“With friends like these….” It is an effective figure of speech. There may be no quicker way to make the point that those who claim to be looking out for our best interests may have something very different in mind.
It is an expression that always pops into my mind around the time of the presidential elections, when I hear Democrat and Republican spokesmen on the talk shows giving recommendations to the other party for which candidate it should choose as its nominee. I also thought of it when I read some of the comments from Protestants and “progressive” Catholics upon the death of Pope John Paul II.
Let me give you a few examples. A Protestant pastor who writes a weekly column in my local newspaper here in Connecticut spent time on the Internet exploring the reactions of various Protestant leaders to the career of John Paul II and the choice of Benedict XVI as his successor. The commentators meant us well, the columnist assured us, indicating how relations between Catholicism and Protestantism are “several light-years ahead” of where they were a half-century ago.
What did the Protestants have to say? They were, says the columnist, “near to unanimous in their assessment of Pope John Paul II as a man. Almost everyone spoke of him as ‘amazing’ and ‘remarkable,’ an international leader whose charisma won admiration among people of every faith. One Methodist described him as ‘endowed with instinctive theatrical skills which, combined with his personality, position and piety, made him a superstar on the world stage.’”
But the Protestant observers also offered some “constructive criticism.” One Episcopalian argued that John Paul II’s “hidebound position on birth control seriously damaged Catholicism, as well as the Third World.” Others “chided him for his unbending traditionalism on such issues as the marriage of priests and the ordination of women.” Yet others “said that his intense veneration of Mary and his canonization of a number of highly controversial saints actually widened the gap between Catholicism and Protestantism.”
There were also some comments about the “pageantry in Rome” surrounding John Paul’s funeral and the selection of Benedict XVI. “Too many old men,” a Presbyterian woman charged. A Lutheran added, “Personally, my reading of history makes me think that it’s a holdover from ancient times when they worshipped the Roman emperor.” There were criticisms of the “top-down authority exercised by the Papacy.” A Congregationalist offered that the “unfortunate lack of democracy in Catholicism rules out any serious reconciliation” with Protestants.
What about the evangelicals? “The evangelicals,” according the columnist, “tended to agree emphatically with the Pope on certain explosive issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.” But “they objected forcefully to Roman Catholic teachings on such matters as sacramentalism, Mary and the saints, and purgatory.” A Pentacostalist added, “We’ll be praying that the new Pope just follows the Bible.”
“Progressive” Catholics have been heard from as well. A reader from Florida forwarded a column by Frank Brady entitled “Reform-minded pope could restore church’s influence.” It appeared originally in the Irish Echo, a New York-based weekly newspaper with mainly a first-generation Irish-American audience. Brady was not pleased with the selection of Benedict XVI. He thinks he will be “as doctrinaire and dogmatic as his predecessor,” who, says Brady, “despite enormous popularity and prestige, expedited the decline of the church in the Western world.” He maintains that John Paul II “left behind a highly centralized, polarized and patriarchal institution.”
And what would Brady have Benedict XVI do to end this sad state of affairs? End the “church’s obduracy in maintaining celibacy” for priests. “The removal of celibacy would end the shortage of priests and possibly eliminate pedophilia,” says Brady. The Church should also ordain women and change its teachings on contraception and homosexuality, which, he argues, are “logically indefensible.” Brady is convinced that the Church was heading in the direction he favors in the days immediately following Vatican II, but that “the much-heralded council promised much but delivered little. Aside from introducing the vernacular, cardigan-clad, guitar-strumming priests, and singing nuns in abbreviated head gear and shortened habits, its reforms were superficial rather than substantive.”
So let’s see: All the Church has to do to gain respectability and join the ranks of enlightened institutions in the modern world is change its “hidebound” positions on homosexuality and birth control, abandon its veneration of Mary and the saints and its medieval liturgy, move toward democratizing its decision-making processes along Protestant lines, concede that the Magisterium is invalid and that the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura has been correct all along, and reverse John Paul II on the question of women priests.
With friends like these…. What we would end up with if we followed the above advice is an institution that would make Unitarians look like pillars of orthodoxy. I can see why those who reject the authority of the Church might think that a beneficial turn of events. But it has to be said: This “constructive criticism” is a call for surrender, a proposition that the Catholic Church renounce in public every teaching that those outside the Church find objectionable.
There is no reason for Catholics to be rude when confronted with calls for “dialogue” and “reforms” of this sort. But there is no reason for us to get bent out of shape trying to placate them either. They spring from what Protestantism and Modernism are all about: a rejection of the Magisterium and Catholic Tradition. At the core of Protestantism and Modernism are the convictions that that Rome has no power to teach in Christ’s name and that Catholics are backward for clinging to the notion that the Catholic Church is in any way superior in authority to the wide variety of religious traditions found round the world. Some who think this way took the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI as an occasion to say it again.
Thanks, but no thanks.
James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)