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A New Dialog for Pope Benedict XVI

By Paul Surlis
Professor Emeritus, St. John's University, Jamaica, NY

Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey has been widely regarded as successful in his ongoing dialog with Muslims. I believe he should initiate another serious dialog, this time with Catholics, the more than one billion members of the Church he heads. And in this dialog at the outset, Benedict should be primarily a listener. The first group he should hear from are women, more than half the membership of the Church and by far its most active adherents. Women would tell Benedict about the need for sympathetic attention to their demands for full, co-equal membership in a restructured Church that adheres to the Vatican Council's demands for structures favoring collegiality at all levels, from Rome to local dioceses and parishes. Only in this way will women's voices be heard on a variety of issues ranging from Church ministry to moral areas. Women who seek access to Church ministry at all levels do not wish to do so in a top down, hierarchically organized Church, where they would be confined to low- level positions without power or influence.

Married women especially see access to safe contraception as a right not a sinful practice. Likewise, women, especially in Latin American countries, where abortion has been outlawed, and where death from unsafe abortions is common, would want to remind the Pope that the Church's own moral tradition allows for abortion in life threatening circumstances. Women would remind the Pope that they are not anti-life when they opt for safe, legal abortion in rare circumstances. On the contrary women have been to the fore in nurturing children down through the ages and are still doing the majority of child raising today often in situations of poverty and violence.

Catholic feminist theologians are leaders in highlighting environmental and ecological issues as life issues on a planetary scale, and they regularly incorporate these concerns into the moral agenda they discuss. Women also oppose nuclear proliferation and excessive militarism which drain money from poverty alleviation, health care, housing and day care for the children of working parents and the Pope should also highlight these issues.

Benedict should hear from survivors of clerical sexual abuse and express the Church's sorrow and determination to see enforcement of conditions necessary to prevent this scandal from recurring. He should encourage bishops to seek justice for survivors in ways that are primarily pastoral not legalistic.

Benedict should hear from priests who have retired from active ministry to marry. They would tell him that marriage is a sacrament in Catholic teaching and that they are prepared to re-engage in active ministry to ensure that no parish lacks liturgical celebration at a time when vocations to priesthood are still in decline.

Benedict would be reminded that we already have married priests in the Catholic Church: formerly Protestant ministers, who became Catholic, have remained married after ordination and the people whom they serve in ministry not only do not mind this development, they scarcely seem to notice. The time for optional celibacy has long since arrived. Far from being an innovation this would be a recovery of ancient church tradition that lasted for more than eleven hundred years of church history.

Benedict should listen to divorced and remarried Catholics at present excluded from Eucharist if unable to obtain annulments. They would remind him of practice in the Orthodox churches where irreparably broken marriages can be departed from and communion can be resumed Benedict should also listen to gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics who presumably are around 6 percent of all Catholics, as they are of the general population. He should reflect on their affirmation that sexual orientation is a discovery not a choice an insight unknown to biblical writers two and three thousand years ago who assumed that all persons were heterosexual and only the perverse opted for homosexual relationships. This insight alone invalidates the shaky biblical strictures condemning homosexuality which have much to do with taboos against non- procreative sexuality when infant mortality was high and a beleaguered Israel needed soldiers and workers for its very survival. And Benedict would be asked to ponder the fact that islavery is endorsed and even mandated far more strenuously than homosexuality is condemned in the Bible. Yet, today slavery is regarded as intrinsically evil and is everywhere condemned even if practiced in places. But if such a turnaround of biblical teaching can occur in the area of slavery why may we not witness a reversal of centuries of misguided condemnations of homosexuality which is increasingly recognized as neither disordered nor sinful when consensually embraced in equal relationships?

Benedict is too good a theologian not to recognize that describing moral rules and strictures that are changeable and are culturally conditioned and have varied over time, as Catholic teaching is misleading both to Catholics and those who are outside the Church but influenced by its positions. There is a hierarchy of truths in Catholic teaching and these revolve around the good news of the divine mystery communicating a share in divine life to humans through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. The moral message of Christianity is primarily about preserving planet earth, our only home, as a sustainable environment for all life, including humans who are invited to live at peace with each other as they press for greater justice, reconciliation and healing.

(This piece is published in the April issue of the Furrow).

Paul Surlis
1684 Albemarle Drive
Crofton MD 21114
Fax: 410-721-2801

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