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A Leap of Faith

American Catholics, more than they realize, are in a position to decide what kind of church they want.

April 28, 2002|JACK MILES | Jack Miles, senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of "God: A Biography," and "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

I am a born Roman Catholic who became an Episcopalian more than 20 years ago. I made the change in all sincerity, and yet in my heart I regard myself as a member of both churches at once, or, better, as "proleptically" (by anticipation) the loyal member of a Christian church that does not yet exist.

In 1982, on the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I was one of a number of writers whom Commonweal asked to say how the council had changed them. My short answer was that it had made me a Protestant, but that answer concealed as much as it revealed. I return to that moment now because, as I have learned from an article by Peter Steinfels in the current Commonweal magazine, a good few American Catholics find themselves at a similar turning point today.

Steinfels writes: "Seasoned observers of Catholicism are straining--and failing--to find a comparable event against which to measure the current crisis. Polls of Catholics register their massive loss of confidence in their leaders. Interviews surface raw anger. Catholics report friends and family members who have started attending other churches."

I do not propose that all of those troubled Catholics should leap to become Episcopalians. Most will and should remain Catholics, but the church, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for the church (Mark 1:27). Just what kind of church American Catholics will have is, more than they may realize, up to them to decide.

Most Americans have forgotten, but older Catholics remember well the Catholic sex crisis of 1968. In October of 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, millions of Catholics hoped for a change in the teaching that holds abortion as a crime equivalent to murder and artificial birth control a crime equivalent to abortion. According to the latter half of this teaching, a woman who has sex while using a diaphragm or a man who does so with a condom commits a sin as grievous as murder.

Would John XXIII allow the council to revise this teaching? Many hoped so, but "the good pope" died midway through the three-year council, and his successor forbade the assembled prelates to even debate the issue. Instead, Paul VI created a commission of lay as well as clerical experts to advise him on whether a change should be made. The council ended in 1965. The birth-control commission did much of its work in 1967. Its advice to Paul VI--leaked to the press in an electric moment--was that artificial birth control should indeed be allowed.

Now came the crisis. Could Paul VI rise to the occasion? Could he, by admitting error and correcting his predecessors, redeem and validate papal authority itself? Alas, the pope instead overrode the recommendation of his commission and issued in 1968 an encyclical titled "Humanae Vitae" reaffirming the traditional teaching without qualification. Faced with the choice between clerical solidarity and the needs of the faithful, a cautious man chose clerical solidarity. The irony, of course, was that his action undermined the very authority he invoked to take it.

It did so because, within a few years, the vast majority of Catholics, worldwide, were ignoring the papal ban on artificial contraception. Their priests and bishops knew this perfectly well; but the more the mistaken morality was abandoned in the bedroom, the more loudly it had to be proclaimed from the Throne of St. Peter. For John Paul II, loyalty to "Humanae Vitae" has reportedly been a litmus test eclipsing other, absolutely crucial considerations. John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, wrote recently in the New York Times: "Every pope seeks bishops who will defend the church's teachings. But some, like Paul VI, sought other attributes as well: good pastoral sense, lively engagement with the culture and support from the local church. For John Paul II, however, it is often enough that a candidate supports Humanae Vitae

Rigor in policing the clerical ranks for signs of child abuse has all too evidently not been high on the current pope's list of desirable attributes. It is in this way that the contraception debacle and ensuing anxiety about the state of papal authority may be said to have contributed to the pedophilia debacle. Boston's tainted Cardinal Bernard Law--a "Humanae Vitae" loyalist--was, until the scandal, a Vatican favorite.

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