The news this week that the Catholic Church has a new pontiff, Francis I, has inspired me to write on a subject I rarely (if ever) tackle: religion. Because this is such a personal subject, I will also preface this by stating that I am not a member of the Catholic Church. I am in no way "telling the Church what to do" or trying to state unequivocally "what's best for Catholicism," because I would not presume to do such a thing, being an outsider. I don't presume in any way to know which reforms would better the institution and which would not. That is for Catholics to figure out, which is as it should be.
But while the Catholic world rejoices with the news of a new Pope, many voices are also being raised over the subject of modernization of Church dogma on various subjects. While, obviously, the child abuse sexual scandals are still a problem that has not entirely been dealt with (and which the new Pope will have to address in one way or another), these suggestions go beyond damage control or dealing with past sins within the Church. Innovative proposals are being spoken of on such issues as allowing priests to marry, allowing women into the priesthood, revising Church doctrine on birth control and/or abortion, and even addressing the status of gay people in a more modern light.
Again, I'm not advocating for any of these proposals, but I do find them interesting. Allowing priests to marry would certainly change the Church and perhaps revitalize the priesthood. Women priests and bishops might bring women into a more-equal role in the Church. There are good and valid arguments for each of these modernizing proposals, and while I'm not advocating any of them I certainly can understand the logic behind many of them.
But anyone who is expecting Pope Francis I to wake up one morning and announce to the world that celibacy will no longer be a requirement for the priesthood (or any other such sweeping reform) is going to be sorely disappointed. The Catholic Church doesn't really lend itself to such overnight changes. Big, fundamental dogmatic changes are simply not going to come from one man, even the new leader of the Church.
I have no information about the new Pope or where he stands on any of these issues -- even where he stands on the need for any changes in the Church whatsoever. But even if he turns out to be a radical reformer of the Church, what will have to happen for any fundamental changes in Catholicism is for a large group of Catholic leaders to come together and debate the issues fully and over a long period of time.
In short, what would be necessary for the Catholic Church to modernize would be a "Vatican III" assembly. Or, in full, a "Third Vatican Council."
The last time such a momentous meeting took place was just over a half-century ago. This sounds like a long time, but when held up against the Catholic Church's two-millennial history, it really isn't that long a time. But, unlike the Church's timeline, the world has dramatically changed since Vatican II. Think of what life was like in the mid-1960s, and then compare it to today.
Vatican II ushered in monumental changes in the Church. I'm not going to attempt to list all the changes, because I'd probably make a few theological errors if I even tried, but just ask any Catholic old enough to remember "pre-Vatican II" times, and they'll tell you what a big deal this was for the Church and its relation to modern life. Because that's exactly why Vatican II was convened: to cope with the fact that modern life had changed and the Church needed to change with the times in order to still have relevance in people's lives.
Which is exactly what would be needed today to further modernize the Church. People advocating basic, foundational changes in the Church are never going to see such things happen without the support of a significant portion of the Church's hierarchy. Such changes are political in nature, really, and would require gaining majorities in favor of them before they could conceivably happen.
Vatican II took over three years to complete, from beginning to end. It actually spanned two pontificates, as Pope John XXIII died just after the Council began. Many far-reaching changes took place as a result -- such as Mass being spoken in the local vernacular language, rather than in Latin. Everyday Catholics' lives were affected, and their interactions with the Church changed. But such changes were debated, both inside the Second Vatican Council and in the Catholic world at large, for a long time before they were agreed upon. Even three years' time, compared to the Church's history, is lightning speed. But three years is also long enough to have a full conversation on many different levels, both within the Council and among Catholics all over the world.
Vatican II had a very wide view of possible changes. They didn't accept all of the proposals, and there were factions and power struggles which determined the outcome, yea or nay. The Church is, after all, made up of human beings here on Earth. And it's part of the human condition to resist change -- doubly so on matters of religious beliefs and practices.
So for all those offering their own suggestions for big changes in the Catholic Church today after the election of Pope Francis I, no matter what the goal being advocated there will likely be only one realistic path to get there. If you would like to see priests being able to marry or women be allowed in the priesthood or any other modernization, the route to get there is going to be exactly the same.
For one reason or another, perhaps it is time for the Third Vatican Council. Because Vatican III is going to be the only way sweeping change will ever take place within the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council only three months after he was elected Pope -- which came as a great surprise to many. It would indeed be interesting to see Pope Francis I make just such a stunning announcement to begin his papacy.
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