As the papal conclave moves towards electing a new pope, what does it say about the prospects for real change in the Catholic church when one of its most prominent cardinals says of church teachings: “Let’s perhaps work on a way to wrap it in a more attractive way.”
We are told in the latest New York Times’ gushing profile of the “charming, cheerful cardinal” that Timothy Dolan can “work crowds like a gifted politician,” has a “strikingly contemporary worship style” and a “million-dollar personality.” But the Cardinal, apparently, is also tone deaf.
Lay Catholics are not children to be won over or distracted by prettily wrapped presents. Lay Catholics are not slow to understand and in need of new visual aids or trinkets. New packaging will not help us be more appreciative of old re-gifted teachings that should be put away, not passed on.
The practices of the past have given us the leaders of today. To go forward, we need leaders with better listening skills and some measure of respect for the laity. The extraordinary elevation of the clergy and the over-concentration of power at the top in a climate of secrecy and feudal obedience have had tragic consequences. Children and women and LGBT Catholics have suffered greatly from teachings that have become disconnected from reality.
Shed the Wrappings of Pomp and Secrecy
It is time for the leaders of the church to leave behind the culture of secrecy and monarchical power in which they wrapped themselves for too long. We need a simpler, plainer, church. And clergy less attached to the kind of grandeur we associate with corporate executives and heads of state.
Consider the New York Times’ admiring account of Cardinal Dolan’s round trip in a day using a jet borrowed from a billionaire so that he could “preside at a dinner in Manhattan without missing a meeting in Rome.”
Lay Catholics would be more impressed if he could try walking a little distance in their shoes. Catholics have felt for too long that their concerns are falling on deaf ears. Women are tired of being patronized. Does the Vatican get that? We despair of seeing real change when the old ways seem as huge and immovable as the sculptures of the Vatican. We need to return to the New Testament vision of church as “a community characterized by radical freedom, radical equality, radical sharing and radical service.”
If church leaders could find the courage to dispense with some of the trappings of power and relinquish their attachment to systems of dominance that have long outlived whatever use they might once have had, the radiance of the Gospel might stand a better chance of shining through. And so we pray.