12Mar We need a pope able to think, willing to learn

We need a saintly pope, many people say. Perhaps. But I can’t forget the advice of Teresa of Avila, doctor of the church. Given the choice between a saintly confessor and one who is a good theologian, trust the theologian, she wrote. Piety is skin without beef if it lacks understanding. That is why the recent Catholic Scholars’ Declaration calls for intelligent leadership in the church, as I will explain.

I was teaching sacred Scripture in the major seminary of Hyderabad, India, when in 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Its condemnation of artificial means of birth control was a devastating blow to married couples and their pastors in India. I was all the more appalled when I found out that this decision had been taken in spite of the papal commission’s findings. A majority had recommended allowing the responsible use of contraceptives. How could a pope be so unwise, I thought? Three months later, I understood.

As a delegate of the Indian Catholic Biblical Association, I attended a meeting in Rome. Pope Paul VI granted us an audience. I stood close to him. I saw his haggard face and read the anxiety in his eyes. The pope was riddled with fear. It dawned on me that Paul was mentally paralyzed: unable to really grasp the intellectual reasons for changing the church’s traditional stand on birth control. His fear would lead to more disasters.

At the Bishops’ Synod of 1971, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops asked for a study of women’s ministries in the church. The question also arose in India. In a research paper for the All India Consultation on New Ministries in 1975, I concluded: “It is the social ‘myth’ of women’s inferiority that has kept women out of the ordained priesthood.” Unknown to me, the Pontifical Biblical Commission had, during the same year, reported to Paul VI that there are no scriptural objections to ordaining women as priests. Other churches began to ordain women. True to form, Paul panicked.

His encyclical Inter Insigniores of 1976 tried to slam the door shut. It was accompanied by a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that listed the traditional arguments: Jesus did not want women; it has never been done before; women cannot represent Christ; and so on. Now what is significant in all this is that Paul made such a crucial pronouncement on women’s role within just five short years: between 1971 and 1976. And he made it against the advice of his own appointed experts.

The discussion truly was a new question at the time. When I explored the issue in 1975, researching libraries I found that up-to-date publications hardly existed. It was a case of theology having to reexamine the sources.

I do not blame Paul for feeling surprised, even alarmed. Ordaining women as priests would imply major changes. He was right to hold back before committing the church to a definite course. His unforgivable mistake was to refuse to give time for more study and refuse to keep an open mind. Because he did not grasp that he might be wrong, he resorted to suppression. It was a path two of his successors would follow: overly single-minded John Paul II and medieval thinker Benedict XVI.

I am one of the 160 theologians who endorsed the recent Catholic Scholars’ Declaration on Authority in the Church (see www.churchauthority.org). We represent more than 100 universities in more than 20 countries. We have come to the conclusion that at the root of today’s lack of reform in the church lies an abuse of authority inspired by fear and by lack of what may be called collective intelligence.

In today’s world, we have to depend on the wider intelligence of others. We submit ourselves to surgery trusting the knowledge of doctors, nurses and medical researchers. We fly from one city to the next relying on the competence of pilots, aircraft engineers and air traffic controllers. This is why Vatican II told leaders to involve the intelligence of the wider community of faith — which has not happened. To quote the declaration: Bishops should be elected democratically; the laity should be involved in decision-making; bishops’ conferences should be given more autonomy; a Synod of Bishops should exercise real authority.

The academic scene in the church is littered with cases of pioneering theologians censured and dismissed from their teaching posts. They include moral theologians, Scripture scholars, feminists, liberation theologians, church historians and ecumenists. But these are the very professionals whom we as a believing community need to map out new paths in a complex world.

The systematic persecution of our professional thinkers endangers the survival of the church.

Leaders also need flexible intelligence. They should be able to cope with what scientists call a “paradigm shift”: looking at facts from a totally new perspective. When Galileo proved that the Earth moved round the sun, he was silenced. The stumbling block was the literal interpretation of Scripture: “The sun stood still in heaven for a full day” (Joshua 10:13). Darwin’s theory of evolution was rejected because it contradicted the six-day creation story. The conflict was only resolved by the paradigm shift of appreciating “literary forms.”

New scientific insights demand a revised approach to sexual ethics. Hanging on to medieval concepts such as a fixed “natural law” blocks new creative responses. Flexible intelligence reexamines traditional views and grasps that a fresh perspective on ancient questions may hold the answer. The last thing the church needs in our time is the dogged tenacity of closed minds.

Intelligence involves searching, reasoning, discovering unexpected relationships. Intelligence means learning. That is why, while others may call for a saint, I pray for an intelligent pope — whose integrity and courage will make him a saint.

[John Wijngaards is a theologian and writer, professor emeritus of the Missionary Institute London, and at present director of Housetop Centre.]

6 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    I particularly liked his personal story of his encounter with Paul VI. Reading that Pope Paul VI was full of fear!…Wow! This is a powerful testimony!

    I challenge that one cannot be a saint and also very intelligent. As Saint Paul says: “We are to take on the mind of Christ”, and that is what happens with someone who is truly rooted in Christ, who “lives and moves and has their being in Christ”. I believe, a pope needs to be authentically rooted in Christ and needs to have “lost” his life in Christ. A pope who can honestly say, that it is not he who lives but Christ in Him would be a saintly pope and one who is “wise” by the infusion of divine wisdom. That infusion, present with the Word of God, “richly dwelling in him.” That being the case…..intelligence, ought not to be a problem for a saintly person.

  2. Veritas

    But Pope Paul has been proved correct in Humanae vitae. The contraceptive mentality inevitably opened the floodgates to abortion etc. Artificial contraception by its very nature cheapens the realationship between husband/wife. I know, I’m married. Thank God for the Pope’s wisdom.

  3. Pól Ó Duibhir

    He sounds exactly like where I would be coming from if I had stayed with the Church (or it with me, as the case may be).

    The article really resonates.

    Let’s hope, for its own sake, that the Catholic Church gets a mold breaker who will suddenly rediscover Vatican II and also bring in an amnesty for those wronged by the crimes of pride of the current Vatican.

    Nothing short of that is of any use whatsoever.

    I’m not sure that the Holy Spirit is up to that sort of mind bending.

  4. Darlene Starrs

    No problem! We probably have a pope in Francis, the Jesuit, who is both saintly and intelligent! Remember, that St. Francis of Assissi, heard the Lord say to him, “REPAIR MY CHURCH”……perhaps, this Francis of Argentina…..will perhaps also hear the same message, and if he isn’t hearing it now….St. Francis of Assissi might just pass the message along! I have to say, that I’m also pleased as my Father’s name was Francis and my Great Grandfather of Ireland was Francis! This may be a transitional pope with the age of 77, but let us hope that he accomplishes much…..

  5. Winifred

    The wisdom of Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae has been proven. Look what contraception has done to Ireland! Contraception destroys love and replaces it with lust, it devalues women, it encourages fornication, adultery and other sexual deviations, it eventually leads to abortion. It has sexualised our children as it is taught widely even in Catholic schools. It has led to many Catholics leaving the Church because their lifestyles are in conflict with Church teaching.

  6. Lynne Newington

    I’m sure there would be many women sorry seeking a “sympathic priest” with the known side affects of the “pill” when it first came onto the market.
    I have often wondered where the responsability would lay.