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Abler-Minded: The Papacy

By the time you read this, the Roman Catholic Church may already have a new pontiff. I read something to the effect that none of the conclaves over the last centuries have taken more than five days to elect a new pope. I don’t have any basis for predicting how quickly the Conclave of Cardinals will reach a decision, other than history is on the side of sooner rather than later.

What I do find most intriguing is the news coverage surrounding the selection of the next pope. The way much of the media has approached this is fascinating in their wide misunderstanding of much about the Catholic Church.

About two weeks ago, I happened to be channel surfing when I hit one of the major network Saturday morning “news” programs that had “Vatican in Crisis” displayed in bold letters at the bottom of the screen. I had to listen for a while so I could identify what they thought was a crisis. The participants were speaking about the impending election and each was pontificating about what type of pope the church needed, as though this were a political race like a presidential election. To be fair, there are politics involved in any organization, including the Vatican and Catholic Church, but what actually occurs during a conclave is secret providing plenty of fodder for the conspiracy theorists.

One of the participants offered the opinion that the church really needed a more liberal pope, so the church could become more relevant in the modern world. Whether people will admit it or not, the Catholic Church is as relevant now as it was over 2,000 years ago. Judeo-Christian morality as codified in the Ten Commandments, and the teachings in the Gospels, of the Apostles, and the traditions of the Catholic Church are all still relevant to how humans should treat one another and to interact with our environment.

As secular philosophers and their “progressive” theories have taken hold around the world, societies have turned their back on traditional decency, morality, and ethical living and lifestyles. That many other religious denominations, churches, and sects have decided that acceptance by the people rather than adherence to doctrine and morality, does not invalidate the Catholic Church’s positions and teachings.

I got more chuckles as the participants started talking about all the areas where the church needs to modernize, including contraception, abortion, celibacy, and the role of women. They even had a nun as one of the participants who ranted at length about the absence of women in the clergy and the church hierarchy. It would be nice if the media would include a knowledgeable and capable defender of the church in their discussions rather than feature only those who are unhappy for one reason or another.

Anyone who seriously thinks the Catholic Church will liberalize its position and teachings on any of these subjects doesn’t understand the traditional and biblical foundations of the church’s positions. Were the Catholic Church to make any major modifications in these areas, it would cease to be the church as I and many others know it and would probably result in a major schism of the church.

As I said, Catholic doctrines and teachings are founded on the Old Testament, oral and written traditions, and the New Testament. The earliest Catholics relied on the Old Testament, and oral and written teachings for their worship and daily guidance. As the church matured over the centuries, the books of the New Testament as we know it were written and eventually codified along with the Old Testament into the “Canon” (norm or catalog) of the Bible. Even Martin Luther grudgingly acknowledged the contribution of the papists in defining the content of the Bible.

The Catholic Church has never been perfect. That is simply the result of the human failings of the members – top to bottom. While it is easy to say the members of the clergy in any church should be far better than the rest of us, history has shown the fallacy of that thought. Popes, priests, ministers, nuns, pastors, senators, kings, queens, and even presidents have succumbed to temptations. And sometimes the results of their sins have been disastrous. It’s often been pointed out that saints are not those without sin; they are people who know just how sinful they truly are.

The Catholic Church is also not a democratic organization. The pope is the vicar of Christ on Earth. He is the ultimate earthly authority on faith (doctrine) and morals in the church. Only when he speaks on these matters are his teachings infallible; he cannot be in error in these areas. His authority extends through the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and religious to everyone in the church. Not all people understand or accept this structure. Nor do all Catholics understand or accept this, much less the teachings on faith and morals. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

The next pope will not be another John Paul II. Neither will he be another Benedict XVI. Whoever he is, he will be the spiritual leader of 1.5 billion Catholics. Can you grasp the enormity of that responsibility?

I certainly can’t, but I am praying for the next pope and the world. They can both use all our prayers.

Well, that’s what’s been on my mind.