Saturday, April 23, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

An operating room nurse asked me yesterday what I thought of the new pope. My initial impulse is that I really haven’t given the new pope much thought. Sure I’ve seen him on TV and have read the news stories that he was a member of Hitler’s Nazi Party during his youth, has a reputation for social conservatism, and served as the Vatican theologian under Pope John Paul II. I also know that he authored a letter during the US Presidential campaign ordering bishops to refuse Holy Communion to Catholics who supported abortion rights (never mind capital punishment.) None of these items is especially noteworthy, and having grown up Roman Catholic none is too surprising to me: except maybe the fact that he eventually denounced his Nazi affiliation as a youthful indiscretion.

I suppose we live in a free and liberal society and one ramification is that we feel inclined to formulate opinions on all sorts of current events; no matter how little we may know about the details. We seem to feel that we can know enough about Michael Jackson’s guilt or innocence, Terri Schiavo’s wishes about extraordinary means of life support, Tom DeLay’s ethical dilemmas, and the Constitutional rights of restaurant owners who allow smoking in their establishments, to formulate rock solid opinions. And we as a culture are not afraid to express these opinions, so why not a little banter about the new pontiff?

I initially demurred to expound on any opinion of the new pope, but this particular nurse, who converted to Catholicism as an adult, pressed me for my opinion. Although she admitted that she liked Pope John Paul II, she seemed pleased that the Roman Catholic Church would now have a new more conservative leader.

“The cafeteria is closed,” read one sign welcoming Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, if his reputation is carried over into practice, Catholics will no longer be able to pick and choose which dicta of the Church are acceptable to their lifestyles. The word is that with Benedict XVI, nothing is negotiable: the Pope is again the infallible final arbiter of issues related to God’s plan for earthly mortals who ascribe to Roman Catholicism.

Upon further discussion with this nurse, I learned that she 1) plays guitar at her local church, 2) has never been Confirmed, 3) has not confessed her sins in years, let alone prior to each Sunday Mass, 4) eats meat on Fridays during Lent and 5) uses contraception. I had heard enough. Perhaps only someone who had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church would find this religious resume humorous.

I grew up in the Church and attended parochial schools through high school. I realize that it’s been a while since I left the church to be married as a Methodist, but I am sure that the last 17 years have not seen that much change. If my memory serves correctly, four of the five lifestyle habits practiced by this nurse are actionable by the Catholic Church and punishable with an eternal sentence in a very hot place (and I don’t mean the Caribbean.)

My initial instinct is not to formulate an opinion regarding the new pope, but I have to admit that a sinister part of me is glad that an ex-Nazi has taken over the helm. If any institution should serve as the bastion of hard-line behavioral control, it should be the Roman Catholic Church. Over the next several years, we are certain to see either the Pope soften his historical views on religious life, or a severe crisis of faith among such cafeteria Catholics. My money’s not on the former; and if nothing else, it is certain to be entertaining. Seig heil, Benny!