Thoughts on the New Pope From a Non-Catholic
As anyone not living in a cave is aware, the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger last week as Pope Benedict XVI has not been without controversy. “Moderates” and “liberals” within the Catholic Church have not been particularly subtle in expressing their disappointment that a “hard-liner” who clearly intends to preserve church tradition and practice has taken the place of one of the most beloved popes in the history of the church. The clear implication is that Benedict’s thinking runs contrary to those Catholics who seek inclusion of more liberal thinking, nor is it in line with the modernization trend currently in vogue in so many of the world’s social institutions, of which the church is certainly not excluded. The new pope, however, has made clear a message that it is essential for the head of any organization, religious or temporal, that intends to maintain its integrity: put up, shut up, or leave; besides, no one is forcing you to stay.
What I am about to say will no doubt upset many Catholics (or secularists, for that matter), but I stand by it nonetheless: No is forced to become or remain a Catholic, or a member of any other religious or social organization. While one can argue that baptism (or dedication) at birth automatically inducts one into a certain denomination of faith, or that birth to Catholic parents automatically makes one a Catholic, the truth is that any membership in any religious denomination is contingent upon the individual willingly and consciously adopting the tenets or creeds of that organization and abiding by them to the fullest extent of one’s being. In order to do this the individual must become fully familiar with the rules. In matters religious every faith has rules, whether the faith be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other. These rules, codified in the respective scriptures, have been handed down for hundreds or thousands of years and without them the faith would have withered and died. In other words, the “rules” are there for a reason, which is to preserve the faith.
As many other commentators have pointed out, we need look no further than the mainstream Protestant denominations that have “accommodated” modernization and liberal ideology over the last several decades. The result has been declining membership and a rapid slide into irrelevance. After all, if you’re going to mimic the ways of the world, why offer an alternative to the ways of the world? If the American Cancer Society began endorsing pipe and cigar smoking or “safe” tobacco, what need would there be for such an organization to exist? Would MADD continue to have a viable mission or credibility as an organization if it decided to condone the practice of driving after one or two “social” drinks?
An even more important point is that none of the sponsors or members of the aforementioned organizations have been coerced into their positions. All participate voluntarily. Neither organization kicks down doors and forces people to contribute or participate under threat of violence or incarceration (not yet, anyway). One either believes strongly in these organizations’ causes and therefore voluntarily contributes or one does not. It’s that simple. The same goes for religious organizations. In the free world there is no compulsion to participate in organized religious activity. Those who participate do so voluntarily because they believe in the tenets and teachings of their faith. If they find that their congregation or the sect of which it is a member is practicing or proclaiming things they find objectionable, they have the option of moving on.
In summary, the freedom of association is alive and well in the world of religious faith, perhaps as it is nowhere else in our contemporary society of forced association. If you subscribe to “liberal” Christian doctrine, then I would recommend that you join a “liberal” Christian denomination. If the Catholic Church’s teachings are too strict for your liking, you can always follow the example of many others who have in recent decades joined the Anglican/Episcopal Church. Just don’t expect the Catholic Church to adapt its teachings to conform to your lifestyle du jour. I would also make the same recommendation to Evangelical Protestants who find their church’s practices too “fundamentalist”; there’s always the Presbyterian Church down the street that will no doubt welcome you with open arms.
Pope Benedict seems to have adopted this philosophy too. It would explain his statement that if orthodoxy means having a smaller church, but one that is ideologically pure, then so be it.