THERE is a poignant air, almost wistful, to electing a pope in the modern world. In a time of discredited monarchies, can this monarchy survive and be relevant? There is nostalgia for the assurances of the past, quaint in their charm, but trepidation over their survivability. In monarchies, change is supposed to come from the top, if it is to come at all. So people who want to alter things in Catholic life are told to wait for a new pope. Only he has the authority to make the changeless church change, but it is his authority that stands in the way of change….
When Pope Paul VI’s commission of learned and loyal Catholics, lay and clerical, reconsidered the “natural law” teaching against birth control, and concluded that it could not, using natural reason, find any grounds for it, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the secretary of the Holy Office, told Paul that people had for years, on papal warrant, believed that using a contraceptive was a mortal sin, for which they would go to hell if they died unrepentant. On the other hand, those who followed “church teaching” were obliged to have many children unless they abstained from sex. How could Paul VI say that Pius XI, in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, had misled the people in such a serious way? If he admitted it, what would happen to his own authority as moral arbiter in matters of heaven and hell? So Paul VI doubled down, adding another encyclical in 1968, Humanae Vitae, to the unrenounceable eternal truths that pile up around a moral monarch.
In our day, most Catholics in America have reached the same conclusion that Paul VI’s commission did. But successive popes have stuck by Pius and Paul and have appointed bishops who demonstrate loyalty on this matter. That is why some American bishops in the recent presidential election said that President Obama was destroying “religious liberty” if his health plan insured funds for contraception. Nonetheless, more Catholics voted for Mr. Obama than didn’t. In a normal government, this disconnect between rulers and ruled would be negotiated. But eternal truths are nonnegotiable.
Will the new conclave vote for a man who goes against the teachings of his predecessors? Even if they do, can the man chosen buck the structure through which he rose without kicking the structure down? These considerations have given the election of new popes the air of watching Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football, hoping that Lucy will cooperate.