Pope Francis has his work cut out for him. In a secular world, how does he reconcile Christian orthodoxy – more particularly Catholicism – with democracy, capitalism, gay rights, women’s rights, abortion, and a culture that sometimes seems obsessed with sex and violence?
In an effort to preserve and protect what it views as fundamental, the Church is inclined to resist rather than adapt. Often what has developed as custom and practice is elevated to the level of moral imperative.
In so doing the institutional life of the Church becomes confused with its spiritual role. The human flaws so evident in the management of the Ch urch are ignored and denied because to do otherwise would cause scandal, thereby undermining its spiritual and moral authority.
This blending of the institutional and spiritual life of the Church does a disservice to both. The Church views itself as in but not of the world; the part that’s in is its governance; the part that is not is its doctrinal purity.
While showing inordinate sympathy for the flawed human beings that make up the institution itself, the Church fails to demonstrate the same compassion and sympathy for the faithful who question doctrine and its application in a diverse society.
One can understand the Church’s reluctance to modify or overturn what are considered fundamental doctrines, but why the resistance to reforming the institutional Church in the face of a history of mismanagement and corruption?
The Church is a blend of the human and divine. It is a mistake to confuse the two. The institutional Church is human. It makes all the mistakes one would expect of a medieval monarchy. It can, and should, be reformed by becoming more democratic, transparent, and accountable. To do so would not undermine its spiritual role; on the contrary, it would strengthen it.
How can a feudal hierarchy credibly preach human rights, equality, and freedom? Is that not asking others to do as I say, not as I do? The governance of the Church should reflect as well as project those values that it calls upon other governments to practice.
Women deserve a far greater role in the governance of the modern Church. By what authority does one argue that Christ only wanted men to be priests, and unmarried men at that? To deny women that opportunity, in my view, is a distortion based on an outdated institutional preference rather on the gospels.
Doctrinal change is obviously more difficult as evidenced by the Church’s reluctance to accept artificial birth control. That should be easy, given the wholesale rejection of that teaching by Catholics. To equate the prevention of conception with abortion – the taking of what is, or would become, a human life – is folly. They are not the same.
Love is the essence of Church teaching. It encompasses all other virtues. It does not necessarily mean approval but it does require understanding and compassion. The Church may never perform gay marriages but it should love gays and respect their desire to marry. To do otherwise would be uncharitable.
In strengthening the management and operation of the institutional Church, Pope Francis will not carry the heavy burden of infallibility, which provides that in matters of faith and morals the pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, cannot be mistaken. It implies a miraculous inspiration to prevent error.
Such authority, even when limited to matters spiritual, runs counter to our understanding of human nature. Experience suggests that good, well-intentioned, wise, even holy men can and do err. Infallibility, a relatively recent doctrine in the life of the Church, must then either be hubris or divine inspiration. To believe that God underwrites all such pronouncements is a difficult reach even for one who accepts them.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.