Next stop, Rome

Posted: Apr 17, 2002 12:00 AM
Well, the Vatican has acted, or at least it has gone through the motions. The Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, who is very bright, a little irreverent and has always a nice ear for the journalistic ricochet, said a couple of weeks ago that observers of the scene had to bear it in mind that the pope is "so infirm" that he is probably not capable of acting decisively. On Tuesday, The New York Times quotes McBrien that the 13 cardinals who are going to Rome to confer with the Vatican are "cheerleaders, these are not bona fide advisers. These are the kinds of people who the church is confident will approve what they've already decided to do."

If the cardinals were something other than mere cheerleaders, what would Father McBrien wish they might accomplish? Some matters get spoken, others not: In the case of the eminent theologian, what he wishes the pope would do is resign. He was never enthusiastic about the present pope. Short of papal resignation, what would he hope for? Well, reforms. Centered, in this case, around sex and marital life.

We read that Phil Donahue is coming back to life on talk television. In his brief exchange with The New York Times Sunday Magazine, he tells us that he had 16 years of Catholic schooling, still considers himself a Catholic, but simply doesn't buy the Vatican code on matters that have to do with sex. For instance, Phil is remarried without having obtained a church annulment of his first marriage, and that is against the law in Catholic doctrine. And then, why should the church oppose prophylactics and abortion and gay sex, in an age of AIDS and illegitimacy and failed marriages?

It isn't that Phil would approve of what the Rev. Paul Shanley from Boston did when he transferred to California, which was to start up a gay hotel. And of course the question of marital constancy isn't just a Catholic problem, though of course Catholics and non-Catholics have identical civil rights. There aren't many Catholics in Arkansas, but Sen. Tim Hutchinson, a family values standard-bearer, has a problem. He is running for re-election but with a wife different from the one of 29 years with whom he had three children.

The whole scene, worldwide, requires attention, and gets a good deal of it, focusing primarily on the U.S. scene. As The New York Times writes: "Although sexual abuse by Catholic priests has come to light in countries like England, Canada, Austria, Germany and Poland, only in places like Ireland and Australia, where the cases were numerous, has the scandal generated the kind of unrelenting outrage and media coverage that it has in the United States."

Although the arguments for the retirement of Cardinal Bernard Law are, in the judgment of many, decisive, the pope won't do more than counsel him to retire. Saint Peter could not depose Saint John or Saint Philip. These were what we now call bishops, and though one assumes the Vatican artillery could bring down any cardinal judged delinquent as cheerleader, moves on that clerical order will not satisfy critics aflame from the current scandals.

What isn't addressed as pertinaciously as the need for Catholic reform is the call for treating sex and its derivatives as unmanageable drives in the human condition. It is one thing to say that a couple who, after however many years, find that life together is intractably painful can be understood to consider a different union. Yet the marriage vow -- not to put it lightly -- should not be lightly taken; a point on which Rome and Little Rock are apparently agreed.

And then, going down the list, should the church be expected to recommend birth control devices, for no other reason than that sex should always be convenient? The authority of Rome in these matters is manifestly as exhausted as it is on the matter of premarital celibacy. But the critics want more merely than theological cohabitation with loose sex; they want a formal capitulation, most specifically: a married clergy and women priests.

That isn't going to happen in the next few days in Rome. "The institution I love," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and a fierce commentator on the awful events involving disgraced and disgraceful priests, "it always crawls, it never runs."

So far, the pope has done nothing more than to repine over the mysterium iniquitatis. Whether he will give concrete form to the grief of the church is a challenge left to his own, prayerful, devising.