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The Tentacle


April 19, 2005

My Poor Church

Roy Meachum

We are all waiting, with some trepidation, for white smoke to drift over St. Peter’s piazza. Forty-five minutes later, according to the schedule, announcement will be made: Habemus Papum! “We have a pope!”

While lingering, here are some thoughts:

A man young approached me while I was on the Exercycle at the YMCA. With no warning, not even a throat clearing, he pronounced: You are not Catholic! I’m sure he meant my belief that individual conscience should prevail in such matters as abortion.

I did not offer my baptismal certificate. I didn’t show him the medals around my neck. I didn’t protest in any way. In the event, he shot off before I could reply.

At mass one morning in St. John’s Church, the parish nun similarly accosted me. “You can’t say those things,” she said. “You can’t say those things,” she repeated. That time I managed, “Yes, I can and I will,” before walking out the door.

She was upset because I had written Baltimore’s cardinal-archbishop should “throw his red hat in the harbor” and get out of town for knowingly sending a suspected sexual predator back into his parish, over the objections of a panel the prelate had appointed to advise him in such situations.

A very good friend, a fellow convert while professing not to follow Rome’s positions on birth control and women in the church defined herself as a “cafeteria Catholic.” This has become the slogan for Americans who continue to support their local pastors while rejecting pieces of the Vatican’s current teachings. Most Europeans follow that approach and have since the 19th century; they simply don’t have a name for what they do. Other people call them “anti-clerical;” and sometimes it gets to that.

With more fervor than facts, so-called “traditionalists,” like the young man in the “Y,” insist the church never changes. They say matters of faith have remained exactly the same since Apostles Peter and Paul organized Christians into the first church. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The mother of Jesus was always called “Blessed,” but God was not proclaimed her father until well into the 19th century. Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Nearly a hundred years later (1950) Pope Pius XII declared infallible the teaching, celebrated on August 15, that Mary’s body was assumed into Heaven, without being placed first in a grave or tomb, as Jesus was.

Neither doctrine causes me concern: one medal I wear was struck to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption. For the record, the others are St. Cecilia, the patron of poets and writers, as well as musicians, and Frederick’s own St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, whose body rests in her Emmitsburg shrine.

Similarly, Catholics have said goodbye to the centuries-old teaching that eating meat on Friday could send them straight to hell. And when brushing my teeth, if I swallowed even a drop of water, I could not take communion, at the pain of committing a mortal sin. They’re both passé.

Neglecting to drop to one knee before a bishop and kiss his ring was once considered an act of disrespect for God, whose servant the bishop was. In Western civilization, the custom is strictly applied now only to the pope; it remains an individual option for any other prelate.

One more change: Go to a Catholic Church service today and you will discover separate lines at communion for bread and wine (offered from a common cup carefully wiped by a cloth before being turned for the next person).

In my Baltimore Catechism, as it was called, I learned about Transubstantiation. It held that the real body of Christ was found in the communion wafer and so there was no need for anyone but the celebrant of the mass to take wine, which symbolized His blood. Like so many church teachings Transubstantiation might have come out of special circumstances. One possibility: Wine was denied individuals because of the dangers of infection from the chalice during Europe’s frequent epidemics, especially the plague.

Once again, I have no problems with the evolution of doctrine and practices under the magistereum, the Latin word for the church’s teaching authority.

When I worked in Rome as a correspondent for The Washington Star, New Republic magazine and other media, I was told by a Vatican insider that two separate commissions had reached the conclusion birth control should be permissible. And that should have been no problem.

After all, coitus interruptus was acceptable for centuries. So was watching the calendar for the “best days” to avoid pregnancy; it was called by practitioners “Catholic roulette,” probably from Russian roulette, which involved leaving a single round in a revolver, spinning the cylinder, then putting the muzzle to your head and pulling the trigger.

Both church-sanctioned means of prophylaxis produced frequent “accidents,” as unplanned and sometimes unwanted babies were called. But, by any name, the procedures were attempts at birth control.

My sources said, curial Cardinals Alfredo Ottaviani and Amleto Cicogonani, as old colleagues of Paul VI, insisted the pope wait for a third commission report, which made using birth control pills and condoms a mortal sin.

Then the pair supposedly supervised writing the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which dealt with human life, as the title says. But everybody called it the birth control encyclical. The rest of its contents disappeared from sight.

Of course, everybody knows that during Rome’s first millennium as the capital of Christianity priests were married. “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” as Yul Brynner’s theatrical king of Siam loved to say.

Pope John XXIII called for the councils of Vatican II to modernize Catholicism: he attempted to coordinate inevitable change, especially to return power to local churches. He used the word aggiornomiento. The Italian word is best translated: “up to date.”

At any rate, when the beloved John died in the middle of the councils, the first target of the Curia, which runs the Vatican, were any and all attempts to take away their power.

To make their task easier they fostered the selection of colleague Giovanni Montini to be Pope Paul VI. Cardinal Montini spent years as a pontifical bureaucrat, earning a reputation for conciliation not confrontation.

After the sudden death of John Paul I, the first non-Italian pope in about 500 years made himself a combination of the traditional pater angelicus, pastor to the angels, and a St. Paul-type traveling salesman.

While the deceased and widely beloved pope attracted affection, respect and high praise, the Curia was able to tighten its control on the church ignoring entirely problems on this side of the Tiber River, as the world beyond St. Peter’s shadow is described.

The choice of Cardinal Bernard Law for a highly visible and prestigious part in John Paul II’s funeral services offended against many basic teachings. He was selected by the same bureaucracy that removed him from the archdiocese of Boston for protecting sexual predators, in great number.

No Catholic in modern history has given as much “scandal to the faithful” as Bernard Law, who will not incidentally vote for the next pope. As will William Keeler.

We can only hope the new pope will emulate Jesus in the Temple and drive out the modern version of con men and swindlers who live in the Vatican.

My poor church!



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