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A Change of Pope

The world is hopeful

April 2005

The disappointing reign of Pope John Paul II, and various Pollyannaish hopes for betterment under his successor.
The Pope has passed on, and we may know within the next month whether the new emerging leader of the world's Roman Catholics will belatedly take this major faith into the modern world, or leave it as at present, wallowing in the hopeless doctrines and practices of the past.

We have seen a Pope during the past 26 years traveling the world and encouraging his flock with smiles and blessings. He will rightly be remembered for the great value of these public relations trips; they have nearly all been brilliantly staged, and may have helped to stem erosion of morale in the Roman Catholic church during a difficult period. John Paul II has thus appeared the most accessible Pope since John XXIII, though also the most authoritarian.

What should we hope for in the new Pope?  What should he do to rid his church of its medieval cast?  What are the difficult issues where he can make a positive difference in the world, in contrast to the harm and social backwardness that the church has often been identified with?  At least four major issues readily suggest themselves, where the new Pope could bring the church around to the modern world, and thereby do the world a world of good.

There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic church is the major roadblock to equality for women in the western world today, as it has been for at least the past century. While the western world awoke to both the need and the justice of granting full equal rights to women more than half a century ago, the Roman Catholic church still dozes in its medieval sleep. Practically all other churches welcome women in the clergy and in the church hierarchy at all levels – including the very top. The Roman Catholic church – largely because of the intransigence of the Pope – has separated itself from this modern trend, and refused to admit women to equality. We might ask the college of cardinals:  When will we see a female Pope?  Or a female candidate for the papacy?  (Granted, one would need to change the title from "pope"  – which is "papa" in Italian.)  These are serious questions. It's not just incidental that there are no women in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, or that a woman simply can't be considered for the top position. No, it's a determined policy of the Roman Catholic church, which it sells as religious doctrine, that women are unsuited for such positions. Such a policy by the church power structure cannot help but send a message to females, both in the church and out of it, that they are lesser beings; clearly an evil message. To date no Pope has been inclined to correct this evil.

The world must hope that the new Pope, a man, of course, will have the fortitude to apologize for previous Popes and for the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to say forthrightly, "We have been wrong", and to change the church's noxious policy barring women from equality in the church.

The most serious issue facing the future of our species – and perhaps the entire biosphere – today is uncontrolled growth of the human population. Our population, which showed a slow rate of growth during tens of thousands of years, took off during the 20th century, tripling in size during the century to 6.5 billion (thousand million) people. This population explosion is critically dangerous for its many adverse effects, which there is not space to discuss here. Let us just note that among the many critical impacts are increased energy use (bringing more pollution, releases of global-warming and ozone-destroying gases, increased waste, and more rapid depletion of our non-renewable resources such as oil), natural habitat loss (resulting in accelerated extinctions of plant and animal species, desertification, and other climatic changes), urban social misery (due to crowding, joblessness, increased crime, etc.), hunger (due to inability of agricultural production and distribution to keep up with rising populations, while this intensive effort itself is causing destruction of farm lands as a result of soil salt buildup, erosion, or groundwater overdraft and subsidence), and military and social pressures among peoples and nations (due to expanding populations' search for more living space).

And where has the Pope and the Roman Catholic church been on the critical need to limit our population growth?  Again on this issue the Roman Catholic church has been – again largely because of the intransigence of the Pope – the most obstructionist organization on Earth. And it has been successfully obstructionist. The Pope has repeatedly admonished Roman Catholic believers that they must avoid any meaningful measures to limit their childbearing; that, on the contrary, their mission is to bring as many souls as possible "to the table of life".  As a result, population growth, which has been reduced and stabilized in non-Catholic western countries or regions, continues unabated in Roman Catholic countries, aggravating the predictable social ills associated with crowding and poverty. Not to mention that the Pope's adamant prohibition on Roman Catholics' use of condoms has prevented church members from making use of this most effective, universally accepted prophylactic measure against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. This in itself is a damning indictment of the social harm – illustrated by the needless, painful deaths of hundreds of thousands – that the most recent Pope directly caused.

