03/16/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated May 16, 2013

Orthodoxy and Change

Underlying all the media focus on the Catholic cardinals' selection of a new pope, and the predictable focus on personality over meaning, was a much greater struggle between tradition and reform, conservatism and progress. That struggle mirrors politics in America and most western democracies.

We humans are divided between preservation of the best of our past, our traditions, cultural practices, beliefs, and too often prejudices, and the elemental fact of human existence -- change. How do we preserve those institutions and practices that have served us well in past times in an age of social, political, and economic transformation?

This dilemma is particularly acute for a two thousand year old religion many of whose members belong to an institution, the Roman Catholic Church, that is inherently conservative. Francesco, the new pope, is portrayed as deeply resistant to change in the arena of marriage, for example, but deeply committed to a social gospel where the poor are concerned, making him an American in political terms, a hybrid of conservative and liberal convictions.

In the realm of intimate human behavior, Jesus warned against judgment, as much as anything because we all fall short. But his teachings, especially the sermon on the mount, were radically liberal by our political standards -- radical especially because he combined commitment to the poor, in body and spirit, to the peacemakers, to the merciful, and to those left out with qualification for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Politically, pretty drastic stuff.

The difficulty of reconciling laissez faire market economics with a social gospel leads some to advocate "a thousand points of light" to assuage our collective conscience, and as a convenient distraction from the blunt truth that all the private charity in this nation doesn't come close to healing our social ills.

In the legal realm, we have a Supreme Court whose job it is to make a two century old Constitution relevant to a 21st century nation. Anyone who thinks the Founders had assault weapons in mind when they drafted the Second Amendment isn't thinking clearly. But those tasked with keeping our Constitution relevant are somewhat in the same boat as those seeking to make the teachings of Jesus relevant in the 21st century as well. And, presumably, thoughts such as these crossed the minds of at least some of the cardinals when they chose Francesco.

Times like these cause my early study of theology and philosophy to cross paths with later practice of politics and study of its theory. Few are plagued with this complex background. Like most people my age, however, thoughts do turn to eternal things and what matters most in the long run.

While we struggle to preserve the best of our democratic institutions and practices, often against constant assault from within, those of us pursued by the Hound of Heaven* also struggle to preserve the institutions of our religion from the mindless assaults of materialism and consumerism while applying the radical social gospel of Jesus to the injustices around us.

(*Francis Thomson, 1893)