Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Assessing the Pope's Prospects: The Thin Line Between Tolerance and Anarchy

Many of the current events that interest me, and the books I've been reading lately, seem to revolve around relativity. Would that it were Einstein's theories (I'd settle for Special or General), but instead, it's the nagging feeling that the root of the Red State / Blue State divide is, not over specifics of morality, but how one views morality in general. That is to say, are all viewpoints equally valid?

On the face of it, such a tolerant stance sounds tempting, but if we say so, and truly mean it, then there are no eternal values, and ethical behavior loses its underpinning. How appropriate, then, that the selection of Benedict XVI brings these very issues to the fore again. In a good, short piece at Time's website, David Van Biema makes the case that the new pope will likely prefer doctrinal clarity over the size of the flock, sharing the view of Miles and Sullivan that I referred to in an earlier post. The money quote:
Benedict's papacy will pour cold water on the hopes of those who saw Vatican II as opening up the Church on questions of distribution of authority, autonomy and the role of the laity. Most of the great debates of the past half-century in the Catholic Church have been about how to interpret Vatican II. Many Catholics in the U.S. who have problems with the Church's stance on all kinds of issues, such as birth control, abortion, the status of gay people and other issues had already been greatly discouraged under John Paul II from expecting a shift towards emphasizing the primacy of individual conscience. The choice of Ratzinger won't please those believers in the U.S. who had been hoping that a new papacy might, if not advance a more liberal interpretation of Vatican II then at least reopen discussion over it, which had been shut down under John Paul II with Ratzinger as enforcer.
I'm cautious in embracing the doctrinal clarity viewpoint (not least of all because I'm not a Catholic), but I see great merit in it. On the one hand, an excellent case can and has been made that the Catholic Church's stance on birth control has been disastrous in areas of the world that can least afford it; on the other, it is the Church, for cryin' out loud, and it has to stand for some things of permanence. Throw the net of tolerance too wide, and you might as well be talking about a social club.

As an outsider, my gut feeling is this; dissenters should be given an opportunity to disagree with current Church policy, but those who would change the Church and not destroy it must acknowledge that there is a certain limit to how far the liberalization of the Church can go before it just isn't the Church anymore. Not even a Pope can be all things to all people.

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