Mike Morrell has his ear to the ground (or, at least, his eyes on his keywords) and has brought to my attention several interesting news tidbits concerning the Vatican this week.
First, we learn that Benedict XVI is interested in issuing a conciliatory statement about Martin Luther — while I wouldn’t go so far as to believe the pope intends to “rehabilitate” the man who unleashed the Reformation, I do think this is a hopeful sign for future ecumenical dialogue. I suppose it took having a German pope (indeed, Benedict is the first Teutonic pontiff since Luther was alive) for the Vatican to back down on its longstanding history of enmity toward the reformer. I guess now we’ll need a Swiss pope to say nice things about Calvin, or an English pope to suggest that Henry VIII may have just been misunderstood.
Another newsworthy development from the eternal city involves a new list of sins that are to be considered grave or mortal. Some of these “new” sins are really just variations on all the old sins (pedophilia is a blend of lust and anger; obscene wealth a variation of greed and gluttony), whereas others seems to represent both the best and worst inclinations of the religious mind: I’m heartened to see the church declare despoiling the environment a grave sin, but I think the condemnation of “carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments” is shot through with problems: such vague language will leave the onus of interpretation on the penitent and his or her confessor, which basically means some people will opt for a situation ethics approach while others will retreat behind a curtain of caution and fear — and neither of these strategies will do much to improve the dysfunctional relationship between science and religion in our world.
Meanwhile, Mike also alerted me to this rather amusing commentary on the new list of sins.
Finally, another even more disturbing bit of Vatican news that came to me not from Mike but from my spiritual director: at least one official in the Vatican is calling for a regulation prohibiting the distribution of the communion host into people’s hands. While non-Catholics may greet this news with a yawn, to me it symbolizes the current struggle within the church concerning the reforms of Vatican II. In the old days, communicants could only receive the consecrated host placed directly on their tongues, and the laity were not given the precious blood (the consecrated wine) at all. These practices can be seen as subtle markers of ecclesiastical hierarchy and power. There are movements afoot in the church to roll back other Vatican II reforms as well: movements to reinstate the use of Latin during the mass or to require the priest to recite the Eucharistic prayer with his back to the congregation. The second Vatican council (which took place in the early 1960s) represented a major effort to purge Catholicism of unhealthy practices that had grown up over the centuries largely as a result of power concentrated in the hands of only the ordained (priests, bishops, cardinals, the pope). While many Catholics feel that the council left its task uncompleted, other quite powerful forces in the church see Vatican II as more or less the great whore of modernity, and thus are doing all they can to roll back the reforms. Issuing conciliatory statements about Martin Luther is very much in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, whereas coming up with new laundry lists of sins or trying to micro-manage how the faithful receive communion represent throwbacks to the days when being a lay Catholic meant little more than praying, paying and obeying.
Fighting over issues like the use of Latin in the mass or requiring communicants to receive the host directly on their tongue is a lot like the controversies that erupt in the US every now and then over flag-burning or prayer in public schools. These issues may seem to be just trivial, but they always point to deeper political currents. Flag-burning is about free speech and prayer in public schools is about the separation of church and state. In a similar way, the question of regulating liturgical practices boils down to the far more serious question of how power functions within the church, an issue that has significant repercussions such as the refusal to ordain women or the matter of accountability for clergy misconduct. A laity that cannot even decide how it is to receive Christ in the Eucharist is a laity that has little “real” power as well.
These are perilous times for the Catholic Church; no matter what your faith identity may be, please keep her in your prayers.