Is this a gulf of incomprehension that simply can’t be bridged?

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has an interesting piece on his website this week about, inter alia, the journalistic use of the word “policy” to describe the teachings of the Church. He begins by quoting an article:

The headline was so familiar: Yet another group was “challenging the Vatican” on something, this time, on upholding the timeless teaching of the Church that only men are called to the Sacrament of Holy Orders… What one does find frustrating is the tenor of the headline and the article that “the Vatican” has these bizarre, outmoded, oppressive “policies” that need to be “revised” so that such “guidelines of Rome” are brought more in line with enlightened thinking of today…

… plug in whatever word you want in the boilerplate headline: “Group Challenges Vatican on its Policy of _______” – abortion, marriage, euthanasia, lying, stealing, artificial contraception, sexual acts outside of marriage, ordination of women – fill in the “flavor of the day,” but the headline is still inaccurate: these are not “policies” decided by some person in the Vatican; these are not “bans” put out by some committee. These are doctrines, timeless teachings not ours to alter.

The archbishop recalls that on being appointed, he was asked by a reporter how his “policy” on gay “marriage” would differ from that of his predecessor, Cardinal Egan. He tried to explain that the responsibility of any bishop is clearly and charitably to articulate the teaching of the Church, not to establish “policy” on which teaching he would follow and which teaching he would change.

The archbishop’s post reminded me vividly of a series of interviews and discussions I was involved in at the time of the death of the last pope and then a few days later, as we awaited the puffs of white smoke from the consistory chimney and above all at the moment when (blessed moment as far as I was concerned) the words “Cardinalem Josef [long pause] Ratzinger” were enunciated.

First, in the immediate aftermath of Pope John Paul’s death, what did I think of the “policies” of the late pope on the usual series of subjects: women priests, married priests, condoms and so on. What kind of changes of “policy’” did I think the Church needed, and what would the cardinals be voting for? Did I think that if a black African pope were elected, that would bring about a change of “policy” on contraception (answer, no, since the only African papabile was Cardinal Arinze, who on this as on all the teachings of the Church had views identical with those of the late pope, as did all the other African bishops I knew anything about. Reaction from interviewer, an astonished “really!”).

Then, in a television discussion, as I watched the horror on the face of a well-known Catholic commentator who shall be nameless, as the former Cardinal Ratzinger appeared in his brand-new white cassock, the inevitable question: does this mean there will be no changes of “policy” on women priests, condoms, etc etc. My answer: there will be exactly the same changes on basic teachings as if any other pope had been elected: ie zero, no change whatever. Why not? Because the fundamental purpose of the papacy is to make sure that that just doesn’t happen. Not at all, said the still apoplectic liberal Catholic commentator I mentioned earlier, there would have been major changes if Cardinal Martini had been elected: yes, I replied, of course: and that’s why he could never conceivably have been elected. Further splutterings: but I was of course right, and he knew it.

Archbishop Dolan’s piece prompted me to do a Google search for the word “policy”, in connection with the present Pope and his predecessor. I present two of the examples I found: both demonstrate nothing so much as the vast gulf of understanding there is between Catholics and the secular world, a world which really does have the notion that Catholic teachings are just like the “policies” of secular political leaders, infinitely variable in response to an ever-shifting public opinion, and above all a matter for the personal decision of any particular leader at any particular time. Here’s my first example, from a site calling itself

John Paul II was one of the longest-lived and most influential popes in the history of the Catholic Church. For good or for ill, his policies and personality helped shape not only the current character of Catholicism but also the direction Catholicism will take for generations to come. Because of that, it’s important to take the time to carefully consider what his policies were and how they affected Catholics around the world.

This is followed by a number of articles about his views on various subjects: quite interesting if you want to get into the atheist/ agnostic mindset about the Catholic religion. The second article was about the present Pope. A warning: this one is quite nasty (though its cutting edge is blunted by its almost comical crudity); it is, however, equally illuminating about the secular mindset:

Joseph Alois Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, grew up in Nazi Germany. In 1941, at age 14, he joined the Hitler Youth. Pope Benedict XVI worked at Pope John-Paul’s side to enforce the conservative papal policy. In this effort, he was John-Paul’s right hand man. Before ascending to the Papacy, his peers in the College of Cardinals at the Vatican disclosed a few of his descriptive nicknames. One was “Panzer Cardinal” in reference to the German Panzer tank. Other nicknames included “The Enforcer,” and “God’s Rotweiler.” He represents the extremely conservative faction of the Catholic Church that acts as a guardian of orthodox Catholic dogma.

As his policy, Benedict XVI has condemned women priests and married priests. He also labeled theologians who do not closely walk-the-line on the Church’s conservative leadership as heretics. The Pope fervently denounces gays, whom he says suffer from an “objective disorder.”

In 1987, he declared that Jewish history and scripture only lay a foundation for the Catholic religion. When the Jews around the world protested, the Pope insisted that “only in the Catholic church is there eternal salvation”. Many Jews cried out that this position smacked of “theological anti-semitism.”

Blimey: but that’s what many people really do think about Pope Benedict’s “policies”, there’s no getting away from it. This confident piece was written by Diane Clover-Evans, a retired civil engineer: other literary products of her retirement include “Therapy Dog”, a short story in an anthology entitled “Unconditional Love of Pets”, “history articles” in Learning From History (a children’s magazine I suspect parents would be well advised to keep out of the house if they want their children to learn any history) and various short stories. She has also illustrated a work entitled The Four Bunnies.

What comes across vividly is that the teachings of the Church, though they seem to convinced Catholics to represent ultimate sanity, just look weird and “extremely conservative”, even anti-Semitic, to those outside the Church – people like Diane Clover-Evans (who is probably quite sound on doggies and bunnies). How to bridge the imaginative gap between Catholics and the modern world – even whether it’s actually possible for it to be done – is a question we have hardly begun seriously to ask.