The Church And Change

A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story on Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The article focused on various aspects of his life and political career, including his religious affiliation and convictions. Senator Santorum is a Catholic, albeit of a particular kind. He attends Sunday Mass along with Justice Antonin Scalia and other prominent Catholics of similar orientation in a church where the liturgy is in Latin and the priest prays with his back to the congregation, just like it was before the Second Vatican Council.

However, the 47-year old senator was only 4 years old when that Council opened in 1962, and only 7 when it adjourned three years later. He never attended a Catholic college or university. He received a B.A. in Political Science from Penn State in 1980, an M.B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. One of his fellow Catholic senators, Susan Collins of Maine, has referred to him as a Catholic missionary in the Senate. She occasionally attends the study group he organized to promote more knowledge of the Catholic faith. Only Republicans are invited.

One is tempted to ask if this is one of those cases of the blind leading the blind (with appropriate apologies for politically incorrect usage). There is a book Catholicism for Dummies coauthored by two priests who also lack theological credentials; but they are "safe" enough to have a regular program on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). In the Times Magazine article, Senator Santorum is portrayed as exuberant over the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope. "What you saw," he claimed, "is an affirmation by the cardinals that the church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2000 years." A remarkable statement indeed from someone who has never had a graduate-level course in church history.

Blessed John XXIII reminded us in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council that history is "the teacher of life." Without a sense of history, one is always vulnerable to the temptation of accepting and repeating generalities that are without factual basis or are contradicted by the facts of history. Many Catholics believe, for example, that only the pope can appoint bishops; but the pope has only exercised that prerogative for the universal church since the 19th century. Before that, bishops were selected by various processes : the most common of which during the first Christian millennium was election by the clergy and laity of the diocese in which they would serve. Today's Catholics take for granted that bishops can be transferred from smaller diocese to larger ones when they are deemed suitable for greater pastoral responsibilities. Yet, in the early Church that was not only uncommon; it was absolutely prohibited, and by no less authority than the church's Council of Chalcedon in 451, the same council that defined the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. [Indeed, the body of a deceased pope, Formosus (891-896) was dug up and placed on trial because he had accepted election as Bishop of Rome when he was already bishop of the diocese of Porto in Italy.]

A few months ago, many people both inside and outside the Catholic Church speculated about whether the new pope would come from Latin America or perhaps from Africa. Throughout the first 1000 years of church history, this would have been unthinkable. Bishops were elected from the local diocesan clergy. Once in office, they remained in the same diocese until death. These are a few examples of changes occurring in the Catholic Church. There are countless others in the realm of doctrine and morals (the Church once approved of slavery, while condemning interest on loans), liturgy (the Mass was originally in Greek, then Latin, and then in many other languages), and even the making of saints (it was not until the year 993 that a saint was canonized by a pope; before then it was a matter of simple acclamation by the people).

Senator Santorum has much to learn about the Catholic church and change. Will he?

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