Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Falling off the Clift

On Good Friday last week, Newsweek published a "web exclusive" by Eleanor Clift entitled Church and Congress, the subject of which is summarized in the subtitle: "Both Catholic cardinals and U.S. legislators work in rule-driven hierarchies. If the lawmakers can make reforms, then why can’t the priests?"

She proceeds to trot out a variety of assertions and statements about the change that the Church must undergo, but which will be difficult under the current ideological and political climate within the Church. I'm going to highlight just a couple comments and then make some remarks.

It is tempting to predict that the church is on the verge of a second Reformation, and that it will emerge stronger than ever. But reforming the church is not unlike reforming politics. Pope John Paul II has been in power since 1978, long enough to have named virtually every bishop in America. All of this pope’s appointees are ideologically conservative.

Ah yes, JPII has been in power for over 20 years and has consolidated his power bloc in the Church, i.e. those who are "ideologically conservative". I wonder... what exactly does "conservative" mean for Ms. Clift? Presumably that means that they all hold to the teachings which the Catholic Church holds to and professes, rather than those teachings which the Church doesn't hold. Heaven forbid that the Church's priests and bishops teach what the Church teaches. (I am aware that some of the things which "liberal Catholics" seek are disciplinary rather than doctrinal -- e.g. priestly celibacy -- but those things are in the minority of liberal issues. More on the doctrine-discipline distinction in another post.)

To me, JPII and those who are like-minded in the Church are classic examples of how political categories (liberal & conservative in particular) break down and are inadequate when speaking about the Church. How can someone who seeks the abolition of the death penalty in most cases in the First World, who warns against the dangers of unbridled capitalism, who calls for greater focus on the plight of the poor in the world, etc. be dismissed as "conservative"? Aren't all of these things concerns of political liberals?

“As a group, they’re like the Taliban. If you want to succeed in this system, you never talk about the ordination of women—and abortion and birth control are like the third rail,” says this [anonymous] diocesan priest.

Apart from the gratuitous Taliban reference, this priest is exactly right: anyone who expects to be given greater responsibilities in the Catholic Church (is that success? As Hans Urs von Balthasar said, "success is not a Gospel category"; it makes no sense in the Church of Christ) is expected to hold and profess the teachings of that Church. Why is this so hard to comprehend? Probably because people like Ms. Clift and this priest (apparently) don't recognize that the Church sees itself as the guardian of a deposit of divine truths entrusted to it by God, not as an arbitrary creator of doctrine. (You can reject this if you like, but at least recognize that this is the Church's perspective.) The Church and those who speak in her name can no more approve of priestesses, artificial birth control, and abortion than they can decree that there are seven persons in the Godhead instead of three. As John Paul and others have repeatedly affirmed, the Church simply does not have the ability to do so.

What it all comes down to is each person's concept of truth. Is truth absolute, unchanging, and timeless? If it is, then the Church -- as the proclaimer of truth -- cannot simply change its teaching according to the latest polling data.

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