The Catholic Church is changing. It used to be rigid. Back in the 1930s when I grew up on the south side of Chicago, Catholics stayed in their own neighborhoods, dated and married “their own kind” and never ever went inside a Protestant Church, let alone (God help us) a Jewish synagogue.
But the church is changing. Some Catholics say “not enough.” Others say “too much.” But the fact is obvious to anybody who watches TV and reads the paper that something’s going on here. For example, when the pope is asked about gays, instead of condemning this “horrible, unnatural” sexual orientation and all the actions that flow from it, Pope Francis laughs and says: “Who am I to judge?” Let me tell you something: Old Pope Pius IX (after whom our Macon street, Pio Nono, was named,) would never ever have laughed.
Yes, the church is changing. For example, who would have thought that a pope would resign? It hasn’t happened since the 15th century. They die in office. But Father Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), whom I knew in Rome back in the ‘60s, saw the changing handwriting on the wall of St. Peter’s, and he knew he could no longer read it. Other popes would have erased it. Instead, he resigned.
Sure, the church has always been changing, but never as quickly. Changes used to take centuries. Look at the issue of slavery. The church approved of slavery all through the Middle Ages. They finally condemned “unjust” slavery in 1839, but some American bishops supported “just” slavery until the abolition. In fact, our own Pio Nono stated that “it is not against divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, or exchanged.” Today, you can’t find a Catholic bishop or priest who approves of slavery. That change has finally taken hold.
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One of the biggest changes, however, was the stripping of divinity. The Catholic Church is no longer a “divine institution” incapable of error or mistakes. Now we know that it was created and is run by humans just like all the other churches and institutions of the world. Imagine that. This stripping began with Pope John XXIII, and it continues on with Pope Francis. It’s like pulling the sheet from the Wizard of Oz and revealing a little old man with a microphone.
I remember hearing that my old Scripture professor, Cardinal Bea, explained to Pope John XXIII that the Scripture text in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter (Rocky) and upon this rock I will build my church,” is a much disputed text. It was written 50 years after Jesus died and cannot be used to prove Jesus founded the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bea said that Pope John’s reaction to this rather startling piece of news was laughter. Makes you think of our current Pope Francis, doesn’t it?
Will there be more changes? Of course there will. If the Catholic Church is to survive as an instrument of “grace and peace,” it must change. Old restrictions like the ban on birth control (how many Catholics practice birth control today?) and the rules on priestly celibacy, women priests, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage and many more incrustations that hang around like cobwebs in cathedral ceilings must all be wiped away.
Dr. Kirby Godsey said: “Grace will ultimately prevail. Only courage will determine whether its prevailing will occur in the stewardship of our time or a time yet to come.”
It takes courage to stand up to people who still believe the Catholic Church is infallible. It takes courage and patience and compassion. For two years, I was fortunate to see these three virtues in action in Pope John XXIII, and I hope I will see them again in the “stewardship of the time” that I have left to me.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants.