With the passing of Pope John Paul II, there is much speculation about what the new pope will bring to the table. Will he promote social progress within the Catholic Church and thereby better reflect the views and values of today’s average Catholic? Or will he instead continue to propagate the Church’s current conservative stances on things like contraception, homosexuality, and the role of women in the Church?
I was just starting out at a small-town Catholic primary school in the mid-1960s, when the Second Vatican Council (also called Vatican II) brought the Catholic Church into the 20th century. The Council’s most notable changes for me at the time were that the use of vernacular language was now permitted in the Mass and that the laity became more involved in the Church’s ministry. At around the same time, the nuns who taught in my school were given new, more modern habits to wear, which exposed their ankles and their hairlines – much more progressive than the burqua-like garb that they had to wear previously.
All of this was very exciting and appealing to us young folks. But, unfortunately, that is where the progress stopped.
In the 40 years since Vatican II, society has evolved, and most Catholics I know have changed with the times. The Church, however, has not. A result is the large number of “cafeteria Catholics”, who pick and choose which doctrines they will follow and which they will ignore. A cafeteria Catholic, for example, might faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, but also use birth control or regularly engage in premarital sex. A quick trip to the confessional wipes the slate clean so that they can still receive the sacraments. Pope John Paul II himself stated that this sort of conduct is not compatible with being a “good Catholic”.
So what is a Catholic to do? Succumb to a repressive and outdated code of conduct or else risk being exposed as a “bad Catholic”? Consider how the Church would fare if all of these “bad Catholics” took their faith and their money elsewhere. If this were to happen, the Church’s bank account would take an enormous hit. So the Vatican looks the other way and pays no more than some minor lip service to cafeteria Catholics, just as it has tolerated (and covered up) so many transgressions by its own clergy. Are appearances really more important than integrity where money and power are concerned?
There is a healthier alternative, and that is progress. For its own good, and for its own survival, the Church needs to regain the momentum of the Vatican II days and move its doctrines out of the past and into the present. It needs to recognize that it is irresponsible to forbid the use of condoms in this age of HIV/AIDS. It needs to recognize that it is irresponsible to forbid the use of any contraceptives in an overpopulated world. It needs to recognize that homosexuality is a natural state found in some 10% of the human population (and several other species), and is not a misguided choice. And it needs to look inside itself and see what evils can result when human sexuality is repressed and controlled for arbitrary reasons.
With the election of the new pope, the Church has a rare opportunity to initiate a fresh approach towards evolving in a positive, progressive, and more enlightened direction. I hope that it will not be wasted.