One of the fun things about working in the news media is the unpredictable nature of news.
For instance, no one going to work in a radio or TV news operation early Monday morning probably could have predicted the news that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down at the end of the month.
Or, as cartoonist Joe Heller put it, “You’re giving up WHAT for Lent?”
Because we’re nearing March Madness, some creative soul came up with this:
(I had no idea there were candidates from Dubuque and Dyersville, Iowa. And someone’s going to do some time in Purgatory for “Flagellant Four.”)
Those of us who enjoy end-of-the-world predictions now are obligated to bring up St. Malachy and his papal list, as NBCNews.com reports:
Just when you thought it was safe to go out of the bunker, there’s a fresh wave of doomsday buzz over a purported 12th-century prophecy suggesting that the next pope will be the last pope before the end of the world. St. Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes” has no credence in the Roman Catholic Church, but its effect could well be longer-lasting than the hype that surrounded the 2012 Maya apocalypse — especially if the papal conclave goes with one of the favored candidates for Benedict XVI’s successor.
The text that’s been attributed to Malachy came to light in 1595, in a book by Benedictine monk Arnold de Wyon. Supposedly, Malachy experienced a vision of future popes during a trip to Rome in 1139, and wrote down a series of 112 cryptic phrases that described each pope in turn. The text was said to have lain unnoticed in Rome’s archives until Wyon published it.
Doomsday fans have found ways to link each phrase to a corresponding pope through the centuries. That includes John Paul II, who is associated with phrase No. 110, “From the labor of the sun,” because he was born on the day of a solar eclipse and was entombed on the day of a solar eclipse as well. Benedict XVI, No. 111, is supposedly “glory of the olive” because some members of a branch of the monastic order founded by St. Benedict are known as Olivetans.
Then there’s No. 112: “In the extreme persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit … Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end.”
The end? This could be the beginning for a doomsday meme that hangs over a whole generation, if it’s taken seriously. …
But if the coming papal conclave really wanted to drum up the doomsday talk, as well as sales for “Petrus Romanus,” all they’d have to do is elect one of the leading candidates: Ghanaian CardinalPeter Turkson, a member of the Roman Curia. Even though church tradition would forbid any pope from taking the name Peter II, Turkson could arguably be described as Peter the Roman. Others suggest that he could be the “young red black one” mentioned in the similarly cryptic doomsday prophecies of Nostradamus.
The first I heard about Malachy was in 1978, after the death of Pope Paul VI, when there were just four popes left on his list. Pope John Paul I lasted one month after his installation, and that left three popes on his list. Of course, then John Paul II lasted through my confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church, high school and college graduations, my marriage, the birth of two of our three children, and my departure from the Roman Catholic Church.
I bring up that last fact to segue into my counterargument for the Biblical plague of inaccurate and wrong-headed media reporting and commentary about the church since Monday.
From a political perspective, the Roman Catholic Church is an unusual mixture of social conservatism and economic progressivism. (Kind of the opposite of libertarian.) The church is officially against both abortion and the death penalty. The church’s economic teachings are certainly comfortably within the Democratic Party, but then there’s that abortion thing. One reason for the development of “cafeteria Catholics” is that there are Catholics who are social conservatives but don’t agree with the church’s economic stances, and there are Catholics who are economic liberals but don’t agree with the church’s more conservative social positions.
The church’s influence in this country is remarkable because the Catholic Church is, to coin a term, counter-American. (I use that term specifically instead of “anti-American” — the former means, to me, the opposite of American values; the latter means opposition to American values, and I am not suggesting that.) I would never argue that Catholics cannot be Americans or vice versa. (The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion.) But the Roman Catholic Church is based on authority, largely top-down. Churches are assigned priests by their diocese’s bishops; they have no say in who they get. The pope chooses cardinals and bishops. The pope is said to be infallible on spiritual matters, and priests are the authority within their churches. (That last point is reinforced more severely in some dioceses and churches than others.)
The United States was created as the very antithesis of top-down, undemocratic, infallible authority. The Episcopal Church spun off from the Church of England the same year George Washington became president. The Episcopal Church (the most common religion of American presidents, by the way, including Franklin Roosevelt, who remained his church’s senior warden all 12 years as president, and, most recently, George H.W. Bush) was organized like the federal government, or perhaps vice versa. The federal government has the president, the Episcopal Church has the Presiding Bishop; the feds have the U.S. Senate, the church has the House of Bishops; the feds have the House of Representatives, the church has the House of Delegates. It could safely be said that everything wrong with the Episcopal Church mirrors everything wrong with the federal government, because human institutions are inevitably flawed.
