Inflexible dogma unfaithful to the roots of Church
THE Pope is dead: long live the Pope. Karol Wojtyla may be the focus of mourning for hundreds of millions right now, and there seems every possibility he will be elevated to sainthood. Yet bones influence the affairs of living men only through history. John Paul may now be in heaven - saints, according to Catholic custom, can avoid the inconvenience of purgatory - but down here, the world will quickly move on.
There has been much talk in recent days of John Paul II’s undeniably remarkable pontificate, and of the legacy he leaves. Yet there has also been considerable misunderstanding of the direction the Vatican is likely to take now.
Put bluntly, a significant number of commentators have confused John Paul’s papacy with the wider, historic thinking which has traditionally underpinned the Roman Church. For the last 26 years, the Pontiff has gradually shaped the world’s most powerful religious institution into an inflexible, dogmatic, centralised and authoritarian organisation, unwilling to countenance or negotiate with contrary opinion or dissent.
Yet that is not the ethos of the Church itself. Over the centuries, Roman Catholicism has learned to be dextrous, flexible and pragmatic. It has always known when to hold firm and when to give under pressure. It could not have survived for 2,000 years if it had behaved in any other way.
The Church’s great strength has always been in its orthodoxy. Its catechisms and canon law are almost mathematically rigid. Yet, traditionally, it has always been open to new thinking. The great Lateran and Vatican councils are examples of this.
It is easy to forget that much of the Church’s centralised dogmatism has been formed only in the last century or so. The concept of papal infallibility dates only from 1870. The drift of power from the episcopate to the Vatican is a product of the 20th century. And it is only under John Paul that dissident theologians have been ostracised to the point of - and even beyond - excommunication.
Many of the Catholic faithful may have lived under John Paul’s iron theological fist for so long that they have forgotten these truths, but the cardinals certainly will not. They now have the ability to act for themselves - to elect a pope prepared to think broadly and to devolve power back to the dioceses.
Will they do so? There has been an assumption that, because the cardinals were nearly all created by John Paul II, they will pick a pontiff in his image. But that may be a misreading of the situation.
Most of the cardinals - certainly the ones outside the Curia - are very much in touch with the real world. They know the real state of the planet and recognise their Church’s paucity of thinking in many areas. A goodly number of them understand that it is losing the arguments over issues such as abortion, contraception, celibacy, intercommunion and women and gay priests.
Faced with marginalisation, continuing decline and empty pews, those cardinals may well now feel that the time has come to elect a pontiff who will make the Church more progressive in all or some of these areas.
Change need not be difficult if the will is there. The argument that something cannot be altered because it is fixed in tradition or scripture is the last refuge of the theological scoundrel. The Catholic Church has always - and this is a compliment, not an insult - been adept at interpreting both of these things to suit its purposes. It can easily do so again.
Andrew Collier is a journalist who writes on religion.
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