Elayne Clift


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An Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI

Elayne Clift writes, and worries about the future, from Saxtons River, Vt.

21 April 2005

What an awesome responsibility you must feel in these first days as head of the Roman Catholic Church!  For you have large shoes to fill and a huge heart to follow. Your predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was a poet and playwright, a peace advocate, a humorist and a humanist, a humble priest who became a powerful pontiff. His contributions to the world are measurable.  Much beloved by many – Christians and others alike -- he was, nevertheless, like all of us, mortal, and therefore not entirely infallible in matters that affect ordinary people and daily life. His great achievements notwithstanding, he made some mistakes.  And so it is with genuine respect that I offer these thoughts as you embark upon your own Papal journey.

It is an understatement to say that the challenges before you now are great. Poverty, hunger, violence, disease, political unrest, universal human rights and social injustice all loom large as issues you will need to confront on behalf of The Vatican.   I urge you to remember that none of these issues can be properly examined and adequately addressed so long as your church fails to include 52 percent of the world’s population in its deliberations on these matters.  I refer, of course, to the world’s women, who face these debilitating problems every single day of their lives.         

Pope John Paul II was guided by a moral compass with a decided tilt toward the magnetic pole of males.  His belief system and his code of ethics were grounded in an outdated paternalism that alienated not only women, homosexuals, and intellectuals (theologians among them), it also left many liberal Catholics questioning the Church’s moral integrity.  In the eyes of your predecessor, sin always trumped hope. His inflexible traditionalism kept The Vatican in opposition to most of the rest of the world in matters as crucial as reproductive health, controlling the AIDS pandemic, and the civil rights of gay men and women.  Liberation theology, upon which Latin American reform rests, was declared anathema, dashing hopes for justice in many of the regions countries.

Anyone familiar with your own positions on these and other critical issues has reason to worry about what direction the Church will take now.  You have repeatedly condemned “religious pluralism,” stating that other faiths cannot lead to salvation.  You blamed the media for blowing out of proportion the sex abuse scandal in the Church rather than taking responsibility for it.  You wrote the church statement last year that yet again prohibited women from becoming priests and that criticized feminism as ignorant of biological differences.  You also called upon governments to “manage conditions” so that women would not neglect their families if they want to pursue a job.  Yours is a leading voice in the church for enforcing traditional doctrine on homosexuality, extramarital sex and artificial birth control and you have, in an extraordinary show of naivete, condemned the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS.  You have also consistently spoken out against a women’s right to reproductive choice, against stem-cell research, and against death-with-dignity laws.  You have also tried to muzzle political opinion and free speech, writing guidelines for denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

This a worrisome record for someone charged with transitioning the church into the 21st century.  So worrying, in fact, that critics have called your selection “backwards looking” at best, and members of your own faith have expressed concern and dismay.  Theologian Hans Kung, in many ways your nemesis, has said that with you as pope, many Catholics will view the church as incapable of reform.

Both John Paul II and you lived through the upheavals in Europe when it was dominated by totalitarianism, a term you have used in rather alarming ways.  According to Vatican reporter and biographer John Allen Jr., you believe that “the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism.”  You believe, says Mr. Allen, that “the Catholic Church serves the cause of human freedom by restricting freedom in its internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believe.”

For those of us who fear any of the “isms” that can restrict individual freedom, those are alarming words indeed.  They hardly seem to relate to the concepts of social justice, civil rights, or religious freedom. 

Only time will tell whether our alarm is assuaged, whether Catholicism will maintain a human face, and whether as you look down from your balcony in Rome upon the masses, you will see the face of humanity before you.  We can only pray that you do.