Archive for the ‘Morality’ Tag

organic family planning

As a result of the HHS Mandate, the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception have garnered an abundance of media attention.   It is clear from the  headlines that Catholics are depicted as a people divided when it comes to contraception.  It is widely—though erroneously —reported that 98% of Catholic women will use a form of contraception at some point in their lifetime.  With numbers like these, and headlines like, “Catholics Take Sides over Health Law’s Birth Control Policy,” what’s a Catholic to do?  Many Catholics know that the Church views contraception as immoral, but are unsure exactly why.  Catholics may be unfamiliar or have misconceptions about what options are considered morally licit.  So while everyone is clear that the Church disallows contraception, the Church’s side of the story is not widely known.

With this in mind, last year I pitched Church teaching on contraception to my classroom of high school students. I began the conversation by asking them what they thought about the recent trend of environmental activism: everything nowadays is about “being green” and farming organically and cleaning with elements found in nature rather than chemicals. Everyone chimed in with examples from their own lives or advertisements they had seen on TV.  I then posed the question, If we are concerned with the chemicals that we put in our bodies, if we spend extra money to buy organic produce, use botantical cleaning supplies, and eat only antibiotic-free meat, why, then, are we so quick to use chemicals to control a woman’s fertility?

The room was quiet for a few moments—a small feat in an all-girls environment—and then the conversation really picked up.  I explained that the Church encourages married couples to use Natural Family Planning, or NFP, to plan their families.  Natural Family Planning can be used to achieve or to avoid pregnancies.  There are several different methods, but each works in conjunction with a woman’s menstrual cycle to determine the days that she is able to conceive.   NFP does not use any chemicals and does not involve any act before, during, or after intercourse to prevent a pregnancy from occurring.  Upon hearing this one student remarked, “It’s organic family planning!”  The real beauty of NFP, though, is that it fosters care for the whole person, body and spirit.

Marriage has two essential qualities: it is unitive—bringing the couple together in body and in spirit—but it is also procreative—that is to say, open to life.  As Pope Paul VI writes in Humanae Vitae,

“…the  fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.”

When we deliberately remove the procreative element of sex through contraception,  we are removing an essential quality of the marital act.

That is why NFP is not considered contraception or birth control; it involves an awareness of naturally occurring times of fertility and infertility.  Couples who wish to avoid a pregnancy simply abstain from intercourse during the woman’s fertile phase.  Contrary to popular belief, NFP is 99% effective if a couple seeks to avoid a pregnancy and uses the system correctly.

More than anything, though, NFP requires a couple to embody agape love, that is, sacrificial love.  It requires sacrifice because short periods of abstinence are required if a couple is trying to avoid a pregnancy.  It calls couples beyond themselves to a mutual responsibility for their fertility.  It does not rely solely on the woman or the man—it necessarily requires mutual responsibility. It is a remarkable exercise in authentic self-gift. In fact, couples who use NFP report that it strengthens their marriage because it fosters communication and a deeper appreciation for the other.

Natural Family Planning acknowledges that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and it promotes a deep respect for our bodies’ natural cycles of fertility.  In a society where “being green” is so prized, we shouldn’t settle for using chemicals to alter what is a remarkable natural cycle.  This week is NFP Awareness week –take the opportunity to learn more about authentic Church teaching on contraception. For more information on NFP, I’d urge you to check out the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website.  In addition, the book Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, edited by Erika Bachiochi, is filled with essays (written by brilliant, academic women) about the theology and the history behind these teachings.

the great pep talk

The Great Pep Talk

“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.  For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” –Matthew 10 : 19-20

Today’s Gospel is a great pep-talk for any apologists out there.

I am a Catholic. I love everything about the Catholic faith–the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the smells and bells of liturgy, Pope Francis. I love my faith and I try to follow Christ in all that I do.

Yet Christ calls us to more than “simply” following Him in our individual lives. In fact every single Catholic is anointed priest, prophet, and king at their Baptism. Part of the indelible mark of Baptism is the prophetic call.

Most of us don’t want to be prophets. Most of the Biblical prophets didn’t want to be prophets! Moses came up with an array of excuses when he was called: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex. 3:11), then “Suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?” (Ex. 4:1), then, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” (Ex. 4:10), “and then the final straw (my personal favorite), “O my Lord please send someone else!” (Ex. 4:13).

