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BETSY HART: What picking pope says about culture

by hartmailbox-mycolumn@yahoo.com on March 17, 2013 2:30 AM

And so a new pope has been chosen: Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who will be known as Pope Francis. Best wishes to him and my Roman Catholic friends.

But whatever the significance of the new pope himself, the first ever from the Western Hemisphere, what strikes me most about the big event is the elite conversation surrounding his choosing. For it serves as a window to the narcissism in our Western culture.

Lisa Fullam, an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in California, wrote a column for The Washington Post this past Monday bemoaning everything the Catholic Church teaches on issues of sexuality. From its opposition to birth control and gay marriage to sex outside of marriage. She argues that, instead, experience, how people really live and the choices they make regarding such issues should play a big role in church teachings on these matters. She wrote:

“(I)n contrast to the traditional views of the hierarchy, many contemporary Catholic theologians are moving toward a positive expression of values, virtues, goals and ideals that resonate with the complexities and delights of our sexual experiences. ... Still, church leadership seems far from poised to evolve its understanding of sexuality.”

Yes, in her piece she briefly mentions the need for an appreciation of God’s love to inform our decisions. But she doesn’t mention a need for God’s word. Instead, she argues that “the insights of contemporary biology, psychology, sociology and the arts” when it comes to sexuality are particularly valuable. In other words, determining our path according to God’s love is all fine and good as long as it lets us do what we wanted to do in the first place.

And, along the way, re-create God in our image.

For the record, I’m an evangelical Presbyterian and I disagree with certain Catholic doctrines where I believe there is no biblical basis for them. (Which, yes, some of my Catholic friends surely consider arrogant, too!) But I do not disagree with teachings of the Roman church because they are not “relevant,” or not what I want them to be.

Of course, one could argue that Fullam wrote an opinion piece, not a news story, and she clearly has standing within the Roman Catholic world. Fair enough. And so an even bigger window for me was watching a panel discussion on MSNBC featuring commentators Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle and others as the conclave to choose the new pope began.

Host Alex Wagner noted that “55 percent of the country thinks (Roman Catholic) priests should be able to marry, 58 percent of the country thinks women should be able to be priests. But how optimistic are you that whoever is the next pope will embrace some of that thinking?”

Apparently, such an “embrace” is Wagner’s desire not because she believes God might teach such things, but, rather, because Wagner wants such things.

Matthews responded that what the church should do to remain relevant is to change meanings of significant terms like “marriage.” The church says, for instance, that “you can’t have gay marriage because marriage means male and female; well, that’s the way the term has been used. You (should) change the meaning” to make it mean something larger, Matthews said.

But is it even possible that the definition of marriage comes from God himself and not Matthews, or me, or anyone else?

Apparently unthinkable to some folks.

Such an attitude was put into relief best by Piers Morgan of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” when he said, as The National Catholic Register transcribed it, “I have become increasingly like many young Catholics, I think, really disgruntled by the failure of successive popes and the Vatican to move at all with the times when society is changing so fast.” Well, if the church should change “with the times,” then what purpose does the church serve at all? Why not just hang out at a country club on Sunday mornings instead of being part of such a thing?

Interestingly, Morgan’s guest, the well-known magician and atheist Penn Jillette, argued a faithful Christian’s perspective that whatever one wants to believe, “that still doesn’t mean you get to vote on what God actually believes.”

Thank you.

Of course, it’s not just Fullam, or the MSNBC panel, or Morgan or so many other commentators who were saying such things as the conclave began. The elite response to the selection of the new pope is, more than anything, reflective of a culture that increasingly asks “What do I feel?” as opposed to “What is true regardless of how I feel?”

As a pastor friend recently put it, today we live in a world that has come to believe the most relevant question we can ask is: “What do I think of God?” Instead of what has always been the most relevant question of all: “What does God think of me?”

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