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The Catholic church has a changing of the guard, but not much else.
By RICHARD AMRHINE
TWELVE YEARS ago, after one of Pope John Paul II's visits to the United States, I wrote a column questioning how the Catholic church could expect to survive in an enlightened age, given its views on such issues as contraception and the role of women in the church.
And in came the letters to the editor. Many of them we printed--many of them we could not. The vast majority asked where I get off questioning Catholic tenets that have been in place for centuries and aren't about to change based on a so-called modern outlook.
I learned a lot from that episode, lessons that were reinforced by the recent death of John Paul and the installment of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Mostly I learned that when it comes to religion, people use very different guidelines and opinions for determining what is right and what is important. In many instances, change is simply not an option.
While I'm unlikely ever to see eye-to-eye with a church that forbids the use of birth control, that would deny a woman's right to control her own body, and that, in my opinion, generally subjugates women, I understand that for so many Catholics, these are issues beyond discussion. Make the priesthood more attractive by allowing priests to marry? Out of the question.
Analysts of the Catholic church described the new pope, the former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as very conservative--a strict constructionist, to borrow a term applied to certain Supreme Court justices and nominees. But the observers added that during his tenure, a pope can change his views as he gains experience in the role. Yet while his papacy may evolve in the coming years, Pope Benedict is not likely to champion revision of church law on the issues mentioned above.
More telling to me was the suggestion, by some Catholic leaders, that Pope Benedict's election sends a message to the world that the Vatican is not averse to a smaller church. If there are sizable numbers of faithful disenchanted with the church's direction, the church will certainly not collapse without them. In other words, love it or leave it. If they were anticipating a new pope who might take a more moderate posture, at least they have their answer.