Jonah famously tried to dodge his prophetic call and wound up spending three days in the belly of a giant fish.

Jeremiah, too, had his doubts. He cried out, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” (Jeremiah 1:6)

The hardest part of the prophetic call is necessarily speaking an unpopular message.  The prophets were virtually never well-received. It is difficult to speak out about something that is counter-cultural or radical. I’ve written about this before—I would much rather blend in and mind my own business than spark a controversy.

Fortunately for us, God doesn’t accept our excuses: God calls us to move beyond our fear. God promises to be with us and to give us the words to speak.  In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  This has been God’s message to the prophets from the beginning.  In Jeremiah 1:9, the Hebrew is beautifully expressive—God tells Jeremiah, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” (Admittedly, Jeremiah had the “easy route”—Ezekiel had to eat a scroll! See Ezekiel 3 for that awesome story).

The only choice we have is to move forward, trusting that God will give us the words that we need to continue to joyfully teach and to live Christ’s message of love in the world, as we draw ever closer to the one who knows what it is like to be persecuted.

This post also appears on the Catholic Voices USA Blog

the truth makes all the difference

The 8th commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” is, at best, an ethical minimum. Can, should, this basic truth—don’t lie—be drawn out more broadly to include such ideas as protecting the dignity of a person, or the duty to represent truthfully what one has seen or what one has heard?

The answer, I would argue, is a resounding yes. The 10 Commandments, presented to us by Moses in the Hebrew Bible, set forth a minimum standard of behavior. Christ came and fulfilled the Old Covenant, and in turn elevated the moral standards first found in the 10 Commandments. In Matthew 5, or the “Sermon on the Mount,” Christ presents these new moral standards.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Matthew 5: 21-22

Christ takes what is a simple commandment—do not kill—and elevates it, elevates us—to a higher standard of behavior. Not only may we not kill our fellow brother—we must not be angry with him or harbor resentment toward him.

Similarly within the command “do not bear false witness against your neighbor” lies the elevated command to present the truth with accuracy, with conviction, and most importantly, with love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2464) draws out this idea further (emphasis added):

“The 8th commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and who wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this case, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.”

So when, during a hearing to garner the truth about the terrorist attack in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to a question about the cause of the attack with, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” I thought about this call to witness to the truth. And frankly, I would argue that the truth makes all the difference.

Lately the truth has been difficult to glean from a majority of principal news outlets.

Take, for example, the Gosnell case, which was largely ignored until Kirsten Powers’ courageous article in USA Today. After a virtual outcry on Twitter, more news outlets began to pick up the story; Fox News has even aired a special on the case. The details of the case are horrific, disturbing, nauseating. But the truth is important. The truth is necessary.

There is a similar dearth of coverage regarding the House Committee’s hearing on Benghazi, which took place on Wednesday. Only one of my usual three radio programs mentioned the hearing during my drive to work on Thursday. Senator Marco Rubio was a guest on one news program, and acknowledging the general lack of news coverage, he thanked this particular program for allowing him to speak about the hearing. His comments regarding the hearing were insightful, especially when he thoughtfully noted, “This is not about politics. This is about accountability.”

I applaud Senator Rubio for speaking out. Cases like Gosnell and Benghazi matter. The content is difficult to discuss, because it brings to the forefront all of the worst parts of ourselves that we seek at all costs to cover up. We have created a culture of death, “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis wrote, yet we are shocked when we see evil in our world. Our response to evil is more shocking than the evil itself—cover it up! Don’t talk about it. It’s too disturbing. It’s too political.

So what happens when the usual news outlets, or the people charged with providing the truth, purposefully misrepresent the truth (what seems to be the case in the Benghazi terrorist attack) or simply ignore the story altogether (as was the case with the Gosnell trial)?

