A few quick thoughts on the papal conclave:
a) The media coverage has been very frustrating. Every time they refer to the Catholic Church, they refer to it as “the church in crisis” or the “troubled church” or some such thing. Are any of these people regular attendees of Catholic churches? Who are they talking to such that this is their idea? My suspicion is that they are just talking to themselves. While the Catholic Church is no doubt facing some challenges from both within (abuse scandals, bureaucracy of the curia, too many wayward believers, too many ugly liturgies) and without (rise of hostile secularism), I do not experience my Church as a Church in “crisis.” I have asked around at our parish, and none of the regular Mass attendees I have spoken to experience the Church in this way. In fact, I see the Church as being in a time of great re-birth – a JPII and Benedict generation of priests exhibits a joyful orthodoxy and Benedict has done a great deal to return the liturgy to its proper beauty. I feel hopeful about the Church, not despondent.
Regarding the sex abuse scandals, I think most attending Catholics have moved on. I don’t mean this in a callous way; Catholics have been hurt and terribly saddened by it and I am sure countless prayers have been said for the victims. And very successful steps have been taken to avoid anything like this happening again. However, the abuse is mostly decades old (mostly in 1970s) and more than 50% of accused priests are already dead. Over the last decade or so, there are fewer than 10 credible accusations a year in what is a very large organization. Today, a Catholic Church is one of the safest places in the country to take your children. So this is hardly something that has touched most parishes in general, much less recently. In fact, studies show there is actually more sex abuse in protestant churches and even public schools (as much as 100 times more likely there, including evidence of cover-ups in the latter). None of this is mean to diminish in the least the great evil of those crimes committed by this small percentage of priests, nor is it mean to pretend it did not happen. But the frustration today comes mostly from the discovery that some churchmen were not more aggressive in dealing with the problem (though most of those men are old and out of their positions now) and the apparent inability of the curia to respond adequately. Point is, as a devout and practicing Catholic, I cannot remember the last time I thought about the sex abuse scandal on my way to Mass. But the media would lead you to believe that this is the topic of virtually every discussion Catholics have about their Church. That is far from being true.
b) It is equally discouraging to hear “Catholics” who are interviewed in these stories. Polling data varies, but most polls show that a majority of American Catholics want the new pope to bring “new ideas” or take the Church in a “new direction” on the issues of homosexuality, contraception, women priests, or married priests.
First of all, I wonder how much these people understand about their Church and the papacy. The papacy is not like the US office of presidency. The president can come in and undo all of the policy positions of the previous administration. I suppose this is how people are thinking of the papacy, but of course this is not at all how it works. One sees the way in which positivism has seeped into our thinking about everything here. Despite the fact that Catholicism would hopefully provide the intellectual tradition that would best immunize a believer from relativism and positivism, these Catholics seem to think that power is simply the ability to reshape laws according to the fads and fancies of our particular times. Of course, none of these men who may become pope think in the least that the office of papacy has this kind of power.
This doesn’t even mention that 100% of the voting cardinals were elevated by John Paul II and Benedict (I think some 58% by Benedict). There is ZERO chance that the next pope will sing a different tune at all on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc. The only question here is a question of style, since there is virtually no difference among the cardinals on these issues of social morality. The media would do the country – including her many Catholics – a great service if they would bring someone on to make this point.
If people want a church that is willing to change its teachings with the times, they are not hard to find. I honestly don’t understand why so many “cafeteria Catholics” hang on to this in vain hope that the Catholic Church will change her tune on these issues. One way to look at it is to say, ‘why not make yourself happier and become an episcopalian?‘ But the more charitable thing to note is that something must be keeping them within the fold of Catholicism. They don’t understand it and don’t seem to believe in the authority of the Church, and yet they stay. Who knows how God is working on their lives. I am genuinely torn on this. Pope Benedict remarked early in his papacy that perhaps Christianity will shrink. Perhaps it is even good for it to be smaller yet purer. Its measure should be its faithfulness, not its size. This does not entail a purge, but it should mean that we are willing to joyfully announce hard truths. The Church, after all, does not impose but merely proposes. If people depart because they will not accept the hard truths, that is not something to celebrate. And yet the sadness of a smaller church does not mean we should not more forcefully proclaim the hard truths that might shrink it.