His Holiness has done it again with Amoris Laetitia, his latest encyclical on the family. The traditionalists tell us he’s betrayed basic Roman Catholic Doctrine. The loyalists (to the Church) say it really doesn’t say anything new. And the revisionists fell a “thrill up their leg” while reading it.
Given all of that, I’m reposting my April 2005 piece “Just One Bull Away,” written in the wake of St. John Paul’s death. Although Francis’ encyclicals are mostly long and tedious, the potential for disaster is always there, as this piece noted.
The recent death of Pope John Paul II has brought an extensive–and well deserved–outpouring of grief from around the world. He did attempt to build bridges between Roman Catholicism and the rest of humanity while at the same time persevering the integrity of the Church. He also was instrumental in the collapse of Communism in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, so much so the Soviets attempted to have him assassinated. And his conservative implementation of the Second Vatican Council restored order–especially in North America–to a church which was flirting with anarchy.
But now there is speculation. Who will take his place? How will the course of Roman Catholicism be affected by it? John Paul’s long papacy insured that the cardinals were more to his own bent than those of his predecessors. Ultimately, however, any pope is confronted by two possible courses of carrying the Roman Catholic Church forward, and both of these courses have pitfalls and opportunities for the Church and everyone else.
The first is to continue John Paul’s course of what Pentecostals would call “the church being the church.” His idea was that Roman Catholicism would be at its best when it was itself. This is why he stood against Communism in an era when many people–including those within Roman Catholicism–had bought into the idea that Marx’ concept of “historical determinism” was really true and history was on the Communists’ side. This is also why his “consolidation of power” fell hard on both liberals and Charismatics alike in North America.
From a purely institutional standpoint, this course is probably the best. Protestants will not find this conclusion to their taste–justifiably so–but the 1960’s and 1970’s proved that, when Roman Catholics experiment with ideas from the outside, they may benefit but the church does not. The Achilles heel to this strategy is the celibate priesthood; in this sexually overstimulated age of ours, expecting people to give up intercourse for any reason is an uphill battle. The priesthood is so central to the life of the church that its continuing shortage is a long term drain on Roman Catholicism.
The second would be to attempt to accommodate the “spirit of the age.” This is especially tempting to Europeans and North Americans, fighting as they are the rampant secularism in their societies. Roman Catholicism has always been happiest when it is in concert with the prevailing ethic of a society; if it cannot define that ethic, then it is tempted to try to work out an arrangement with it. The first example of this took place after Christianity was legalised by Constantine; that’s why we have the devotions to Mary and the saints.
Post-Vatican II Catholic history would suggest that such a strategy is short-sighted, especially since the “centre of gravity” is shifting to the “Third World.” It is the strategy that the Episcopal Church has pursued, and they have the membership loss to prove it. This may bring glee to Evangelicals, who see the potential of discouraged and confused Catholics seeking spiritual fulfilment elsewhere, but a conservative Catholic Church brings credibility to traditional values, which in turn extends the time when real Christianity remains legal in a society whose upper reaches are filled by so many sworn enemies.
And this brings us to the ultimate warning. In spite of its rich intellectual tradition, Roman Catholicism is ultimately a religion defined by the church itself. The church is literally one Papal Bull (or encyclical, to use the more current term) away from a non-celibate priesthood, from the abandonment of Jesus Christ as man’s only road to God, from the unlimited acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life, from just about anything. And although left-lurching moves may weaken the church, they may also make it easier for the powers that be to dispatch the rest of us when they get the chance.
The passage of John Paul II is both a challenge and an opportunity for Roman Catholicism. While he is definitely a “hard act to follow,” how he is followed will have consequences both for Catholics and for the rest of us.