The title of this post is a question that I have been privately wondering about for some time now. It’s a question that I was faced with when I began losing my faith a few years ago, and it is a big reason why I left the Catholic Church four or five years before becoming an atheist. I’m making this post because I feel that it has particular relevancy now, considering the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
One of the biggest talking points about the new pope is whether or not he will be more forward-thinking than the last one. By this, people generally mean that they wonder if he’ll change the Church’s stance on homosexuality… or condoms… or divorce… or the treatment of women… or paedophilia… Basically, people want to know if the new pope will bring the Catholic Church in to the 21st century or not. My question for these people is this: why should he?
From the perspective of wanting to keep Catholicism relevant to the average person, the new pope should definitely update some of the things that the church is teaching. But doesn’t that contradict the whole point of not just the Catholic Church, but of any organised religion? By “updating” the church’s stance on things, won’t the new pope be saying that the church was wrong in the past?
Of course, it’s not hard to see where the church has been wrong in the past, and continues to be wrong now, but that’s not the point. The entire point of the Catholic Church is that it relies on a theory of universal morality, and they claim that their morals have been passed down by God himself. For the church to suddenly turn around and say that these things are no longer immoral would be a complete contradiction of their very foundations.
This has not been a problem for the Catholic Church in the past, but it could prove to be one now, where people are no longer afraid to challenge them and the atheist movement is more present in the mainstream. For the Catholic Church to “update” its beliefs, it would have to either claim that morality is relative, not universal, or that they were wrong in the past.
Regardless of whichever of these the church would claim (and I seriously doubt it would be the latter), it would be undermining its own ability to be a pillar of morality for its members. The only thing that sets the Catholic Church apart from any other source of moral guidance is the belief of its members that its morality is being guided by a divine being.
The Catholic Church would have to either say that God was wrong in the past, or that their connection to God was not as strong as they claimed. Either way, they come out badly from the situation.
Not that I think this will matter for any strict believers, as this has already happened in the past. The Bible, which the Catholic Church claims is the one true source of perfect morality, condones slavery, genocide and rape, amongst other things. I think you would be hard-pressed to get a Catholic to support these things, even the Pope.
I know the argument against those things is that they appeared in the Old Testament, but so did the parts about homosexuality, yet the Catholic Church’s stance on the matter is still not very progressive, so I’m including them just to highlight a little hypocrisy in the church. I’m sure I will explore this in much greater detail at some later stage.
Anyway, going back to the original point, about whether or not the new pope should attempt to modernise the Catholic Church or not, I’ll end on this:
If he wants to stop the church from haemorrhaging members like it is now, he’ll have to update the church’s moral code. Even if that means easing off on “the gay issue” and revoking the ban on condoms, I’d expect that would be enough for most people as they’d see the church as slowly coming around to what they believe to be right.
If he wants to maintain the last shred of credibility that the church has in an argument about god-given morality, it must refuse change and alienate itself from the masses. Keep in mind that there are plenty of people who are more than happy to support the church in South America.
Maybe the real question should be whether or not the pope should relocate.