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A Pope the Laity Wants

A Pope the Laity Wants

by Sister Joan Chittister

from The National Catholic Reporter, 1999.

There's a phrase in canon law that I have always considered both tantalizing - which is no small thing for canon law - and dangerous. Which is to say that I don't have the remotest notion how it got there in the first place and I doubt that they mean it. At least not for a while yet. Nevertheless, the really interesting thing about the phrase is that we are about to test it.

The phrase says that the laity have "a right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the church." (Canon 212, 2-3.) But whoever thought they would? And what do we do with it when they do?

In October, 143 groups of lay Catholics in 27 countries, the International We Are Church Movement, wrote an open letter to the pope, the cardinals and the international press describing the kind of pope they would like to have lead the church in the 21st century (NCR, Oct. 23). They are not arguing for someone of a specific nationality. They're not looking for a man of a specific age. They're not asking for a person with a specific kind of preparation. No, the letter is far more revolutionary than that. These groups are not asking the cardinals of the church to give us a specific person. On the contrary. They are asking for a new kind of person, whoever he is, wherever he's from.

They say they need someone who will listen to all the church, not just the clergy, not just the curia. But if we got somebody like that we'd have to be very careful because needs could begin to be more important than custom, and then what would happen to our being able to use "tradition" as a reason for not doing the gospel?

They say they want someone with a vision of ministry beyond the present clerical system. But if we got someone like that, we'd have churches being opened rather than churches being closed, and we'd forget, maybe, how important it is to God that we be born male.

They say they want someone who taps the conscience of the entire church to see what experience teaches us about sin - its nature and gravity. But if we got someone like that, we might build a Catholic conscience rather than Catholic fear, and how can you control people if you don't use fear?

They say they want someone who encourages a diversity of opinion and enables academic freedom for theologians. But if we got someone like that, we might not find ourselves 400 years behind the moral/scientific development of the human race the next time. We'd recognize that there are questions in the Christian community as well as answers, mystery as well as laws, and then we'd have to admit that there are new questions for which the old answers do not suffice.

They say they want a reconciler who does not pit one part of the church against another part of the church and who recognizes that cultural pluralism is not a threat to faith. But if we got that, we'd have unity as well as a common ritual, and then who would we excommunicate for admitting who they are and what they're thinking about in their search for belief?

They want an ecumenist who respects the faith life in the human heart and knows that God is speaking everywhere to everyone. But if we got that kind of person at the head of the church, how could we assume that all the others had to be like us or, worse, that some were more of God than others?

They want a collaborator who shares governance with all the people of God. But if we got that, we would be giving the church back to the people to whom it belongs - the laity - which could be very disconcerting to those who consider it their birthright, their charism, as Jesus says "to tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others" (Matthew 23:4).

They want a prophet and a lover who can sound the call without crushing the reluctant, the restive and the recalcitrant. But if we had that, we would have a leader rather than a lawgiver, and how papal could that possibly be in a church the pope himself just recently described as "essentially hierarchical"?

And on top of all that, they want someone with a sense of humor who depends more on the charism of the office than the trappings of the role. Now that is funny -- because if we had someone like that we'd have a church that knew the difference between the moral, the immoral and the amoral and lived with it comfortably. We'd have a church that could return to Zion singing rather than arguing. We'd have a pope who acted more like Jesus than like Pilate.

And there's an even greater problem implied in this letter. Not only does the 1983 Code of Canon Law require the faithful to make known their needs, but this reflection on the role and nature of the papacy was requested by the pope himself. So now what do you do with something like this? To maintain the unilateral style of a restoration papacy, it will have to be ignored. To fulfill the commands of an authoritarian papacy, it will have to be considered. See what I mean? Tantalizing -- but dangerous.

The Mahatma Gandhi was once asked, "What is your opinion of Western Civilisation?" He replied, "I think it would be an excellent idea."

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