The pressure on the Church to conform to the norms of liberal, secular societies is enormous. We saw those pressures at work again following the decision of the Pope to resign.
In report after report, commentary after commentary, Pope Benedict was presented as an obstacle to renewal. He was described as ‘conservative’, and it was taken as read that to be conservative is to be such an obstacle.
The reports and commentary then went on to set out what renewal would look like. It was a liberal wish list; women priests, married priests, acceptance of contraception, a more liberal view generally of human sexuality.
Commentators are entitled to their point of view. They are there to comment. But reporters should be careful to give more than one view of the Pope. While many people did indeed see him as an ‘obstacle to renewal’, many others saw him as a man who does what he is supposed to do, namely stand for the Church’s timeless teachings and not bow to popular pressure to change those teachings.
In any case, the notion that the Pope could tomorrow permit women priests or accept same-sex marriage is fanciful to put it at its mildest. The Pope has no authority on his own to change do these things.
At the absolute outside he could himself indicate greater openness (if that is the word) to them, but more likely he would have to summon all the bishops of the world to another council of the Church – a ‘Vatican III’ if you will – before any changes could be made on these matters.
And even then the council would not be as free as some commentators and reporters seem to believe. The council would still have to pay due regard to the tradition of the Church, not to mention Scripture.
The council would have to discern the will of God in these matters and not put its will above His will. It would have to look to the Bible and the continuous tradition of the Church before making any changes to these teachings.
In addition, the bishops and the Pope at such a council would have to consider the effect such changes would have on the unity of the Church itself, on the relations of the Catholic Church with other Churches, and whether these changes would in fact lead to renewal.
There is not the slightest question that changing the teaching of the Church on matters such as women priests and human sexuality would lead to enormous divisions as has happened in other Churches that have gone down that path.
The damage done to relations with the Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy would be absolutely enormous. They would regard the Catholic Church as having fallen into deep error, of having betrayed its own teachings and tradition, and ultimately of having betrayed the will of God.
Finally, changes to these teachings would not lead to renewal because they have not led to renewal in any of the Churches that have introduced them. In fact, they have led to even great disunity, disharmony and faction fighting.
Those Churches haven’t even found peace with the liberal societies that placed such pressure on them to change because there is always one more change they want.
Married priests, women priests, acceptance of contraception, a more relaxed attitude towards divorce and so on has still not led to peace between Anglicanism and Western, liberal societies.
Those societies are now demanding women bishops and acceptance of same-sex marriage.
In addition, the changes they have made have enormously angered the Anglican Churches of the developing world who believe these things, especially regarding sexuality, are Western obsessions that have led many of their Western counterparts down a blind alley.
How tempting will it be for the Catholic Church to go down that same blind alley? There is no doubt that many ordinary Catholics as well as many priests and perhaps many bishops as well, in the Western world at any rate, would dearly love the Church to do so, although they don’t see a blind alley at all, they see the High Road to Renewal.
The cardinals of the Church are already gathering in Rome for the conclave next month that will elect the next Successor to Peter.
They are well aware of the many challenges that will face him because they face them themselves in their own parts of the world.
They will also be well aware that many of the challenges facing the Church in the West are really only local challenges. There is very little pressure in Africa for women priests and none at all to change the teaching on say, same-sex marriage.
Many of those cardinals are coming from parts of the world where the Church faces quite different pressures, for example from violent manifestations of Islam, or in South America, from a strong and vigorous evangelical Protestantism which is claiming many converts from the Catholic Church.
In fact, it is quite simply beyond any Pope to meet these challenges on his own. What he can do is offer strong leadership, to strike an inspirational tone, to show the way to God as best he can. That is enough for anyone to be getting on with, and if such a man can be found from among the cardinals who are under 80, we will be doing extremely well indeed.
Unfortunately, the parochial concerns of the Western media will dominate coverage of the upcoming conclave and therefore we will hear again and again that issues such as women priests and sexuality are the great burning issues of the day and if only the Church could show more ‘flexibility’ on these, renewal would beckon.
There is no evidence whatever that this would happen, however, and plenty of evidence that further disunity and factionalism would result.
Renewal will only come when ordinary Catholics lead the best Christian lives they can with the help of God, know their faith better and have a truly evangelical outlook that seeks to connect others with the community of Jesus that is the Church.
Compared with this, every other path to renewal is a blind alley and we should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.