In the Dock: John Paul II

I sometimes get letters of protest when I use the terms “liberal Catholics” and “the Catholic left.” In most cases, I can see the point of the letter-writers.

For example, supporters of the social policies of the Democratic Party will argue that there is no reason to assume that being “liberal” in their economic policies implies that they are less than orthodox about the Church’s teachings in matters of faith and morals. Likewise, those who favor government activism on behalf of racial minorities and the poor argue that calling them “the Catholic left” is unfair in that it implies, they feel, some affinity for the views of men like Stalin and Mao Zedong. Fair enough.

But I am left puzzled about what to do next. There has to be some acceptable shorthand to describe Catholics eager to change many of the Church’s traditional teachings. How about if I use the term “Catholic updaters” in the paragraphs that follow? I don’t think anyone would object to the proposition that the editors of Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter and writers such as Fr. Richard McBrien and Sr. Joan Chittister, as well as those sympathetic to their work, are dedicated to challenging Rome and the hierarchy on what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world.

What has intrigued me of late is how the Catholic updaters maneuvered in the wake of the death of Pope John Paul II. The things they said about him and about the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger to be his successor provide insight into the Church they are looking to create. Their commentary also revealed a deep and serious division in the Church, one that will be difficult to smooth over. It is not always possible to find a reasonable middle ground between the opposed sides in a debate. Sometimes lines have to be drawn in the sand. Not to do so runs the risk of falling into moral relativism and religious indifferentism.

John Paul II understood this reality. For years, he listened patiently to the propositions of the liberation theologians and those committed to the cause of ordaining women as priests. Indeed, his patience with these dissenters angered many Catholics on the Right. But then the former pope drew his line in the sand. He stated firmly that the proponents of these causes were in error and that the Church would not change to accommodate them. Being willing to discuss an issue does not mean being willing to discuss it forever.

Consider the way John Paul II’s papacy has been described by the updaters in recent weeks. They have been all over the talk shows, praising John Paul II for his insistence that the wealthy nations have a moral obligation to share their wealth with the poor nations of the Third World, for his call for the United States and Europe to adopt less restrictive immigration policies, for his opposition to the war in Iraq, for his support of the United Nations, for his opposition to the death penalty, for his advocacy of government-sponsored poverty programs.

On the other hand, they were highly critical of him for his “close-mindedness” on issues such as married priests, women priests, divorce, homosexuality, extra-marital sex, birth control and legalized abortion. They attacked him for his insistence, articulated in Dominus Iesus, that “the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.” For the updaters, whatever good the late pope accomplished took place in spite of his “backward thinking” in these areas.

Here’s my question: How is the above critique of John Paul II’s papacy any different from what you would hear from secular humanists in the editorial offices of the Washington Post and the New York Times and in the faculty lounges at our secular universities? Are not the updaters engaged in a version of what C.S. Lewis called “putting God in the dock,” that is judging God and insisting that He conform to their personal understanding of right and wrong? Are not the updaters saying that, because they have “grown out of” the faith they learned in their youths, the Church has an obligation to catch up with them?

One might object that Catholics on the Right do the same thing; that they also support the Church when its teachings coincide with their personal views. But that is not the case. Catholics loyal to the Magisterium do not support the Church only when its teachings are in line with their personal preferences. On the contrary, they support the Church even when it makes life more demanding and difficult for them in human terms. Life would be easier for traditional Catholics if they were free to divorce and remarry at will, if they could indulge in extra-marital sex without a guilty conscience, and if they could procure an abortion to deal with the difficulties brought on by an unwanted pregnancy.

Catholics loyal to the Magisterium, who strive to live their lives as John Paul II taught, are obligated to deny themselves, to make sacrifices, to surrender their moral autonomy. They cannot always choose the easy way out. They must forsake sensual pleasures. They must be willing to their lives by the teachings of the Church, rather than demand that the pope and the Church change to come into line with whatever new understanding of morality they have come to. In other words, they have to say “No” to themselves.

Well? When do the Catholic updaters say “No” to themselves? “Doing your own thing,” “being true to oneself” and “finding oneself” are maxims that encapsulate the worldview of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, not Ignatius Loyola or Mother Teresa. It is not what Jesus taught: “And he who does not take up his cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for My sake, will find it” (Mt 10:38-39). And, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Jesus offered no qualifier stipulating that we are released from the obligation to obey the will of the Father when doing so clashes with our personal understanding of right and wrong and the “progressive” thinking of our time.

At this point, most updaters will bristle. They will protest that, of course, they do desire to follow the will of the Father. They will argue that doing God’s will is precisely their intention, but that the teachings of the Church do not reflect God’s will on the issues where they are in dissent; that that is why they dissent. Which makes my point: the updaters put their trust more in the politically correct sprit of the times — the morality one might hear expressed in a National Public Radio discussion — than in the Church. That’s the line in the sand.

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

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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