Then we must demand the truth. Kirsten Powers’ article shamed the mainstream media into covering, or at least mentioning, the Gosnell trial. The “Break the Gosnell Media Blackout” Twitter campaign was largely effective. We must use whatever tools we have as individuals, whatever platforms, whatever influence, and demand the truth. When these stories aren’t being covered, we should call into the major news outlets and ask why every word of the Jodi Arias case is discussed on the evening program, but not a word is mentioned about the House Committee hearing on Benghazi? And, equally as important, we should take time to thank the news outlets, journalists, and individuals who put their careers on the line to speak the truth. Let them know that we want the truth and that we are grateful when people take risks to bring it to us.

This is about accountability. We need to continue to hold each other lovingly accountable for our wrongs. If we can look evil in the face, if we can call it out of the darkness and name it, then we can move forward and try to ensure that atrocities like the Gosnell clinic and tragedies like the terrorist attacks in Benghazi don’t happen ever again. It is not enough to live out our morality individually. We must demand the truth.

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”John 8:31-32

Call it what it is

I am deeply saddened by President Obama’s duplicitous remarks at a Planned Parenthood function earlier today.  That I am disappointed that the President would so clearly align himself with one side of a polarizing issue is another matter entirely.  Here, I’d simply like to express my disappointment at his choice of words.  Today it seemed that the President chose his words carefully to disguise the nature of the truth.

President Obama said today:

“As long as we’ve got to fight to make sure women have access to quality, affordable health care, and as long as we’ve got to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health, I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you, fighting every step of the way.  Thank you, Planned Parenthood. God bless you.”

That is a great sound bite.  If I didn’t know any better and I had heard that clip on the radio, I’d be filled with pride.  But what do his words really mean?

By “access to quality, affordable health care,” I imagine the President is referring to the Affordable Care Act.  In the context of his speech to Planned Parenthood, he is most likely referring specifically to the HHS mandate, which requires all employers to provide contraceptive coverage to employees. Women’s access to contraception is so important that it has been written into the Affordable Health Care Act, with shallow exemptions in place for those who find contraception morally unacceptable.  As a woman, I am offended by the assertion that offering me “access to quality, affordable health care” means providing me with contraception.  Furthermore, why is men’s reproductive health care not included in the Affordable Care Act?  Why will my employer pay for sterilization for women, but not for men? And why will the Affordable Care Act not cover other methods of family planning, such as Natural Family Planning?

By “we’ve got to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health,” the President is  most likely referring to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.  The President really means that I should be able to choose to end the life of my child if I so desire. I should be able to make this decision up until a late stage in my pregnancy. I have the right, as a woman, as a mother, to feel my child’s heart beating inside of me and decide that I can end my child’s life.  I should have access to an abortion clinic, and if my doctor “botches” my abortion and my child is born alive, my doctor should be allowed to kill my child on the table.  To quote a Planned Parenthood official, it has become a “patient-doctor” issue, and to be clear: I am the patient, not my newborn child.

Yet, President Obama did not once use the word “abortion” in his remarks today.  He continuously used the phrase, “right to choose.”  Why, in addressing the nation’s largest abortion provider, did President Obama not use the word “abortion?”

I am not passing judgment on women or men who agree with these policies or those who find value in them.  I am insisting that we use the appropriate language and truly call these policies what they are.  When we rewrite the language, when we say things like “a woman has a right to choose,” we need to finish the sentence. What does the woman have the right to choose? If we can say, out loud, in public, on television, to Planned Parenthood officials, “A woman has the right to kill the child growing inside of her” then I think we would be making an enormous leap toward truth.

Yet we do not use these words, because these words are harsh, difficult, painful.  Perhaps we are afraid to speak the truth. The truth is not pretty; no one wants to hear about the abortion as a life/death issue when we can easily reframe it to be a rights/choice issue.  Between the lack of mainstream media coverage (or sporadic coverage at best) of the Kermit Gosnell trial and President Obama’s remarks today, the need for truthful language is clear.

The President and I can agree on one thing today— I too would invoke God’s blessing upon Planned Parenthood. I pray for them, and for all of us as a society,  that we may start to call things what they truly are. There is power in truth.

the dangers of moral relativism

On April 18, 2005, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, delivered the homily at the Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff.  In his concise yet poignant homily, he warned against what he calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”  The following is an excerpt from his homily:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”

Each morning as I peruse my usual news outlets, I cannot help but think that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was right. As a society, as a world, even, we are indeed “building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  There is a loud clamor of voices urging relativism; to speak out against these voices garners one intense criticism–one is labeled a fundamentalist, bigot, or is dismissed as “not with the times.”

