I feel for the pope. I really do. On the one hand, whenever he travels, he’s expected to make nice with everyone in his host country. To that end, he meets with Protestants and Orthodox, Jews and Muslims. They exchange pleasantries and have photo shoots. But then he gets back to the Vatican, and he must feel compelled to remind the one billion Roman Catholics in the world that the one billion followers of Christ without a tradition of apostolic succession don’t go to “church” on Sunday, but to “ecclesial communities.”
This is tied to the concept that only those clergymen who stand in a direct line from the apostles can rightly administer the sacraments, and the sacraments, being the primary vehicle for salvation, are pretty darn important. Why the pope felt the need to restate what had been already restated by his predecessor in 2000 has been the subject of much conjecture. Is it the massive headway being made by Pentecostalism in the global south? Is it the all-too-ecumenical Catholicism in the U.S.? Or is it another attempt by Benedict to win back his beloved—but backslidden and postmodernly relativistic—Europe (I’m paraphrasing him here)?
Probably all of the above. But in this stance, the Roman Catholic magisterium seems increasingly out-of-step with the Catholics that I know. When I ask Catholic friends, in-laws, and even priests I know about my salvation, they assure me that I’m safe. (I know there are American Catholics who don’t agree, so don’t bother commenting just to prove that that’s not a unanimous opinion.) American and European Catholics tend to be just as committed to civil, respectful, religious pluralism as I am. In fact, they warmly welcome me to partake in the Eucharist when I visit their churches, a stance in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching.
I’m not suggesting that the pope should water down his views based on popular opinion, or that the magisterium should back down from its doctrinal positions. I just think they should consider a different tack. Everything in world religion is bending toward populism, whether it’s the aforementioned growth of Pentecostalism or the American/European emergent movement. Dictating positions down-from-on-high works about as well in religion as it does in President Bush’s defense of his war policy. In an age of new media and a “flattening world,” opinion will be changed from the grassroots level by convincing thoughtful people that you’re worth listening to. It’s a bear market, you might say, for papal bulls. In fact, maybe Benedict should start blogging…
(In the interest of full disclosure, I was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1997. But I had a Catholic priest there to lay hands on me, just in case they’re right about that apostolic succession thing.)
Tony Jones is the national coordinator for Emergent Village.