justice hear about some new trend in European law at brunch, obviously defeats the whole purpose of having a (relatively, not absolutely) fixed Constitution. Likewise, if you believe that your church was literally founded by the Son of God, based on principles he personally handed down to His followers (as Catholics do), why would you make your church’s doctrine conveniently open to revision by its flock? It’s like deliberately designing a bucket with holes in it, then wondering why it won’t hold any water.
And that, folks, is pretty much how it works. The Catholic Church is not a democracy, or even a representative democracy. They don’t decide things by a show of hands, other than Bingo, and even then all winners have to be verified. The Church doesn’t use focus groups. The pope doesn’t go on listening tours. There’s no website that lets the faithful interactively change church doctrine based on how many hits it receives. Catholics don’t choose new gods to worship with the help of their good friends at A. T. & T. Wireless–although if they did the process would still look and sound remarkably like American Idol. The Church is not a democracy, and part of being Catholic is being cool with that.
So if you think this or any other pope is just plain wrong on celibacy or homosexuality or anything else big, and this upsets you so much it interferes with your spiritual life, you’d be well advised to find yourself another church. Otherwise you’re like the orthodox Jew who, in light of recent developments, has taken it upon himself to decide that it’s all right for him to eat pork. You can be an orthodox Jew, and you can eat pork. You’re free to do either one. But folks, you just can’t do both. There are names for Catholics who don’t accept that they can’t do certain things and still receive the sacraments, and one of those names is Senator John Kerry.
Andrew Sullivan points out correctly that the Catholic Church has changed over the years, offering examples such as Vatican II and absolving the Jews for Christ’s death. But those changes weren’t dogmatic, as a liberalization of the Church’s views on abortion or homosexuality would be, and they certainly weren’t the result of a town-hall meeting or an online poll. They came about as a result of years of prayer and reflection from within the Vatican, not because of a particularly meaningful Oprah episode.
As opposed to the changes that came about as a result of agitators demanding that the Church become more “relevant,” such as barefoot guitar masses, bearded, “cool” priests, and the bashing of forearms combined with the muttering of “aw-ite” as the Sign of Peace. Come to think of it, wasn’t the Sign of Peace itself added to the Mass right about the time the first Billy Jack movie was released? I rest my case.
If you have misgivings about leaving a church even though it no longer represents your more socially liberal views, consider the example of the new pope’s namesake St. Benedict. Sent to Rome for his pastoral studies during the sixth century, young Benedict was so repelled by the debauchery he found there that he fled the city to pursue his studies in solitude. (How decadent was Rome back in those days? Their official slogan was “What happens in Rome, stays in Rome”). Lured out of retirement by a group of monks who wanted him as their leader, he soon wore out his welcome with them, too, by being too strict. (This guy Benedict was like the Larry Brown of guys who founded their own religious orders).
Finally, for those who would chafe under the yoke of commandments, or a catechism, or a constitution, or the mission statement every Taco Bell employee has to read, or any other articulation of first principles, consider the words of Cardinal Ratzinger shortly before he became the new pope. Warning of the “tyranny of relativism” that’s become so pervasive, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that it’s better to be guided by time-honored principles of morality than to be endlessly buffeted about by the myriad whims of conventional wisdom in the name of “freedom.” With the clear implication being, if you don’t like these principles the rest of us here have agreed to live by, maybe this isn’t the Church for you. Or as my Dad used to say during dinner, if you don’t like what we’re serving here, try next door.
–Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Rice is also an NRO contributor.