Yet where does moral relativism lead us?  The dictatorship of relativism leads us to a Catholic university under threat of suit because of a student-run group distributing condoms on campus.  Relativism leads us to a Planned Parenthood official arguing that if a child survives an abortion, the decision on whether or not to kill the child is a “patient-doctor issue,” not a legal one. Moral relativism leads  a federal judge to allow the morning after pill to be sold over the counter to women of all ages.  Is the right to life an objective truth? Is life itself relative?

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, talks about the necessity of objective truth in the face of relativism.  He argues that if we fail to pass along specific standards of right and wrong, rooted in objective truth, then we necessarily must accept responsibility for the moral bankruptcy that we ourselves have created.  At the end of Chapter 1, entitled, “Men without Chests,”  C.S. Lewis explains,

“And all the time—such is the tragicomedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” 

Today, we lament the loss of life, yet we pass legislation that makes life “a patient-doctor” issue, or worse, an over-the counter issue.  We try to teach our young people about the sanctity of life, but insist that they be allowed access to condoms and over-the-counter abortifacients for “protection.”  How can we expect people to honor the dignity and sanctity of life–of every person, regardless of age– when we are willing to discard it when it is too inconvenient?

To borrow from C.S. Lewis, “such is the tragicomedy of our situation.”

His message is love

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t relate to Good Friday.  I just did not understand how it fit in with the rest of the events of Holy Week.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is greeted by the people with much fanfare and celebration.  He is welcomed as the man who had healed the blind, cured the sick, helped the lame to walk.  Yet, mere days later, this same man is arrested on charges of blasphemy.  He is accused of speaking words of hate, when truly his message is love.  On Good Friday he is crucified, and though he is wrongly accused, he does not fight back.  He completely empties himself and dies for all of our sins.  He rises from the dead on Sunday, his glorious Resurrection conquers death.  It all turns out beautifully in the end.

Yet for the first time in my life I think I am finally starting to understand Good Friday, or at the very least, I am beginning to see it in a new light.

This week I have been struggling each and every day with my fear of speaking out.  I am a people pleaser.  I love to be loved, I love to be liked.  I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like to stir things up.  I would rather that people just think that I am really nice while I silently disagree with everything they are saying. I can’t for the life of me figure out when I started to be this way, but I can tell you that I haven’t always felt like this. But somewhere along the way, fear took over, and I am deeply afraid of sharing my true beliefs with others, even close friends.  But this Good Friday morning, as I meditate on my Lord and Savior dying on the cross for my sins and for the sins of the world, wrongly accused even though his message is love, I find courage and suddenly it is time to speak.

Today, my alma mater, Boston College, is under fire for disciplining students who are handing out condoms on campus.  People are outraged—how could a university punish students for promoting “safety” and “sexual health?”   In one article, an ACLU attorney, Sarah Wunsch, stated, “Boston College has the right to express its views and try to persuade students of the rightness of their opposition to contraception, but I don’t think they get to impose that view on what students in this case are doing.”

But Boston College is a Jesuit, CATHOLIC institution. The Church’s position on birth control is clear.  The Church’s teachings on contraception are, in a word, beautiful.  The Church teaches that sex is unitive and procreative, and the Church emphasizes that married couples are called to be co-creators with God.  We are given this gift to co-create with the Master Creator, if that is God’s will for us.  For this reason, the Church views contraception as immoral, because contraception is a conscious decision to leave the Creator out of the creating process.

To say that this message is unpopular is an understatement. But that doesn’t change what is objectively true, what is objectively right.  I understand that many people disagree with the Church’s teachings on contraception, and I understand why.  But a Catholic institution that is necessarily grounded in the beliefs of the Catholic Church can and must be true to that identity. I am proud that BC is standing up for her identity, even though it is an unpopular position.  I would expect nothing less from a Catholic university.

John 18: 19-23

“The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his doctrine.  

Jesus answered him, “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing.Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.”

When he had said this, one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus and said, “Is this the way you answer the high priest?”

Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

change our hearts

On my way home from work this evening I was listening to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s radio program on Catholic Sirius XM radio, “Conversations with Cardinal Dolan,” and he shared something so profound that I couldn’t wait to get home to write about it!

Cardinal Dolan talked about how during papal elections, we see a frenzy of articles suggesting that great change will come with a new pontiff—perhaps the new pope will allow women to be priests, alter teachings on contraception, allow abortion in some instances, etc.  These articles suggest that many people don’t understand the way that the Church functions (He shared that one reporter asked him, “Do you think the new pope will change any doctrine?” to which he responded “To use doctrine and change in the same sentence is practically an oxymoron!”). 

The Pope’s job is to safeguard the deposit of faith, to preserve Church teachings for future generations.  In fact, in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses urges the Israelites to do the same thing.

“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

Passing on the faith is no small task, especially in a world that is rapidly changing.  The message of the Church is, at times, wildly unpopular because it presents a challenge and quite a radical message. Church teaching doesn’t always meet us where we are, or where we want to be, but rather it calls us to be more like God.

Cardinal Dolan continued, “Yes, the next Pope will call for change…change in our hearts, change in our souls.”  We are the ones that need to change, explained Cardinal Dolan, not the doctrine. The Church doesn’t need to change her teaching on abortion or contraception—we need to be a people who are open to life, in all stages, and with all of its challenges.  My prayer today is that we may all join in prayer not only for the cardinals as they gather in conclave, but also for the conversion of hearts—that God may open our minds and our hearts to more humbly accept God’s plan for us.

Called to obedience

Last week, when news of the Pope’s resignation broke, I rearranged the day’s lesson so my classes were able to devote an entire period to discussion. We talked about the Pope’s reasons for resigning, how we felt about the Pope’s legacy, and discussed the play-by-play of what would happen in the next few weeks leading up to conclave.  As the bell rang, I asked the students to pay extra-close attention to the news, radio, and newspapers over the next few weeks. “See if you can find any relevant articles to bring to class for discussion,” I suggested.

Well, I found an article of my own to bring in! Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times on Monday, “The Pope’s Muffled Voice,” was exactly the kind of article that I was hoping to find.  I teach Catholic Morality, and I am constantly looking for displays of moral/amoral/immoral thinking in today’s world.  Topics such as the HHS mandate, abortion, physician assisted suicide are frequent topics of discussion, but I am always on the lookout for more nuanced issues.  And I stumbled upon a jackpot with this article.  You can read the full text of the article here, but I’d like to focus on the final paragraph of the article:

“Does the pope fully appreciate this drift? Every Sunday, he looks from his window onto St. Peter’s Square and sees adoring, rapt masses…But here in America, the Catholics watching closely are fewer and fewer. They’re Christian. They’re caring. They’re moral. But they have minds and wills of their own, and no conclave will change that.”

I cannot wait to see what my students have to say about this quote. You see, the very first chapter of our morality book addresses subjective and objective truth. Subjective truth is, of course, “subject” to each individual.  Objective truth is exactly that—objective. How I feel about an objective truth does not change matters at all. As Catholics, we believe that Catholic morality and Catholic teaching are revealed, not man-made, and these revelations are objective truths. God himself determines what is good or evil—not me.  This is not a popular idea.  The phrase “cafeteria Catholic” describes this phenomenon—one who picks and chooses which pieces of Church teaching one will obey.  Well, as I wrote in a previous article, a Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic.  We are called to obedience, we are called to foster understanding, we are called to be Church.

There are times when I find it really difficult to agree with the Church’s teachings. But I am humble enough to admit that I am not the moral authority of the universe.  God, through the Holy Spirit, inspires the Divine Revelation and Tradition on which Church teaching is based, and God identifies objective truth. Not me. Yes, I have a mind and a will of my own, but I try each day to conform my will to God’s.  It is difficult. I often fail. Obedience is difficult and involves humility, a virtue that is seemingly on the decline in our postmodern world.  Our problems with obedience—as individuals, as a Church—change nothing about what is objectively good.  We are still called to obey Church teaching.  In the words of Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own), “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

The Papacy is not the Presidency

In a nearly unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI will retire from the papacy at the end of the month.  He has humbly explained that he no longer has strength enough to perform the duties entrusted to him as leader of the universal Catholic Church.  Yet, rather than celebrate the humility of this selfless act, the majority of articles have become an all-out venting session for people to detail the ways in which the Pope, and the Catholic Church more broadly, has failed them.  With headlines like “Farewell to an Uninspiring Pope,” “The Pope Can Still Right the Wrongs,” and articles that describe Pope Benedict XVI as “a theological conservative with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests,” it is clear that we are missing the mark.

