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Pope and circumstance
Don’t be fooled again: The Catholic Church wasn’t even all that liberal under Vatican II, when it began expanding into the Third World

NOW THAT THE votes have been counted, the crowds have cheered, and Benedict XVI has been installed, American liberals — both Catholic and non-Catholic — are going to have to come to terms with some hard realities about the pope and the Vatican. More difficult still, they’re going to have to come to terms with their own misconceptions about the past 50 years of papal history and the " liberalism " of Vatican II.

As became clear in all the media commentary on the papal election, the worldwide Roman Catholic Church — especially the rapidly growing communities in African and Asia, as well as large parts of already-Catholic South America — is deeply conservative with regard to sexual issues. The Church, along with its flock, views such matters strictly through orthodox theological and moral lenses. While Catholics in the United States, as well as in European countries such as Germany and Ireland, are far more liberal-leaning in their stands on sexual morality, they make up little more than 10 percent of world Catholicism. (Even in the more-tolerant American Church, 50 percent think Benedict " should maintain the traditional policies of the church, " according to an ABC News poll released on Monday.) The fact that Roman Catholicism — which under the pastoral care of John Paul II became increasingly, and aggressively, involved in secular politics — takes an overwhelmingly condemnatory stance on any deviation from traditional Catholic sexual morality presents a deepening problem for progressives in the United States and around the world.

The reality has yet to sink in. For the past week, the American media have attempted desperately to distinguish Pope Benedict XVI from his former persona as archconservative John Cardinal Ratzinger. Noting his humility and conciliatory statements — he is a self-described " simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyards " — even last Sunday’s New York Times, which had been highly critical of Ratzinger’s work as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a curial institution that oversees Church doctrine and once supervised the Inquisition), managed to rehabilitate him as " shy, orderly, funny " and printed charming stories of his drinking German beer and playing Mozart on the piano. Countless editorials, as well as numerous public statements by American cardinals, have granted a grace period to Benedict XVI to give him a chance not to be Cardinal Ratzinger.

But the problem facing American liberals is far larger and more enduring than anything represented by one man — no matter how objectionable. While liberal pundits have voiced worry that Ratzinger will move the Roman Church further to the right on issues of sexual morality, reproductive rights, and advances in medical science such as stem-cell research, they have, to a large degree, missed the point. The Vatican has been moving rapidly in that direction for close to half a century. Despite popular belief, there has been no radical shift to the right since John Paul II’s ascension to the throne of St. Peter, in 1978. There’s been merely a shift in tone and emphasis.

FOR DECADES, the American liberal establishment and American Catholics have held on to a fantasy of the Second Vatican Council, which lasted from 1962 to 1965, as the defining moment of post-war Catholicism, not just for Europe and the Americas, but for the world. To many people, John XXIII was the Kennedy pope, and Vatican II was his Camelot — a glorious, Roman Catholic version of the New Deal and the New Frontier that would move Catholicism from the medieval past into a rosy future of social equality, in which mass would be celebrated in the vernacular, nuns’ habits would be modernized, and the popemobile would replace the traditional gestatorial chair as a form of papal transportation.

While John XXIII was, indeed, a progressive pope in many ways — his obvious love for the people stood in direct and moving contrast to the public austerity of his immediate predecessor, Pius XII — it is important to remember that he upheld traditional Catholic morality vigorously, in encyclical after encyclical. In his 1959 Ad Petri Cathedram, he affirmed that there was one revealed truth, which was found in Catholicism, and that " [a]ll men ... are bound to accept the teaching of the gospel. For if this is rejected, the very foundations of truth, goodness, and civilization are endangered. " He went on to castigate newspapers, magazines, movies, and television for leading youth astray. In his 1961 Mater et Magistra, he proclaimed marriage " indissoluable " and " subject to the all-holy, inviolable and immutable laws of God, which no man [i.e., non-Catholics] may ignore or disobey. " Lesser known is the 1962 document that translates as " Instruction on Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation, " covering acts of pedophilia in the priesthood; it instructs all bishops worldwide to observe " strictest " secrecy with regard to such matters, imposes such secrecy on accusers, and authorizes " transfer " of the accused. To read a pdf of the document, go to http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Observer/documents/2003/08/16/Criminales.pdf.

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Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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