Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Modernizing the Church

           It is difficult in these days of early March 2013 not to find the Roman Catholic Church when one tunes in to almost any news programme.  In response to the historic resignation of Pope Benedict, Roman Catholic cardinals, charged with the task of electing his papal successor, are flocking to Rome (no pun intended), along with multitudes of journalists, charged with the task of covering it all.   The Pope is the public face of Roman Catholicism, and though there may be debates about how much effective power he wields in his Church, there is no debate about how much influence has retains over popular conceptions of Catholicism.  Every journalist with a microphone or a notepad is speculating about what the new Pope will be like.  Will be come from South America?  From Africa?  Will we have our first black Pope?  Will he be (comparatively) young? And, in particular, will he be conservative, like his predecessor?
            The media, of course, is not conservative—or at least not in Canada (I write with less knowledge of my American neighbours to the south), and this makes for some mildly entertaining television when the media people come to interview their Roman Catholic guests about what they think the new Pope will be like.  The people conducting the interviews are professional, and part of their professionalism demands that they be courteous to their guests when they interview them.  Bluntly put, the interviewer cannot give the impression that he thinks the interviewee is an idiot, even if he thinks so. 
And it is apparent that a number of the interviewers do indeed think that the persons they are interviewing are, if not idiotic, then at least retrogressive, wrong-headed, narrow, and spectacularly out of touch with the world around them.  That is because the interviewer is generally a worldling, and therefore thinks like a worldling, reflecting the views and biases of the world.  The average journalist (at least up here north of the forty-ninth parallel) is usually of a more liberal bent—he (or she) is not particularly religious, is pro-choice, and is in favour of what are called “gay rights”, and of the ordination of women.  The Roman Catholic guests they are interviewing, however, are usually committed to different positions— they are religious, they are not pro-choice, and are not in favour of normalizing homosexual relations or of the ordination of women.  Interviewer and interviewee therefore face one another across a considerable ideological divide.   They may be sitting across from each other at a small table in the news studio and talking politely, but in fact a great distance separates them and they are actually trying to converse with one another across a great chasm.  Often they are not speaking so much to each other as passed each other.  It is not the fault of the interviewer.  He or she is on a schedule, and has only a few minutes to ask questions.   This format does not allow time to actually converse, clarifying terms, stating presuppositions, examining one’s another arguments.  Complex issues must be despatched in three minutes to get on with the next story of a sink hole in Florida or of a war in Syria.  It is no one’s fault that issues get over-simplified or glossed over.  But the whole thing could not exactly be called communication. 
This was painfully apparent to me when watching a news anchor from the CBC interview someone from “Salt and Light”, a Roman Catholic organization.  The interview between the two women was cordial enough, but I thought I could detect a flavour of frustration, both on the part of the interviewer as well on the part of the interviewee.  The news anchor was asking her guest about what she thought the new Pope should do to meet the challenges currently confronting the Roman Catholic Church.  In particular, did she feel the Pope should modernize the Church?  Did she not think that the new Pope should rethink his Church’s traditional ban on the ordination of women?  Did she not think that by thus modernizing the Church would be better placed to recoup some of its numerical losses and reach out to the modern world?  The unspoken subtext was quite clear:  “When is your out-dated Church going to finally get with it?”
The guest answered quite civilly, though I thought I could detect a smidgeon of difficulty in retaining her smiling ease.  My guess is that she had been asked about this issue of the Church’s ban on women’s ordination a gazillion times before and was sorely tempted to drop the gloves and have a go at the person doing the interview.   If so, she wisely chose to desist, and tried to steer the conversation in a less polemical direction, talking instead about our common call to be saints. 
What instantly occurred to me was that when the world (through its very polite CBC journalists) talks about “modernizing the Church”, what it really means is “secularizing the Church”.  The news anchor in question took entirely for granted the standards, views, prejudices and value judgments of secular society and not for one nano-second did it occur to her that those judgments might be wrong.  It was simply inconceivable to her that the stand of the historic Church (both very visible Roman Catholic and largely invisible Orthodox) about such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women might in fact be right.  It was obvious that the views of the historic Church differed from those of secular North American society, and so it was the views of the Church which must change.   The question posed by her, “Is the Church going to modernize?”, when fed through the translation machine, comes out, “Will the Christian Church sacrifice its traditional views on controversial things to fit in with the views of non-Christians?”  The lady interviewed, I think, understood the true import of the question.  She was, however, too polite to meet the question head on and call the interviewer on her secularism. 
It is odd, when you think of it.  No one would dream of inviting a Rabbi to the news show and then asking him why Judaism was not prepared sacrifice some of its traditional values such as not working on the Sabbath to better fit in with non-Jews for whom Saturday is just another day of the week.  They would not dream of inviting an Imam to the show and asking him when Islam would jettison its practice of praying at set times of the day so that Muslims might better fit in with others at the office who would never think of praying during the day at any time.  It seems that there is respect for the essential traditions of every religion except the Christian one. 
In many ways, the professionalism and courtesy of the journalists mask what is really going on.  In the secularized West (which includes all of Canada; I can’t speak for the American Bible Belt) there is an undeclared cultural war raging against Christianity.  We are quickly being pushed to the margins of cultural life and in the public forums our views either ignored or denounced and mocked.  Our Roman Catholic friends, being more culturally prominent than most, naturally draw the most fire.  There may be many things which we Orthodox object to in Roman Catholicism, but in this cultural war, we find ourselves fighting alongside them.  All the more reason to pray for them—including whoever the cardinals elect as their new Pope—and to ask for their prayers for us in return.


  1. But FATHER!! EVERYbody knows that interviewers are direct descendants of Einstein; and the interviewees have barely made it into kintergarten. And as for the Pope; well who care, unless she has some 'relevance' to the world of today. Someone,( Who was it now?) suggested we start with 'Our Father....'
    We could perhaps add the -traditional-
    "Lord, have mercy; Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy"

  2. Thank you for your gracious, articulate remarks about the current media handling of the selection of Pope Benedict's replacement. You would be correct in thinking that the members of the American media, both print and TV, do not question the dogmas of popular secular religion. They think in terms of politics, of liberal and conservative. They have no idea what filled the minds and hearts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They do not know the difference between dogma and discipline: that the Church could allow married priests tomorrow, but the Church may not ordain women, ever. They do not know, or care, that the selection of the Pope, and of the parish priest, for that matter, should be made by the Holy Spirit, acting through Christ's prayerful sons.
    I am a convert from Methodism to Roman Catholicism; I attend a Byzantine Catholic Church that is two hours away from my home whenever I can. I also pray Vespers with a small Orthodox congregation near my home. I pray for Church unity, and I pray for you, Father. Glory to Jesus Christ! Thank you for answering God's call to the priesthood.

  3. Thank you for your kind words, my dear Catholic friend. May the Lord bless you and keep you. And may the Lord bless and guide the successor to Benedict XVI, whoever he may be.


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