These misconceptions are a product of our culture here in the United States. In this country we elect our leader, we suffer through years and months of campaigning, until finally a winner is elected.  We give over our hopes, dreams, and tax dollars to this president. “This will be the time for change,” we think.  We want our government to protect us, to enact policy changes commensurate with our needs.  The President is bound by our Constitution, and we have several branches of government to keep the executive branch in check. We watch and we wait and we eventually write about all of the things that our President is doing, has done, or will do wrong.

The duty of the Pope is not to enact change where the people see fit. We need look no further than the electoral proceedings for a new Pope. The “people” of the Church, by and large, do not have a say in who will be the next leader of the Catholic Church. Rather, a college of a maximum of 120 Cardinals, each under the age of 80, casts a vote. Why the age restriction? Pope John Paul II writes in Universi Dominici Gregis, “The reason for this provision is the desire not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ’s flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.”  Several of these cardinals have been appointed by the Pope himself during his papacy (for example, as of January 26, 2013, there are 118 electors; 51 have been created by Pope John Paul II; and 67 by Pope Benedict XVI).  To continue the parallel to the presidency, it is as if the Supreme Court, appointed mostly by the current president, were the sole electorate.

We hear this electoral process and are outraged that “we the people” do not have a say in the next leader of the Church. Acceptance of this process requires humility, a quality that is at best difficult for most of us to grasp and which is so beautifully modeled by Pope Benedict XVI in his decision to resign from the papacy.  But the duties of the Pope and the President differ dramatically in scope. The President is a public servant—he or she is charged with representing the needs of the people, providing security, so that all who live here may pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The Pope, too, is a servant, and  is the guardian of the universal Catholic Church, and must represent equally the needs of all of her members.  The Pope must steer a 2,000 year old institution through an ever changing world.

What many people simply do not understand is that a Pope, by the very nature of his office, can only do so much. The Catholic Church is steeped in a rich Tradition—a deposit of faith that contains truths passed down from Jesus Christ himself. Having a “conservative” Pope or a “liberal” Pope belies our ignorance…the papacy is not a presidency. We cannot describe the Pope as a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic. There is no such thing—a Catholic is a Catholic. A Pope cannot easily enact sweeping reforms as a President can.  The Pope must work within the confines of Tradition…seeking to elucidate teachings of Jesus in a world that is hostile to any mention of God.  People have criticized the Pope for not changing the Church’s stance on hot button issues such as women in the priesthood, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—without realizing that the Pope does not have the authority to alter Church doctrine.  These teachings are immutable, are founded in Sacred Tradition and Divine Revelation, and by their very nature cannot be changed by a Pope.  Other issues—such as whether or not priests can marry, and the question of priestly celibacy—are church disciplines, which are not immutable, and therefore can potentially be changed if a Pontiff is so inspired.  Encourage a dialogue of respect and create an atmosphere of loving warmth where all are welcome? Create a culture of learning to help the faithful truly understand the Church’s moral teachings? Yes, a Pope can do that.  Alter doctrine? Not within the Pope’s office of power.

The argument should not be that the Pope was too conservative and therefore did not respond to the needs of the Church. The Church, as a thousands year old institution, must proceed with caution. Christ himself put these teachings in place because he knew that the Church is human. Christ knew that times would change and people would want the Church to change right along with it. We have the evidence of these changing times right before us. People speak of the Catholic Church’s oppression of women, when truly, the Church fights for the equality and dignity of women.  Anyone who has ever read Pope John Paul II’s letter to women can see that clearly. But such positive teachings of the Church rarely get traction.  Vatican

So rather than focus on Pope Benedict’s alleged failures, let’s hope and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Catholic Church through times of both light and darkness.

Bob Rice

Catholic speaker, musician, author, teacher

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