Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan once said, “The church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” It’s unfortunately true that religious institutions generally get dragged into the modern world kicking and screaming. Their beliefs and practices often lag the reality of contemporary life as well as the lifestyles of members.
The Catholic Church is a reluctantly modern institution clinging to some pre-modern ideals. The Popemobile is a souped-up car with bulletproof glass, a safety measure not afforded earlier Popes. Some of the Catholic Church's buildings are exquisite examples of enlightenment architecture. What takes place inside is often archaic and superstitious. Her members are people of conscience and knowledge having been liberated by many of the tools of modern science –multiple translations of Bibles and commentaries in native languages, and the internet to name a few. However they are expected to follow official teachings, some of which are pre-scientific and outmoded. The most significant mentors (past and present) in the lives of most Catholics are nuns and parish priests, scholars and activists like Bernard Lonergan, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis, even mystics like Matthew Fox and Joan Chittister. These mentors are, or were, well and truly ensconced in a modern or post modern worldview.
The Catholic Church has been an active evangelist for modernism. It has nurtured a freedom it may not be ready to accept. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty transcends the teachings of pre-council Popes regarding religious tolerance. The Catholic Church no longer claims to be the only true church. One of the consequences of Vatican II is that none of the Catholic doctrines most hotly disputed today –contraception, homosexuality, celibacy, euthanasia, and women's ordination to name a few— is secure for all time. All of them are now open to reversal by a future Pope or Council. In the meantime, Catholics will continue to live according to their own common sense and conscience.
The recent statement of Pope Benedict about condom use is a case in point. While the necessities and expenses of modern life require Catholics to practice appropriate birth control, the official stance of the church has remained unchanged. Until last week, that is, when the Pope opened the door to certain circumstances when condom use might be appropriate. The circumstances he presented were narrow for sure, male prostitutes were mentioned, but the door is open nonetheless. The big news is that he has acknowledged that circumstance plays a role in ethics as opposed to an unbending divine decree from God via the Vatican, a distinctly modern development. I for one applaud this development. To my mind it is the institution taking a small step, breathless but not too late, to catch up to the people and the times. May there be many more steps forward.
A counter argument could be that Pope Benedict is being pragmatic, as Popes have been before him. The Catholic Church allowed its priests to marry for the first 1000 years of its life, and only stopped the practice when it became too costly to support families, not to mention the legal landmine of property ownership. The ban on marriage may have morphed into an ideological (or spiritual) objection, but it was originally a practical consideration. While marriage for priests will be a harder won liberty, it seems that if priests had families, the ban on contraception would be gone quicker than you could open a packet of ribbed Trojans.
Whatever the motivations, this papal development is good news for anyone who embraces the personal responsibility of modernism. Whether you think that modernism is good news or not, it’s futile to resist it. It is here to stay. The freedom to choose from a large number of viable religious options is a given in today’s world. People now speak about a religious “preference” in the same way that you might prefer Pepsi over Coke. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they are “into” Buddhism much like you might be into Jazz or Country music. The Catholic Church, like all churches, is now a voluntary association in a marketplace of religious choices. This freedom also stretches to include personal morality. As an example. it is estimated that the use of contraceptives among American Catholic women is slightly higher than in the US population as a whole. People are already picking and choosing their religions, their beliefs and their morality. Religious institutions are catching up to the people.
It’s tempting as an inclusive spiritual leader to say “live and let live” in this marketplace of religious and moral preferences. If people choose beliefs different to mine, that’s fine. But does this stretch to include all beliefs? The problem is that not all beliefs are equal and not all beliefs are harmless. Some beliefs lead to violence and innocent suffering. If children die from diseases that could be cured but their parents believe in faith healing, then this is an irresponsible belief. If people die from AIDS because religions preach against condom use, then this is a dangerous belief. If people die in terrorist attacks because of a belief in martyrdom, then this is a hateful belief. If doctors are killed because people have religious objections to abortion, then the belief has crossed a line. If overpopulation wreaks havoc on the planet because of a ban on contraception, then this is a shortsighted belief. I could go on. You get the point. Now I am left with a dilemma. How do I live and let live in these cases? Is my higher loyalty to those holding the beliefs or those suffering because of the beliefs? My heart is with the latter. I choose to challenge any beliefs that lead to harm and the degradation of human dignity. People and institutions should be challenged to be all that they can be and that includes me and any of my beliefs. We owe it to each other and the future of the planet.
Modernism is a gift in many ways. It liberates people to think freely and critically. Choices are made and ethics are decided in a cultural context that can’t be second guessed from the Pope’s throne. However this doesn’t nullify the role of spiritual communities, including Catholic communities. Science and technology offer many tools for self reflection but don’t minimize the role of the individual within a tradition. We are drawn to community which offers a check and balance on our individual, situation driven, morality. We do well to listen to our spiritual brothers and sisters and the stories of our tradition.
I welcome modernism’s gift of free thought, and I welcome the movement from black and white to a hint of gray in the Catholic Church. For the millions of Catholics who are already comfortable in this gray zone, it is affirmation of your inner wisdom. For those who are afraid that some assurance or guidance will be lost, trust your sense of decency that resonates with your tradition without needing any absolute, literal and external authority. You know what is good, true and beautiful. You conscience senses it intuitively. Your tradition teaches it with story, legend and poetry. I end with a brief quote from Vatican II-
Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 21)