There’s a scene in the 1982 film “Gandhi” where a young collared minister climbs up on the roof of a moving train to join a handful of Indian men sitting there. As they enjoy the steady breeze, one man turns to the reverend.
“Are you Christian, Sahib?” he asks.
“Yes, yes, I’m a Christian,” comes the reply.
“I know a Christian,” says the man. “She drinks blood.”
The reverend is startled.
“The blood of Christ,” explains another man, “every Sunday!”
The difference is that the Communion ritual is only symbolic, right?
In strict Roman Catholic doctrine, sacramental wine is magically transformed into Christ’s blood, and bread into his body. It’s called transubstantiation, and if you are a true Catholic, you’d better believe it’s real.
It’s unlikely many Catholic parishioners believe they’re actually quaffing a bodily fluid.
Yet the immutable, centralized structure of the Church of Rome ensures these ancient superstitions remain firmly entrenched in doctrine.
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — Thursday is his last day on the job — elicited typical frenzied speculation about who will replace him.
Both Benedict and the more charismatic John Paul II before him were hardline popes.
Birth control, abortion and homosexuality repeatedly came under fire. Female ordination was a definite no-no. The church remained as uncompromising as ever, leaving most of its followers more and more alienated.
Still the same
In recent weeks, two prominent journalists have weighed in on the papal phenomenon, and both offer similar conclusions about the untenable future of such an archaic monarchy. Yet both are convinced that whoever the new pope is, it will likely remain business as usual.
In his Feb. 16 column in The Telegram, Gwynne Dyer says the Vatican is set up to be impervious to change.
“Very occasionally some maverick pope tries to change the model, but the system always wins in the end,” he wrote.
“What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernization, which it sees as moral decline. … Benedict XVI and the church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch, because they believe, probably correctly, that full modernization would make them irrelevant.”
Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-
winning U.S. historian and longtime critic of the Catholic hierarchy, is similarly skeptical about change.
“Of course, the pope is no longer a worldly monarch,” he wrote in the Feb. 12 New York Times. “For centuries he was such a ruler, with all the resources of a medieval or Renaissance prince — realms, armies, prisons, spies, torturers. But in the 19th century, when his worldly territories were wrested away by Italy, Pope Pius IX lunged toward a compensatory moral monarchy.”
Among the most curious relics still preserved today is the notion of papal infallibility, which Wills points out was only formally declared in 1870.
“A gift for eternal truths is as dangerous as the gift of Midas’s touch,” wrote Wills. “The pope cannot undo the eternal truths he has proclaimed.”
Wills is heralded by many as one the most innovative Catholic thinkers of the past 50 years. He has also been mercilessly pilloried by traditionalists, who can offer little other than circular faith-based rebuttal.
Yet neither Wills nor Dyer expect any great shakeup in the Catholic Church with the coming papacy.
Will cardinals endanger their hard-fought privileges by electing a game-changer? Would a new pope dare buck the system that put him in power?
Says Wills: “These considerations have given the election of new popes the air of watching Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football, hoping that Lucy will co-operate.”
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.