Monday, April 04, 2005

The need for a liberal Pope

Much attention has, rightly, been paid as to the likely identity of the new Pope. Opinion seems to believe that as the conclave is almost entirely of the previous Pope's own choosing, they are likely to plump for someone broadly similar to John Paul II. So, far from the church moderating itself on social issues, the bastion of conservatism would remain.

This is a grave mistake. John Paul II was very successful in bringing the Church into the modern age. A church which had often seemed distant, irrelevant and aloof, suddenly found itself with a head who realised the political, as well as religious mission that he had to achieve. By becoming a Pope of the people, the physical presence of religion became something that was widely shared. The televised pictures of the four million present at Mass in the Philippines demonstrates the social significance of the Pope.

Similarly, the dying days of the Pope showed how slick and efficient the Vatican media machine was. The news of his death was completely controlled so that the portrayal of John Paul as a man suffering for the whole of humanity was carried out very successfully. Indeed, they also interspersed news with sufficient details of the continued administration of the Church so as to make sure the question of authority never became raised.

On social issues, however, the Catholic Church has been much less successful. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the Church is striking. The Pope calls for greater understanding between religions, but refuses to open the Vatican papers detailing what they knew of the Holocaust. Whilst protesting against sexual immorality the world over, he found a special job in Rome to prevent Cardinal Law being prosecuted for his role in the Boston Church scandal. He even deified a Pope who is strongly suspected of having been a paedophile.

Let him without sin cast the first stone. If the Church is willing to demonise those who act on normal and uncriminal human desires, so simple as using a condom, it should not be prepared to stand by those who have committed crimes of a much more serious nature. This gap between what was said and what was done may well, in the future, undermine significantly the historical reputation of this Pope.

The reasons for a liberal Pope, however, are far more numerous. Firstly, I know many Catholics who consider their church to be disgracefully hypocritical when it controls so much wealth, and yet does not act against poverty, despite pronouncements to the contrary. It is all very well for John Paul to have been sceptical about rampant materialism; yet he had the power to make a much greater difference than he did.

Secondly, as a friend of mine at the Dustbin of History has pointed out, his statements regarding sexual matters can be considered to be morally corrupt, or even morally evil. To ban the practise of using a condom for church members, thus greatly increasing the spread of HIV, is ill at ease with a church that wishes to defend human life. I may have sympathy with preaching abstinence. But for a leader like John Paul to stubbornly stick to doctrine when a personal pronouncement on the matter could have saved, literally, millions of lives, is unpardonable and should not be forgotten. The church will find itself storing up serious problems for the future if it forgets to preach a message of goodness at the expense of concentrating what people get up to in their bedroom.

Finally, the continued ban on marriage for the priesthood will prevent the Catholic Church from attracting young men into active service for the church. In some countries it is estimated that half the clergy may die within the next ten years. Preventing priests from having a family will be a major factor in this. What does the Church think is more important? Clinging dogmatically, once again, to a point of principle, or preventing the church from a slow but certain death?

These are the choices that face the conclave of the College of Cardinals as they turn their thoughts to John Paul's successor. The Catholic Church made great strides under John Paul's leadership. But there is much distance left to run. The decisions of the next few weeks will be highly important in determining the future direction of the church.