In his “Right as Usual” column of Tuesday, April 26, (“Pope’s Election and Views are Archaic”) Barney Keller takes the measure of the new pope in snug conformity with prevailing thoughts on the obsolescence of religion, while lacking any critical appreciation for his subject material. While I applaud Keller’s sincere and unvarnished presentation of sentiments, his antagonisms reveal common misconceptions that require deconstruction.
Keller feels that some of the actions of the Church, particularly those of the late and new pontiffs, are “unpopular.”
When commentators declare the Church’s actions to be unpopular, they do not speak for the Church universal in the least. Listen to African, Asian, and South American congregations, and you will hear uproar that the American Church has strayed so far from doctrine. Abortion, homosexuality and clerical celibacy are not questions for dispute in much of the Catholic world, because these are questions of supreme moral moment whose significance cannot be haphazardly determined by random science or finicky politics. That the American and European Churches deviate so wildly from Church teachings on these matters suggests that their religious values have been co-opted by other priorities.
And Keller makes the nature of those priorities quite clear when he castigates Pope Benedict for refusing to be “progressive.” Forgive the man for not being a Marxist, but it has never been the position of Christianity that all will be made well on earth, nor has Christianity accepted any idea of man’s climb to infinite perfectibility. To claim this is to deny Christ and man’s humble position in the universe. When Mr Keller and others ask the Church to be “progressive,” he is asking her to lay aside ancient, God-given universals in favor of the political fad of the moment. Some things do not change, and that includes the sanctity of human life, the importance of family and tradition, and the constant need of man for God’s forgiveness.
This is not a political argumentp; it is what we read in the Bible. To call the Pope “far right,” then, is to trivialize him as an ideologue. Political categories do not apply to the Church. The question is not what political philosophy the Pope espouses, but to what extent he believes in and adheres to the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit’s verdict is already in on that count. So, to refer to the Pope’s biblical interpretation as “strict constructionist” is to call him a Christian, because he accepts the Bible as the Word of God. I suppose the stigma against sincere religion adheres.
One might also muse over Keller’s apprehension that Benedict obsesses needlessly over certain “dangers to the Catholic Church,” such as Marxism, relativism and atheism. Lest we forget, ideas have consequences, and the mass murder of anti-Communists in Soviet Russia, the daily killing of unborn children under morally relativistic law, and the genocide and hate of rabidly atheist Nazi Germany are hardly mere internal concerns of the Catholic Church. To the extent that the Catholic Church has been able to fight these morally crippling and dehumanizing ideologies it will always be condemned for having done little where others did nothingthe benefits have redounded to all. Or maybe John Paul II’s role in the Cold War was, after all, a curial activity that did not concern us. I always knew Ronald Reagan was Catholic.
The real lesson for Keller and others, however, is that human standards will never suffice to judge the Church, because these “human” standards are only those of the man cold and alone in the universe, alienated from his Creator and his fellow man. Christians have taken upon themselves the Cross, and with it the mission to evangelize the world. But won’t they still sin? Of course. The expectation that these people will pervert this mission for transient political ends will never be wholly disappointed, because man is a sinner and a hypocrite. But, to the extent that Christians manfully endeavor to break free of this fear and hate, we will never be quite what Keller would like us to be.