Habemus papam. I heard these words in St. Peter’s Square as a young seminarian on October 28, 1958. My first impression of Pope John XXIII was disappointing. Pope Pius XII was an austere and ascetic figure, but John XXIII was a roly-poly Italian who was waving to the crowd even before he finished his first blessing.

Fast-forward to the present: The intervening years saw John XXIII’s and Vatican II’s call for renewal and reform; the unexpected condemnation of artificial contraception in Paul VI’s Humanae vitae (1968); the ups and downs in his Hamlet-like papacy; and then the long restorationist papacy of John Paul II.

I sat in a television studio on April 19, 2005, and once again heard the words habemus papam—Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. My disappointment was much greater than it was fifty years earlier. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Ratzinger concluded a seven-year investigation of my theological writings in 1986 with the judgment, approved by John Paul II, that “one who dissents from the magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.”

I maintained that my dissent was not from core tenets of Catholic faith, but from noninfallible church teachings. In fact, the U.S. bishops in their 1968 pastoral letter Human Life in Our Day recognized the legitimacy of such dissent if there are serious reasons for it, if the teaching authority of the church is not impugned, and if scandal is not given. My dissent satisfied those criteria. So I asked Cardinal Ratzinger, “Is theological dissent from noninfallible church teaching ever permitted; and, if so, under what conditions is it permitted?” He refused to answer.

Of course, the CDF’s condemnation wounded me. My primary vocation in life is that of a Catholic theologian. I had served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics, and was the first recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award of the Catholic Theological Society for distinguished achievement in Catholic theology. Despite my personal hurt, I recognize that as a result of the condemnation I have more influence in the church now than I would have if I were never condemned—the ironies of history! Above all, I have received much support and encouragement from the people of God.

But I had a deeper theological difference with Ratzinger that has important ramifications not only for theology but also for the life of the church. Ratzinger is a theological Augustinian who equates the heavenly city with the church and the earthly city with the world; hence the strong opposition between the church and the world in his thinking. In the original Italian version of his famous book-length interview with Vittorio Messori (The Ratzinger Report, 1984), Ratzinger stressed the opposition between the church and the North American ethos. He argued that too many Catholic moral theologians in the United States dissent from the church and compromise with a secular ethic that denies the most profound aspect of human nature and leads to a new slavery.

I call myself a theological Thomist—one who accepts the basic goodness of humanity while recognizing that sin often tarnishes human endeavors. History supports this position. At times, the church has learned from the world, as illustrated in the church’s changed views on religious freedom, human rights, the condemnation of slavery, and the equal role of women in society. The church has and should rightly challenge the individualism, consumerism, and quick resort to violence prevalent in U.S. society.

Ratzinger’s church-vs.-world approach was on display in the homily he delivered before the recent papal conclave began, in which he deplored the subjectivism, relativism, and evils of the modern world that are opposed to the gospel and the church.


What Will Pope Benedict Do?


The primary question today on the mind of Catholics and the whole world is: What will Benedict XVI do as pope? Frankly, nobody knows. I do not expect major changes. No matter who was elected pope, there would have been no dramatic changes, especially in the early years of a papacy. That is not the way the Catholic Church operates. This papacy is like to be short and therefore transitional. Benedict XVI will undoubtedly continue along the path trod by John Paul II.

In his first homilies and statements as bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI has distanced himself from the church-vs.-world position. Now he stresses dialogue with the world and all peoples—of all faiths and of none—and insists on inclusiveness. Is this a sign that Cardinal Ratzinger played the role of the enforcer whereas Benedict XVI will pursue the role of pastor?

A major problem with John Paul II’s papacy was its overly centralized and authoritarian nature. The media only accentuated the problem by playing up the imperial aspects of the papacy, perhaps best evidenced by their coverage of John Paul’s funeral and Benedict’s installation. John Paul II’s personal charisma also played into that trope. But the Catholic Church is not a monarchy. We desperately need to re-emphasize the importance of the local and national churches, the collegiality of all bishops together with the bishop of Rome, and the role of all the baptized in the church. I doubt that Benedict XVI will move far in this direction, but at least his lack of charisma will mean the spotlight is not always on an imperial papacy.

The responsibilities of the papacy today are daunting, and all realize that the bishop of Rome needs the prayers of the faithful. In Catholic understanding, the papacy is, above all, the sign of unity. But today we are faced with the very difficult problem of how to achieve unity in the midst of so much legitimate diversity and pluralism in our world. Without a doubt, Catholicism in the past has stressed uniformity rather than a unity allowing for legitimate diversity.


The Unity of the Church


An appropriate motto for the papacy and for all in the Roman Catholic Church today is the famous adage: in necessary matters, unity; in doubtful matters, freedom; in all matters, love. This model gives us the basis for a proper understanding of the papacy, even if there will always be some gray areas as to where we draw the lines. The last papacy claimed too great a certitude for some of its teachings, especially in the area of morality. From a theological perspective, many moral teachings are not part of the core formulations of faith and depend heavily on human reason and experience. Many of the church’s teachings on sexuality fit into that category.

History reminds us that tremendous change has already occurred on marital sexuality based on the experience of Christian people. St. Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries claimed that marital relations were justified only if the couple had the intention of procreation, and even then it would be hard to avoid venial sin. Later, the church recognized that a couple did not have to intend procreation to justify sexual relations. Popes Pius XI and XII went much further, allowing couples to take means to avoid procreation: the rhythm method or natural family planning.

