Pope and U.S. Catholics

Pope John Paul’s scrutiny of possible departures from Catholic traditional belief and practice by American Catholics has some of the incongruity of applying Newton’s laws of motion to high-energy physics (Part I, March 9-12). Catholics don’t think much about church doctrines these days except when they bear on sensitive areas like sexuality, divorce and remarriage, birth control and even abortion. In those areas, however, they frequently look for guidance elsewhere than to Rome.

What the Catholic Church really needs to address is not so much the attitudes of bishops and laity towards its doctrinal tradition, but the content and relevancy of the tradition itself. When I was a seminarian studying for the Catholic priesthood in the 1950s, the most encouraging and stimulating aspect of my studies was my reading and discussion of the views of theologians, Catholic and other, who had the depth of learning, the sense of developing history and the courage to rethink Christian traditional doctrine in light of the personal individual and social needs of their own times.

Ten years later I left the priesthood largely due to the growing frustration that their prophetic voices, with the exception of some short-lived echoes from the second Vatican Council, were never taken seriously by Roman Catholic teaching authorities. Rome is apparently entrenched, somewhat fearfully of the future I suspect, in the conviction that the integrity of church doctrine depends on its resistance to change.

The reverse is true; nonadaptive, unchanging tradition dies. Catholic tradition and doctrine has changed historically. The teachings of doctrinal expressions of the Council of Nicea in the 4th Century and the Council of Trent in the 16th Century would have been incomprehensible to the disciples who followed Jesus in his own time. Much of Catholic doctrine has developed very little since the Middle Ages, however, certainly in comparison to the global explosion of secular learning and culture from that time until now.


The Roman Catholic Church’s greatest hope for inspiring its faithful may not be in doctrinal retrenchment, but rather in the development of wholly new and useful paradigms for belief, spirituality and action in humankind’s ongoing partnership in the work of its Creator. If the American bishops ever succeed in shaking Rome into accepting this challenge, their legacy to the future of Catholicism would be a rich one indeed.


San Diego