Right after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict the XVI (is the "the" necessary?), I read in the news - and saw on the telly, of course - that the reaction of some Catholics among us was one of grave disappointment, somewhat to the effect that their church had just been plunged back into the dark age of inquisitorial witch hunts, faggots aflame, thumbscrews, anathemas, crusades, and the whole sorry catalogue of previous offenses. But just as often this downbeat assessment was followed by a note of cheery optimism, which went something along these lines: look, Ratzinger is the result of the previous Pope's legacy. After all, he appointed a huge percentage of the cardinals eligible to vote, so naturally they'd pick his man. But the Church can't keep out the zephyrs of change forever. In 30 to 50 years it probably won't even look the same. We shall see women consecrating the bread and wine. After the Church takes its final step into the modern world by accepting birth control as a reasonable and moral means of spacing children (when we bother to have them at all), we shall see a general clemency issued by the Pope himself for all previous penance imposed upon those who bothered to confess having used it, an absolving of the absolution. In spite of the pathetically fervent and anachronistic desire of some for a return to Latin, we shall see that language purged from the liturgy and fall into its final desuetude. Priests will marry by the boatload, there will be liturgical dancing in the aisles, homosexual "commitments" will be blessed, John Kerry will not be required to impose his faith on himself before receiving communion, and the numbers of the Lord's flock will be increased an hundredfold. And so on and so on.
You've got to hand it to them. They really believe it. They really, really believe it. I heard the same thing after Humanae Vitae. "This is disappointing, but it will change." As John Paul issued encyclical after encyclical reaffirming what had come before, they said it again: "It will change." And they keep on a-sayin' it. Yes, they really believe it. In other words, they have great faith. Faith not in the immutability of doctrine or papal infallibility, but in the inevitability of progress. Since one generation's notion of it must give way to the next advance in our thinking, it seems a rather elusive concept to make the object of one's faith. Progress must always...progress. It's like the logician's infinite regress. The progression of progress. Or is it a tautology, circling back round upon itself? All I know is that it won't hold still. Whereas a doctrine has a destination, progress is like an arrow with no tip, a roadmap with no towns in which to stay the night.
* * *
A corollary (I think) sometimes came to me during John Paul's final years. Did you ever notice how often we saw him seated, leaning on his staff, eyes tight shut in prayer? I often wondered what he was praying for, and what it was like to be him, and what the world must have looked like from where he sat. It is, of course, a tale of "lamentation, mourning and woe." He had authority from God to teach Truth to the whole earth, but the earth wouldn't listen. Even great numbers of his own communion would not listen. He knew he had that Truth - of a God who loves each of us as if there were no other - and wished only to lead us to it. But we are not easily led. We'd like a room in God's house, but only after negotiating the terms of the lease. Some don't want to live there at all. They live for the love of love's opposite.
In any case, it's hard to imagine being in possession of this knowledge only to watch it go unheeded in most parts of the earth, and in the individual hearts of most men. It's as though God had given him a job for which there was no way to measure success except by failure. It's a wonder to me that he didn't die of a broken heart long before the ravages of old age had had their way. There must have been consolations invisible to the earthly eye, through which lens I peer most all the time.