You have read expressions of the misbegotten belief that a new pope will, or should, lead to a new wave of liberalism within the church. (Usually expressed by those who believe more liberalism is necessary for the church.) The atheist empire of Madison, specifically Dave Cieslewicz, is a reliable source of anti-Catholicism:
There is no more tragic organization on the face of the earth than the Catholic Church.
An outfit with incredible resources and influence, it has squandered both on the hideous scandal of its massive pedophile cover-ups and its mindless, hierarchical, anachronistic rigidity. If this were a government, it would have been toppled long ago. If this were a business, its shareholders would have shown its managers the door with enthusiasm. …
You probably think of my old religion as the anti-abortion faith because that’s what the conservative old men who run the church choose to emphasize. But this could just as easily be a “nuns on the bus” faith if only the men in power were of that inclination. And if it were a “social gospel” faith, I might even contribute a buck or two to a cause I could believe in — though nothing, not even good liberal causes, could drag me into a church for anything but weddings or funerals.
So Benedict XVI is stepping aside. That’s good, but there’s really not much reason to rejoice because the cardinals who will choose his successor are as conservative as he is. But you never know. Sometimes, with a lifetime appointment a guy will surprise you. President Eisenhower never expected Earl Warren to lead a court that dramatically expanded civil liberties and personal freedom.
My point is that whoever replaces Benedict can’t possibly be any worse and might be a little better. Or he could be spectacularly better. The Pope of the future who will be remembered is the Pope who will have the good sense to see that there’s nothing in the teachings of Jesus that should prevent women or married people from being priests. And once that threshold is crossed, once the church is no longer held in a chokehold by bitter, conservative old men, it can be unleashed to do real good in the world.
There is a practical reason why a more liberal shift is unlikely. Pope John Paul II was the most dynamic pope in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog, but he was a conservative as the church defines the term. John Paul II appointed the cardinals, who in turn appointed Benedict XVI, another conservative. The next pope, whether he’s from Italy, or this continent, or Africa (as the Irish bookies apparently are betting), will be another conservative, whether Catholics like that or not.
It should be obvious, but apparently isn’t even to many Catholics, that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, has never been a democracy, and will never be a democracy. (The term “never” can be comfortably used to describe an institution that has been around for 2,000 years or so.) The church does not answer to man. The church believes that life begins at conception, and therefore any birth control that causes the death of a fertilized egg is murder. The church believes that priests and nuns are married to the church, so do not expect to see married Catholic priests (beyond its outreach to married Episcopal and Anglican priests). The church believes that priests, bishops and popes are descended from Jesus Christ and His disciples, so do not expect to see woman priests. The church believes that marriage is a sacrament, that spouses worship God based on how they treat each other, so the church is not going to approve of divorce. The church believes the first (though not only) purpose of marriage is children, so the church will not approve of same-sex marriage. The church believes all life is sacred, so it is not going to approve of euthanasia or the death penalty.
You may read the preceding paragraph and say you disagree with the church’s positions there or on other issues, and as an American that is your right. (God gave us free will, so that’s not just an American right.) But the Catholic Church is not an American institution, it’s not a democracy, and it does not answer to you. Your choice, it seems, is to accept the church’s positions — all of them — or leave.
You’ll notice early in this blog that I describe myself as a former Catholic. I did not leave the church because its stance on a particular issue disagreed with mine. I am a big admirer of John Paul II because of his role (as well as the roles of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) in ending the evil that was the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact countries.
Since my departure, however, that decision to leave has been affirmed numerous times in numerous ways. As someone raised in the post-Vatican II church, I find the new Mass a step backward. I’ve attended Latin High Masses, and I get very little out of a Mass in which I can only guess at what the priest, standing with his back to the parishioners, is saying. (What was the purpose of Pentecost again?) The church mishandled child sex abuse by priests and nuns (as, to be fair, numerous other institutions mishandled sexual abuse by authority figures), simply because the church should be held to a much higher standard.
The church tolerates no dissent, and that’s simply wrong in a country whose very existence (endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights, remember) is the result of dissent, and whose citizens’ right to dissent — as well as our right to be a member of any church we like — is in the First Amendment of our Constitution. If God gave us free will, God obviously tolerates differences of opinion. Jesus Christ’s three years of ministry certainly were not about blind, unthinking obedience to any man, whether or not he had a religious title.
It is not that the church — any church, and indeed any institution — will ever be perfect, or should be expected to be perfect. Perfection is impossible in anything where human beings are involved. It’s not that I expect the Catholic Church to change, either. You are more likely to be buried in the church than to see change in the church. There is some comfort in seeing a 2,000-year-old institution, until its resistance to improvement hurts the church and its worthwhile mission on Earth.