May the faithful lead the Vatican to 'originalism'

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Conservative pundits have had their typical good time lambasting the American media's coverage of the new pope -- and rightly so:

Our provincial journalists ponder in aggrieved tones whether the new pontiff will continue the "controversial" positions of the Roman Catholic Church on birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage, and an all-male, unmarried priesthood. They desire a more open-minded leader to update these harsh teachings. They want the church to become, well, more like them.

And critics rightly point out that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy and its head is not a president. Its doctrines, they say, do not shift in response to public opinion polls.

But on that last point, the conservative pundits are wrong -- and they are missing a historic opportunity. Through the millennia the Church of Rome has indeed changed, usually slowly, but sometimes in direct, quick response to widespread disaffection and desertion.

The public opinion poll known as the Protestant Reformation rocked Rome, and Rome reacted with a counter-reformation launched at the Council of Trent. The council reaffirmed core doctrines that forever severed Martin Luther's rebel band, but it abolished gross corruption such as the selling of indulgences and reformed education for its priests.

What rocks Rome today is its priests' depraved abuse of children. Though a relatively small number have committed these crimes, the cover-ups have involved many more officials and, worse, allowed the abuse to continue. Even the faithful, or especially the faithful, are aghast.

At this moment in history, when American pundits -- some of them ardent Catholics -- argue for an immutable church, they reveal an interesting split in conservative thinking, just as much as they think they illuminate the difference between "conservative" and "liberal" thought.

This difference is easily understood through the prism of American politics (though it transcends it). There are people who are conservative by temperament rather than by philosophy, George W. Bush being a recent, prime example. They uphold traditional ways and institutions and are not prone to reformist zeal.

Then there are philosophical conservatives who are not afraid to shake things up, once those traditions -- whether centuries, or mere decades-old -- are understood to be unjust. These people would be more accurately called "originalists," as they are when the topic at hand involves interpretation of the Constitution.

This kind of conservatism appeals to independents and true liberals, as it did in American politics in 2010. People of every political stripe were alarmed by the overreach of government, its unresponsiveness, its top-down autocratic methods. They wanted -- still want -- to reign in abuses of power, and they do so by asking, "What do the founding documents say?"

American Catholics -- pundits, priests and the laity -- have the opportunity to bring the same originalist thinking to bear on this pivotal moment in Roman Catholic history: What does the founding document say?

On one of those "controversial" teachings that our news media have lately bemoaned -- an unmarried, celibate priesthood -- the teaching and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church clearly contradict the "founding document," the Bible.

St. Peter, whom Catholics claim as the "first Bishop of Rome," was married (Matthew 8:14). Other passages (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:5-6) state that an episkopos -- a bishop, priest or elder -- is to be "the husband of one wife." While St. Paul wished all believers had, like him, the gift of celibacy, the better to focus on the work of God (1 Corinthians 7), he elsewhere noted (1 Cor. 9) that "the other apostles [and] the brothers of the Lord" had wives who traveled with them.

Clearly, some great Roman Catholic leaders have, like Paul, been blessed with the gift of celibacy. History, ancient and modern, tells us many have not. Men who are honest about having sexual needs unfortunately cannot consider priestly vocation, leaving it to those at peace with celibacy -- and to those, frighteningly, who have not perhaps developed psychological and sexual maturity.

Unholy sexual practices flourish where unbiblical sexual rules are preached. Every sect has its blind spots: My childhood religion taught that the "time to dance" blessed in Ecclesiastes is ... never.

But it eventually becomes as obvious to religious adherents as it is to skeptics that when we set an unreasonable standard -- one higher than the standard of supposedly God-breathed scriptures! -- we are asking for trouble.

Trouble has come. It has devastated the lives of too many children. The worldwide Roman Catholic Church is in turmoil. The (deservedly) maligned American media have faithfully reported these crimes. Prominent American Catholics should bring an even more uniquely American asset -- respect for the word and the Word -- to nurture necessary change in Christ's church.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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