A Strange Choice for Pope

Oklahoma Gazette | May 23, 2005
Lest there be any doubt about the power of the Catholic Church to capture the attention of the world, consider the recent spectacle of millions peering at a small chimney and waiting for white smoke to appear.

This is the tradition of course, and tradition is very important if you are a Catholic (and even if you’re not), but at the risk of sounding hopelessly Protestant, let me be the first to say that while a small puff of white smoke was indeed cheered by the multitudes, more and more black smoke has been rising over the world -- including the world of the Catholic Church. The choice of Joseph Ratzinger seems as strange to many of us as an order to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

In the 20th century, the two greatest sins of the Catholic Church have been anti-Semitism and the failure to challenge Nazi Germany’s murderous ways. Why then would the cardinals chose a German pope who was once, though quite innocently, a member of the Hitler Youth?

When the sexual abuse scandal exploded over the last decade, and it became clear that not only was the problem endemic, but was aided by criminal behavior on the part of an unaccountable bureaucracy, many Catholics believed that it might finally pave the way for priests to marry. Perhaps, all things considered, celibacy is not a good tradition. Just a tradition.

As conservatives grab power around the globe, orthodoxy is the rallying cry, inspired by those who want to turn back the clock to a simpler, more ordered world. But many thoughtful people now believe that the new face of authoritarianism will be wearing a clerical collar. The new pope promises nothing in the way of reform, only a get-tough attitude toward those with new ideas. He once ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and has made life miserable for dissident theologians. Yet his Lord was a dissident theologian.

As for women, who continue to be second-class citizens the world over, the “cafeteria is officially closed,” as Maureen Dowd put it. “Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed ‘God’s Rottweiler’ and ‘the Enforcer,’ helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.”

The new (old) bright line in the sand is religious orthodoxy, and if that sounds a bit scary, it’s because you have studied history. How many virgins do you supposed have been killed over the Virgin Birth? How much blood has been shed to protect a third-century view of the blood atonement?

Preserving tradition is important and often good, unless we forget that the tradition itself is the invention of fallible human beings who claim to speak for God and would think nothing of smiting you if you disagree.

Where does it say in the Bible that a servant of God should not marry? How does one go on denying women an equal role in the church given the obvious and magnificent elevation of the status of women by Jesus? And if men in long robes mouthing empty public prayers while children starved drove Jesus crazy, then who’s to say that if the Lord came back he wouldn’t go straight to the gilded confines of St. Peter’s with a whip and start turning over the tables?

The new pope is a champion of orthodoxy and preaches fiery sermons against what he calls “relativism.” But while his warnings against the sins of the ego and rampant individualism are right on target, many of us believe that a new dictatorship is emerging, and its face is all-male, all-knowing and not to be questioned.

The white smoke rising over Vatican City was created by special chemicals, but the black smoke rising over Iraq, over Africa, over the Third World is real. So with all due respect, I hereby dissent on the choice of the new pope and reserve the right to question whether it’s the will of God for our time. I do this, not because I am anti-Catholic, but because I fear the enforcers of orthodoxy more than the mavens of relativism. After all, burning heretics at the stake never produced a single puff of white smoke.

Meyers has been senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church since 1985 and is a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University.

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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