The headline was so familiar: Yet another group was “challenging the Vatican” on something, this time, on upholding the timeless teaching of the Church that only men are called to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
One can’t really find too much fault with the content of the article, namely that some small groups in North America, Austria, and Australia, the usual lineup, are protesting this particular teaching of the Church.
What one does find frustrating is the tenor of the headline and the article that “the Vatican” has these bizarre, outmoded, oppressive “policies” that need to be “revised” so that such “guidelines of Rome” are brought more in line with enlightened thinking of today.
One would think that leaders in “the Vatican” occasionally meet to decide what “rules” they should issue or reinforce today, or what changes in procedure they should introduce to guarantee that the Church is more relevant.
While this seems to be the presumption of most people who attempt to report on the Church, it is, indeed, a presumption that is invalid.
“The Vatican” is a plot of ground the size of an eighteen-hole golf course on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome. It happens also to be the home of the successor to the man buried on this acreage under the splendid basilica which bears his name, St. Peter’s.
These 108 acres, “the Vatican” have absolutely no authority at all to alter the teaching of the Church. Its sacred duty, rather, is to preserve and hand on the deposit of faith we have received from revelation, from the Bible, from Jesus, from His apostles.
So, to imply that the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, and his closest aides regularly meet as some political entity to read the latest poll and “change Church policy,” like that of ordaining only men, is silly.
Call it whatever you went — “the Vatican,” “Rome,” “the Pope,” “the Holy See,” “the Magisterium” — whatever you call it, it does not “make up,” “change,” or “issue” new doctrines. It inherits them, receives them, “handed on” (from the Latin word tradiitio,) by Tradition.
Yes, it may rethink how the truth entrusted to it might be better explained, or more credibly presented, or expressed in a more contemporary way.
Yes, it might become concerned when it’s clear that a good chunk of people no longer follow a particular teaching or moral precept.
But it does not then call a meeting and vote whether or not to change the teaching.
At times it – “the Vatican,” “Rome,” “the Pope,” “the Holy See,” “the Magisterium” — might even wish it could change certain teachings. For instance, I would wager most bishops, priests, deacons, pastoral leaders, and maybe even the Holy Father himself has, at one time or another wished the Church could alter the teaching of Jesus that marriage is forever, and that one cannot break that sacred bond asunder.
But it can’t, because it didn’t make up the teaching to begin with.
So, plug in whatever word you want in the boilerplate headline: “Group Challenges Vatican on its Policy of __________________” — abortion, marriage, euthanasia, lying, stealing, artificial contraception, sexual acts outside of marriage, ordination of women — fill in the “flavor of the day,” but the headline is still inaccurate: these are not “policies” decided by some person in the Vatican; these are not “bans” put out by some committee. These are doctrines, timeless teachings not ours to alter.
It sometimes seems as if many view the Church as a political institution, with a new pope or new bishop able to set out his own positions and priorities the way an incoming president or governor would. Back in 2009, for instance, when I was appointed Archbishop of New York, I was asked by a reporter how my “policy” on gay “marriage” would differ from the “policy” of Cardinal Egan. I tried to explain, as gently as I could, that the responsibility of any bishop is to clearly and charitably articulate the teaching of the Church, not to establish “policy” on which teaching he will follow and which teaching he will change.
To be clear, yes, the Church does have some “policies” that can be changed, for instance, abstinence of meat on Friday, fasting from food before Holy Communion, or even priestly celibacy. These indeed are part of the Church’s discipline — still not to be dismissed lightly — and can be modified, and there are so many other areas of pastoral strategy where we need vigorous discussion and fresh ideas.
But, sorry, not in the area of doctrine, not part of the Church’s received Tradition. Some might protest, take out ads, have yet another meeting. Go ahead. But, they should at least be accurate: don’t blame “the Vatican” for doctrines you don’t like. Blame Revelation, the Bible, Jesus, and Sacred Tradition. “The Vatican” does not “make-up” teaching, but only passes it on.
In the end, of course, our challenge is not to change the teachings of Jesus and His Church to conform to our whims, but to change our lives to conform to His teaching.
That’s a headline you won’t see.