We can only hope that a new and less regressive Pope will use his position to countermand the self-serving (makes more Catholics!) but unfortunate guidance given by recent Popes, and permit his church's believers to take modern measures to control their fecundity and protect themselves from disease, and thereby give their countries hope for a more stable future.

Since Pope John XXIII's 1963 Encyclical  "Pacem in Terris", Popes have been expected to say the right things about the rights of man, and about the beauties of democracy. Pope John recited a long list of  "natural rights of man", taken from the UN Declaration of the Rights of Man, and appeared to commit the Roman Catholic church to these principles. The church, of course, came late to a belief in such rights and in democracy, and it's sad to consider that the ensuing forty years have not seen any noticeable democratization of the church. It is as autocratic as ever, and the Pope – even more than his lower hierarchy – has firmly resisted extending the principles of  "Pacem in Terris"  to the church itself. Perhaps Pope John's words were meant to apply to other faiths, many of which have steadily increased participation of their laity in the rule of their churches.

During the settling of the Americas by Europeans, most of the continent – actually all of the Americas south of the US – was settled by Roman Catholics and became societies that reflected the moral philosophy of the church as well as its autocratic organization. In these societies, the Roman Catholic church was the moral voice. The history of those societies give an indication of the church's and the Pope's commitment to human rights and democracy.

While John XXIII and other Popes have committed the Roman Catholic church to reducing poverty, and have declared it a "right of man"  to have adequate provision of food, housing, health care, and education, the millions of poor of the Roman Catholic world have for centuries been urged by the church to contribute what little they could to build and maintain the gilded magnificence of the church's power structure. On his ornate throne, in his gold-encrusted church, looking out over the church's billions of $$ of gratuitous excess wealth, do the Pope's words about economic rights and equality for all sound hollow to his many desperately poor followers?

One can hope that a progressive new Pope will take the Roman Catholic church back to its 2000-year-old common roots. A good start would be to sell off the church's obscenely vast financial holdings, including palaces, art, gold, land, and the Vatican itself; to return this fortune to the poor from whom it was taken; and to set up its administration in a simple monastery, where the Pope may enjoy a vow of poverty rather than his present gilded cage.

The criminal church
The Roman Catholic church in America has not had a good decade. Many now consider it the largest organized crime  "family"  in the US, and many more judge it to be the most immoral organization in the country. There is something to be said for that view. The petty swindling and immorality by such evangelists as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Sweigert, which raised such a stir in the country, fade to insignificance beside the decades-long conspiracy of the Roman Catholic church in America – a conspiracy between priests who homosexually abuse young boys entrusted to their care, and bishops who, knowing of the abuse, send the priests on to abuse other children in other parishes. The immorality of such acts is staggering. When one realizes that the offender still pretends to portray itself as a guide to morality, the duplicity of the organization becomes inconceivable. Now, the recent Pope had a chance to do something about this culture of criminal abuse and deceit in the American church (and no doubt, Roman Catholic priests in other countries were getting nervous), but he unfortunately failed to do anything meaningful.

What brought on the crimes by the American Catholic priests and the complicity of the bishops?  We can't pretend to have the answers, but can there be much doubt that the requirement for a celibate priesthood has played a role?  One result of this requirement is of course that men who are inclined to marry stay out of the priesthood. But the priesthood gets thereby, not asexual men, but sexually frustrated men, of whom a goodly proportion would be expected to have homosexual tendencies. When such men are placed in charge of young acolytes, who may be the very object of their sexual desires, and when such men are represented to their young charges as being the holy servants of God and their authoritative moral guides, is it not predictable that sexual abuses result? Characterization of Roman Catholic priests, monks, and friars as sexual rogues goes back to the Middle Ages; not much seems to have changed.

Our hope for the new Pope must be that he will cancel the celibacy rule for the priesthood, and welcome psychologically healthy family men and women into the priesthood. And that he will vow that the Roman Catholic church will report all evidence of abuse or other crime by church employees to civil authorities, and fully cooperate with criminal investigations and proceedings against violators.

We must wish the new Pope well. He has a lot to straighten out in his church. The effort to change its reputation from callousness, criminality, and autocracy to one of caring, morality, and democracy is daunting. May his God give him guidance.

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

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