So, we have a new pope. Earlier this week, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, a liberal Catholic, tried to make the best of it. Yes, Pope Francis, as he is now designated, is just as awful on women’s rights, gay rights, and all matters of sex and contraception as every pope before him has ever been. (Note to Williams and everyone else: Francis allegedly being “open to contraception as a form of preventing disease” is actually not new policy for the Church. For several years, Pope Benedict was saying much the same thing).
But maybe, because Francis is a Jesuit, named himself after Francis of Assisi, lives an extremely modest lifestyle (which is btw is quite a contrast to Pope Benedict — the devil wears Prada, indeed!), and supposedly cares about the poor, he will be “the pope of the 99 percent?” And, I don’t know . . . do something . . . different?
Well, I wouldn’t bet on it. Don’t get me wrong: my favorite priests (and as someone who was raised Catholic, I’ve known quite a few of them) have all been Jesuits. Jesuits tend to be liberal and intellectual — exactly the kind of post-Vatican II types that have been marginalized in the current Church.
And certainly, Francis of Assisi is one of the most deeply appealing of all saints: light on the zealotry, heavy on the humanity and humility — all that, plus kindness to animals! There’s also the sublime Prayer of St. Francis — even if, truth be told, it was penned not by St. Francis but by an anonymous early twentieth century French scribe. And while we’re on the subject of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s buoyant, joyous movie about the man, The Flowers of St. Francis, is a masterpiece. Get a hold of the Criterion Collection DVD and thank me later.
But getting back to the current pope . . . should we expect anything different from him than we got from Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict? I’m not buying it, and my guide to all things Catholic, Garry Wills, is not, either. Last month in a New York Times op-ed entitled “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” Wills compared people putting their faith in popes to Charlie Brown trusting Lucy with the football.
Wills has long argued that the essence of the Catholic Church is not its hierarchy, but its parishioners. Indeed, at one time, the Catholic people had a much greater democratic voice in choosing the Church’s leaders and shaping its doctrine. Writing this week at the New York Review of Books online, Wills reminded us of this fascinating history:
When Cardinal Ratzinger was asked, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, if he was disturbed that many Catholics ignored papal teaching, he said he was not, since “truth is not determined by a majority vote.” But that is precisely how the major doctrines like those on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection were fixed in creeds: at councils like that of Nicaea, by the votes of hundreds of bishops, themselves chosen by the people, before popes had any monopoly on authority. Belief then rose up from the People of God, and was not pronounced by a single oracle. John Henry Newman, in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859), argued that there had been periods when the body of believers had been truer to the faith than had the Church hierarchy. He was silenced for saying it, but his historical arguments were not refuted.
Wills also pointedly notes that “Catholics have had many bad popes whose teachings or acts they could or should ignore or defy.” The whole piece is well worth reading. Among other fun facts you’ll find therein: did you know that when Lord Acton wrote, ““Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was referring to Renaissance popes? And that contrary to what many of us learned in Catholic catechism classes, the disciple Peter was never a pope? Wills’ most salient point is that the papacy is part of the tradition of the European monarchy, a tradition that has long outlived its usefulness, and everywhere continues only in its symbolic form. Everywhere, that is, but the Vatican.
Yet as Wills argues, there’s no reason to believe that we will see changes from the current pope. While it’s true that revolutionary reforms have sometimes arisen, almost completely unexpectedly, from the most hidebound and reactionary institutions — think Vatican II, or the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev instituted in the 1980s, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union — this is extremely rare. I do think that eventually, the Church will change with the times, at least so far as contraception, married priests, women priests, and gay marriage are concerned (abortion may be another story). The Church has always been savvy that way — it has always chosen to adapt to modernity and retain its power, rather than become marginal and irrelevant. Change will come; the only question is when and how. Clearly, the current decrepit generation of leaders will have to die out before anything constructive can occur.
Here’s a song from the last time any real changes occurred in the Church, which was 50 years ago. It’s by the satirist Tom Lehrer, and it’s called “Vatican Rag.”