Pope Benedict's suggestion last week that condom use was tolerable in certain circumstances started a frenzy of debate -- was the pontiff loosening sexual mores? Would it affect global family planning efforts? To whom did the statement apply?
But context shows, more than anything, just how far the issues that matter most to secular society are from the mind of the Church, which sees itself as working on a spiritual plane. Secularists can laugh, but they do so at their peril. Benedict had no intention of issuing a new edict on condoms. An interviewer asked him casually, could he see any circumstance where the use of condoms would be preferable to the alternative? He thought for a while, and responded that perhaps it would be permitted for an HIV-positive male prostitute. It was a toss-off, a hypothetical. The Church does not want to encourage immorality, but sodomy while not knowingly killing someone is preferable to sodomy while knowingly killing someone.
I'll leave it to theologians to debate how much this statement deviated from previous Catholic doctrine, but it is clear that the Vatican was, yet again, caught off-guard by public uproar over an issue of worldly, but not theological, importance. It's as though the hierarchy is genuinely surprised when these issues cause more of a stir than a new pronouncement over the appropriate material for Communion chalices.
Secular Americans can't begin to understand or predict the Vatican's positions on what matters to them without taking the time to learn about what matters to the Church. The Church is operating in a time-frame of millennia, with the sole goal, as it sees things, of salvation. Ripples on the surface of its water such as changes in rules on condom use are products of a changing calculus of how best to bring souls to God. Journalists treat the Church like any other organization, interested in influence and self-preservation, but while it may sometimes be those things, that lens is flatly insufficient.
That's why my program on HDNet this week is dedicated to a story that will challenge viewers in a way no one else on television will. It's an examination of two Catholic communities on the margins of the Church.
The first community is a group of traditionalist conservatives called the Society of Saint Pius the Tenth (SSPX). They formed to resist the modernizations of the Second Vatican Council. Rome at one point feared they created a danger of schism unseen since Eastern Orthodoxy split off from the Church in the 11th Century -- and so for 20 years, their leaders were excommunicated. Then last year, Pope Benedict allowed the leaders back into the fold. To the Vatican's shock and dismay, this was front page news around the world after it came out that one of their leaders was a virulent Holocaust-denier. No doubt, there is a despicable strain of anti-Semitism that runs through some ulta-traditionalist Catholics, but SSPX's leader has been unequivocal in repudiating it, and the uproar over one conspiracy-minded bishop overshadowed the less sensational, but far more important, story about what the Church's attempts at reconciliation with a group founded on opposition to Church modernization might mean for the Church's future.
The second Catholic community Dan Rather Reports spent time with for tonight's program is the Spirit of Saint Stephen's, a group of liberals who celebrate Mass without a priest. Their liturgy strays even from more lax, post-Vatican II, rules. For 40 years, they practiced their unorthodox Mass within the boundaries of official Roman Catholicism at Saint Stephen's Catholic Church in Minneapolis; as of last year, they're no longer welcome and they're practicing as the Spirit of Saint Stephen's in a non-denominational church down the road.
One way of framing the foundational disagreement between progressive and conservative Catholics, from which many others stem, is as a conversation over what sort of "church" Jesus meant to found. Progressives who want to take the spirit of Vatican II and run with it think the early church was a network of Christian believers whole rules the faithful had to derive from love and individual conscience, in consultation with church leaders. Traditionalists, in line with mainstream Catholic belief, think that Jesus meant to appoint Saint Peter as the first pope of the institutional Roman Catholic Church, complete with a nascent hierarchy and dogma.
Those who greet these arcane debates with a yawn would be well advised to remember that the Catholic Church is the biggest organization in the world. Debates on the language and imagery of worship might seem obscure, but conservatism and progressivism on the liturgy correspond quite closely with conservatism and progressivism on social issues. Gays and lesbians are welcomed at Spirit of Saint Stephen's, while SSPX says that their inclinations are "depraved." When it comes to artificial birth control, Spirit of Saint Stephen's members emphasized the "sacredness of individual informed conscience," while SSPX rejects condoms even for disease-prevention because fornication is an evil, and "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it." And crucially, whether the Church should dictate secular law is a subject of debate in Catholicism. SSPX's Bishop Fellay made clear that the Church's influence should arise through good works and good arguments, not force -- but that "separation of Church and state" is anathema to Catholicism since the Church needs to have a say on religious/secular "mixed matters," where a nation's laws could influence its citizens' path to salvation.
Together with the United States' leading Vatican-watcher, John Allen, Dan Rather Reports examines what it means that the conservatives are on track to being back in the fold, while the liberals are out. Both SSPX and Spirit of Saint Stephen's graciously welcomed us into their inner sanctuaries, to their Masses, to spend time with their faithful. As far as we know, we are the only non-Catholic media to be given a full-length interview with SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay (one of the excommunicated bishops) since the Williamson scandal. I hope we did both sides justice. Men and women of all faiths, and of no faith at all, would be well advised to follow along.
Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. This episode is also available on iTunes.