Ever since the election of Pope Francis this past week we’ve heard a lot of commentary on the news about the issues the new pope should address. Last week I was a guest on a TV show on News 12 Westchester with a priest friend of mine, and he was asked if the pope should readdress the issues of women priests, gay marriage, and other controversial teachings. The other priest who was on the panel with me answered the question well, but here is how I would have responded:
When a new president is inaugurated in the United States, he has the prerogative to change certain things that are left to his discretion, but he cannot go and wipe out four amendments to the Constitution. He has to work within the structure laid down in the US Constitution and in law. Similarly, the pope is not an absolute dictator who makes up the rules as he goes along. He may change certain things, but he cannot arbitrarily change the teachings of the faith. To put it another way, we don’t believe something is wrong because the pope says so; we believe it is wrong because God has revealed it to be so. Jesus’ final words to His apostles were not, “go out and take a poll of the people and teach them whatever they think is right.” Rather, He said, “Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The Lord entrusted the truth He revealed to the Church and told the apostles to pass on, guard, and defend that truth for all ages; thus, the job of the Church is to teach and defend the deposit of faith. When a new idea comes along that has not been previously addressed, the Church has the task of examining this new idea in light of the Gospel and, through prayer, determine whether it is consistent with the Truth revealed by Christ in the Scriptures, the authority of the Magisterium, and Apostolic Tradition. When something comes along that is clearly spoken about in one of these three sources, the pope cannot arbitrarily change it without violating the charge of Christ to defend the deposit of faith. The goal of our lives is to go to heaven, which means to be one with God. God is drawing us into union with Him in Christ. Jesus taught and continues to teach through His Church what leads us into unity with Him. If Christ has said it is wrong, no opinion on the face of the earth can change it and make it right.
I like to think of it this way: suppose someone, tired of paying over $4 per gallon for gasoline, observing that water from the garden hose is far cheaper, decides he wants his car to run on water. He even gets 96% of car owners to agree with him, and petitions the car manufacturer to allow them to put water and not gas in the gas tank. All the opinion of those people doesn’t change the fact that the car doesn’t run on water. If the people complain that the car manufacturer lacks compassion and understanding of the people’s difficulties and keeps petitioning every new CEO who comes along to change the “law” and allow the car to run on water, does the manufacturer give in and allow it because the people want it? Of course not! Put water in your gas tank and your car will be destroyed! Similarly, when the Church clearly teaches that any given action (such as any sexual act outside of the covenant of marriage, abortion, etc.) does not lead to union with Christ but instead damages that union, no one’s personal opinion changes that. So anyone who advises us to ignore what the Church teaches and “follow their own hearts” is like telling people it’s okay to put water in the gas tank.
Okay, but how about issues that do not seem to have moral relevance, such as women priests? Some people are clamoring for the Church to readdress this issue. Well, Pope Paul VI did precisely that. He looked carefully at Tradition, at Scripture, and at previous magisterial teachings, and after extensive prayerful study, he defined in the encyclical Inter Insigniores that the Church does not possess the authority to admit women to the priesthood, and that this is a teaching that is part of the Deposit of Faith which must be adhered to by all. Pope John Paul II further defended and upheld this position in his encyclical Dignitatis Mulieris. The question is therefore settled; end of discussion. So those who are still clamoring for women priests are, quite frankly, throwing an ecclesiastical temper tantrum. Like a child who continues to cry and nag when a parent says no, trying to wear them down until they give in and give the child what he wants, so these people continue to cry and carry on, kicking and screaming in their tantrum. This is hardly mature behavior, and hardly what a disciple of Jesus is expected to do. While some issues are within the Church’s power to change (such as married clergy), others are not, such as women priests, gay “marriage”, abortion, contraception, etc. These have been definitively settled by the Church. So let’s end the temper tantrums, but in a spirit of love for the Lord and maturity of action, accept it and move on. The pope can’t change the truth of the morality revealed by Christ any more than he can change the number of legs on a dog.