The press is outraged! Why? Because the Roman Catholic Church might (once again) select as its pope someone who is actually Catholic, and who does not share the political sensibilities of The New York Times editorial board.
Laughable as this is, media response to the surprise announcement Monday by Pope Benedict XVI that he plans to resign the papacy was highly predictable.
For the most part, coverage of the pope’s decision has fallen into two categories: criticism of the church on account of recent scandals, and hand wringing over the future ideological direction of the church.
The Associated Press theme, adopted by many major newspapers, that Benedict’s tenure was “clouded by scandal” is just one example. The story behind that lead is not the retirement of a pope or the enduring institution of the church, but a religion ostensibly in turmoil. The resignation of Benedict provides a hostile press the opportunity to rehash any problem that may have arisen in the hundreds of thousands of Catholic churches around the world — and to blame the Vatican for them all.
Take, for example, the focus on the priest sexual abuse scandals. It goes without saying that child abuse is an unspeakable crime for which there is no defense. Any cover-up of such crimes, whether by Penn State, a local prep school, or a religious institution is equally heinous.
But the media’s current focus on abuse perpetrated by priests, the bulk of which occurred long before Benedict was pope, reveals a deep obsession with scandal and an insidious bias against the church. How else to explain the media’s failure to report the sad, but undeniable, fact that sexual abuse of minors occurs with equal frequency across most religions, and in secular institutions such as schools, boys clubs, and sleep-away camps?
Of course, not all journalists have used the announcement to unfairly portray the church as a bastion of corrupt pedophiles. But few have resisted the temptation to call upon the church to “modernize,” that is, to become Unitarian! Numerous stories bemoan the church’s stance on moral issues of importance to the urban elite — abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, to name but a few. The Boston Globe, for its part, complains that the church under Benedict failed to adopt “liberalizing reforms” — as if the church were a political party and church doctrine a negotiable platform.
Others can hardly contain their deep, emotional need to see the next pope remake the church in their own image. Thus, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni complains that the church “doesn’t speak to the reality of the world now and to (our) lives in it.” Bill Keller, writes of his yearning for a “Vatican Spring.” And The Washington Post wonders whether the next pope will be able to bring about “change” — taking for granted that doctrinal change is, in fact, warranted.
This idea, that the church should alter doctrine in order to better reflect social mores, evinces a childish understanding of religion — the goal of which is not to mirror society, but to shape it.
Religion is, at its essence, mankind’s attempt to discern objective truths. As such, great religions do not “change,” they “endure.” They are rocks in the cultural storm, oblivious to winds of fashionable opinion.
Thankfully, the Roman Catholic Church will not alter fundamental truths to gain popularity or to satisfy its critics.
And in an uncertain world, it is this aspect of Catholicism that sustains the faithful and will continue to attract converts for centuries to come. Unlike Wednesday’s ashes, which have since disappeared, the church and the faith will endure.