Another example: for seventeen centuries, the Catholic Church taught that collecting interest on loans was against the divine law, appealing to the scriptural directive to lend expecting nothing in return. But in light of reason and experience, the church and the popes changed their teaching.

From an ethical perspective, the more specific and complex the issue becomes, the more difficult it is to claim certitude for one’s position. For example, the Catholic Church accepts the just-war theory. On the basis of that teaching, John Paul II strongly condemned both the first and second Gulf Wars. I think he was correct, and I appreciated his leadership in this area. But in the midst of such a complex, concrete situation, other Catholics might disagree with the papal teaching.

I have often appealed to the well-known Catholic distinction between infallible and noninfallible teaching to distinguish what is essential in Catholic belief and what is somewhat peripheral. I strongly object to being called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Here the insistence on what is necessary and central to our faith is most important. One cannot be a good Catholic and disagree with necessary beliefs such as the Trinity, the creative role of God, the saving role of Jesus, the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit, revelation in the Bible and in tradition, the sacramental life of the church, and the role of bishops in the church. But one can disagree with some teachings that are not infallible, not central, and not certain.

Dissent from noncentral teachings spans the conservative/liberal divide in the church today. Too often dissent is seen as a problem only for liberals in the church. But many conservatives dissent from papal teaching on capital punishment, on opposition to the wars in Iraq, and on some criticisms of free-market capitalism.

Still, the conservative/liberal division within the church is not going away. We have to realize that our primary commitment is to the necessary and central aspects of our faith. We should try to conduct our arguments while sustaining our table companionship with Jesus and with one another. Celebrating and living out of the gift—and challenge—of faith make up the cornerstone of who we are as Catholics.


The Pilgrim Church


The bishop of Rome and all Catholics must recognize the reality of the pilgrim church. Vatican II rightly condemned the triumphalism of the pre-Vatican II church. At that time, the church was thought holy and untainted, totally identified with the reign of God. Vatican II recognized the eschatological tension between the now and the “not yet.” The fullness of the reign of God will come only at the end of time. We as individual Catholics and as a church are pilgrims on a journey. As Karl Rahner remarked, we are a sinful church that is never fully faithful to the risen Jesus.

Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on triumphalism. Many liberal Catholics also expect the church to be holy, perfect, and without stain. Life in the pilgrim church will always know the frustrations, tensions, and weariness of the journey. The changes in the church that we want and work for will not always happen. Disagreement and debate will always be with us.

As pilgrim people in a pilgrim church, we need the virtue of hope. But hope is not hope if we see what it is we are hoping for. To live in hope is not always easy. The pilgrim believer realizes that the fullness of the reign of God and the perfection of the church will never occur in this world. At times, many of us will be tempted to leave the pilgrim church because of our frustrations; only our hope can sustain us and keep us on the journey.

Catholic theology and practice provide some breathing room to those who disagree on some noncentral issues, especially in moral matters. People can make their own conscientious decisions and continue to participate in the life of the church despite practicing contraception, being divorced and remarried, or living in a committed gay or lesbian union. The church has space for practically all of these decisions.

Unfortunately, where it is a question of church structure, there is no wiggle room. Those who struggle for the ordination of women cannot solve the problem in conscience. The institutional church needs to change. I can appreciate why some women have left the Catholic Church. But I admire and support, as much as I can, those who stay and struggle for change. They are true pilgrims who witness to us the meaning of hope.


The Papacy in a Pilgrim Church


The papacy too must live out the reality of the pilgrim church. Yes, the pope and bishops have an official role in the church; but, as teachers in a pilgrim church, they must often learn the truth before they teach it.

The need for the papacy to learn the truth is evident from history. Popes learned the importance of religious freedom, human rights, the meaning of sexuality, and many other things before they taught them. Even in matters central to the faith, the hierarchical teaching office learned its understanding of three persons in one God, two natures in the one person of Jesus, and seven sacraments before it was able to teach them. The teaching office must always be open to learning the truth. This involves listening.

The pilgrim church is a sinful church. John Paul II, probably more than all of his predecessors together, apologized and asked forgiveness for the sins and mistakes of members of the church. But he could not bring himself to say that the church itself was guilty and in need of forgiveness.

If the church is the people of God, then the church itself is sinful, sometimes errs, and sometimes needs forgiveness. In this same context, the papal teaching office must be willing to admit that some of its own teachings have been wrong. Unfortunately, even Vatican II could not acknowledge that existing church teachings were wrong. The best example of that is the teaching on religious liberty. Yes, the church condemned religious liberty in the nineteenth century, but it accepted it in the twentieth century because of changed historical circumstances. There was a time before Vatican II when the teaching denying religious liberty was obviously wrong.

Two reasons seem to prevent the papal teaching office from admitting that its teaching has ever been erroneous. First, the teaching office does not want to accept the reality of a sinful church. Second, church officials are afraid that if they change on one issue, they will open the door to change others. Yes, there is need for change on several issues. But an authentically pilgrim church should not and will not lose face if it recognizes its own failings.

As a Catholic Christian, I respect and love the office of the bishop of Rome. I respect and love Pope Benedict XVI as he tries to carry out his most difficult office. Like all Catholics, I pray daily for the wisdom that he needs. But, while conscious of my own shortcomings, I will continue to offer what I believe are constructive criticisms for the good of the pilgrim church.


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Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: View Contents
The Reverend Charles E. Curran is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.
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