The media have a love affair with the Catholic Church. Look at your newspapers, magazines and television sets. The Catholic Church has replaced mainline Protestantism as the nation's most newsworthy religious force.
But reporters have run into a puzzle. Dissident Catholics who express dissatisfaction, rage and even hatred for the Vatican--we have seen some of them on television calling the church "evil"--don't want to leave the church. They want to capture it. It's "our church," many of them say.
What is it that makes Catholics so love their church?
Beyond that, what accounts for their loyalty to the papacy? Reporters sometimes ask dissidents, "If you disagree with the Pope, why don't you simply break away?" Stubbornly, Catholics cling to the Pope.
Communion with Rome is what makes Catholics Roman Catholics, distinct from all the other branches of Christianity. If God does not offer special graces to the Bishop of Rome so that he may be the unifier of the whole church scattered around the world, and so that he can "confirm" the strength of all other bishops in their tasks, the jig is up. Roman Catholicism loses its point.
Curiously, the growth of the media during the 20th Century, and especially the advent of television, has made the papacy stronger than it has ever been during the preceding 1,900 years. In the old days it took months for the Pope's messages--in Latin--to reach far-flung bishops and peoples. Today the media make the Pope's words instantly controversial everywhere.
Television, particularly, loves to focus on a single face. When it wants a picture of the Catholic Church, it can capture the face of one man--as it cannot do with respect to Protestantism. It is as if God gave the Catholic Church the papacy with the 20th Century in mind. Never has the papal office been so magnified in power.
What about the so-called widespread dissent? (About 84% of U.S. Catholics, we are told, do not follow papal teaching regarding contraception.) There was always such dissent. The Catholic faith is a faith to grow into, to wrestle with, to absorb into one's own life slowly. In the past there were no surveys to show what the actual beliefs and practices of people were, compared to official Catholic teaching. Anyone who knows history knows how far daily belief and practice have always diverged from the norm. But before this century, surveys were neither taken nor reported in the daily papers.
The papacy puts tension into Roman Catholicism. The Pope holds Catholics to the full teaching, kick against it as all of us do in one way or another. It is a hard teaching. It wasn't meant to be a bed of roses. On his current visit to this country, the Pope is bound to shock the consciences of each of us American Catholics, awakening reluctance and resistance. We need that shock.
Thus dissidents who merely want the Pope to yield to their particular demands are wrong. If the Pope were to relax Catholic teaching--it isn't his teaching, it was given to him to keep intact--the Catholic Church would go the way of Protestantism: each woman her own Pope, each man his.
The Pope has often been critical of "consumerist theology"--the practice of picking and choosing which parts of the Catholic inheritance to jettison. It is his duty to reject that. Cafeteria-style Catholicism would lose both its point and its strength. There would be no real reason for unity, hence no real reason for the papacy. There would be nothing to fight, nothing to love. The center would not hold.
In the United States this month, the Pope is almost certain to attack the "consumerist mentality" of capitalist democracies. Some of the "progressives" will cheer this. Many of them actually hate the political economy of the United States, especially its economic system. So we have a curious paradox. Many of the "progressives" who say that the Pope isn't "American" enough actually hate the American system itself, if we judge by what they say in other contexts.
So long as the Pope is strong, there is tension in the Catholic bow. Let the Pope cave in, let him relax in his obligations to his office, and the whole enterprise will go slack. Then still more priests will leave, fewer nuns will take their precious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and church attendance will drop further.
If the self is the source of Catholic faith, why bother with the church? The church has value precisely because it bucks personal conscience, claims to be the teacher of correct conscience and provides an eternal standard of correctness.
Ironically, Pope John Paul II is the most contemporary of any recent Pope, the most avant-garde, the first "post-modern" Pope. He is the Pope of the future. Most of those who hate him most are dwelling in the past. They look back to the late 1960s. He is looking ahead into the 21st Century.