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Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope | By James V. Schall, S. J.

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From various sources, here and abroad, I have heard that not a few are "disappointed" at the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

When we examine what they are "disappointed" about, we find that it is about "moral" things. They hoped that the Church would finally be "up-to-date." What this being "up-to-date" usually means is that the Church will finally approve of birth control, abortion, cloning, the ordination of women, divorce, gay life and marriage, and other pious habits. Seldom do we hear any other reasons for "disappointment." Thus, what the essence of such objections comes down to is that the Church, in being what it is, is wrong on such fundamental points.

Being "wrong," evidently, means that a mere flick of the papal wrist can set things right. All Pope Ratzinger has to do is sign a document stating that abortion, divorce, ordination of women, birth control, and gaydom are just what we need in the modern world to cure its ills. Behind this kind of attitude, of course, is the theoretical position that the criterion of truth is what is presumably accepted and practiced in the modern world.

Evidently, if the opposite of these "views" is accepted in some past or future time, that is just fine. So it is important to see that the principle used to justify the position for establishing these things as licit is usually that of time. That is, anyone who does not accept this view is "out of date." Few arguments about why they are or are not are actually given. But the arguments are what count. As Chesterton said, a thing that is not true in one age cannot really be true in any other age. Principle, not time, determines truth.

But for the sake of argument, let us suppose that the new Pope actually thinks he can do what the modern world insists is necessary to be "up to date." Suddenly, Rome, in a world-wide announcement, agrees that abortion, birth control, euthanasia, divorce, cloning, gay life, whatever, are just fine.

The question immediately becomes, where are we?"

We have long noticed that many Protestant and even Catholic folks, not to mention unbelievers and those of other persuasions, do promote and practice these things as if they were the solution to modern problems. They are annoyed and perplexed to be at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church. But their dreams have been answered. The pope is suddenly "liberal." He now "understands" the modern world and its "needs." What was formerly officially wrong is now officially right. No more opposition to such practices in the modern world.

What would follow if this were to happen?

The first consequence would be that anyone with a half a mind will realize that the Church has contradicted its own solemnly sworn and defined principles. In other words, on its own grounds, it is not worth believing. It has rejected its one claim to credibility, that is, its adherence to the stated deposit of faith and the teachings that flowed from this. In fact, it now agrees that what was wrong in one era is right in another.

Who would really rejoice at this reversal? Those who think that these practices are the solution to modern problems would not change, nor would they any longer have any reason to question their own presuppositions about such matters. Those who thought the teachings of the Church were solid and theologically grounded, however, will be logical enough to realize that a Church that approves such modern practices, after insisting for so long that they were wrong, is not worth its salt. Such a Church would have absolutely no credibility.

If the Church, over its long history, insists that some thing is wrong, then it suddenly decides that what is wrong is right, what follows? What follows is simply that no one, believer or non-believer, should ever again give such a Church second thought. It cannot, on these premises, be true.

So what those who advocate abortion, birth control, gay life, euthanasia, cloning, and what not really are seeking is the undermining of the one authority in the world that says these practices and those who choose them are wrong–wrong before God and before themselves. The Church did not itself concoct these theories as if it could fashion what it wanted, as those who want it to radically change think it can.

Such people do not understand that the only claim the Church has to our belief is its faithful consistency to the deposit of faith, which it did not somehow "make up" by itself. Once this position is internally and intrinsically undermined–as it would be if the Church approved these things–it would have absolutely no claim to anyone’s belief, or even anyone’s taking it seriously.

Under the rubric of the advent of a "liberal" pope, we have, in fact, the desire that the authority of the papacy to credibility be itself eliminated. This is what is at stake in the election of a pope. We should not doubt it.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. Read more of his essays on his website.

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