The new pope won't close the U.S. Catholic cafeteria


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JACK CROWE, Columnist

I am a cafeteria Catholic. Married priests: yes. Women priests: yes. Contraception: yes. Gay marriage/civil union: yes. Abortion? Although I am personally against it, like former President Bill Clinton, I think it should be safe, legal and rare.

You see, I am one of those "relativists" who then-Cardinal Ratzinger?#34;now Pope Benedict XVI?#34;condemned during his pre-conclave homily. Let me give you an example. The Catholic Church is against the use of condoms because it interferes with procreation. But condoms can prevent millions of people from contracting AIDS in Africa. It is a no-brainer that the relative benefits of stopping AIDS outweigh the Church's admonition against contraception. So call me a relativist.

If what Pope Benedict seeks is a more orthodox but smaller Catholic Church, he may get his wish. In Germany, the new Pope's home country, less than 15 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly. Germans have voted with their feet, and Cardinal Ratzinger's pre-conclave response was a theological Bronx cheer.

While Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation is a disappointment, it was not unexpected. If the next president of the United States were elected only by Senators appointed by President George Bush, we would not be surprised if the new president sounded a lot like George Bush.

The wishes of the Holy Spirit in selecting the new Pope would have been different if half of the electors were Catholic women, or if Cardinals had wives and children waiting at home for the results. But that is not for me to say because no one ever called the Catholic Church a democracy.

During the conclave, the intellectual property of the Church was controlled by the 115 Cardinals who selected the new Pope, and given the current makeup of the College of Cardinals, no one will be throwing open any windows in the Vatican for the foreseeable future.

But maybe this does not matter. As the College of Cardinals has become more reactionary, the American Catholic Church has of necessity become increasingly lay-driven. While American seminaries close, lay-based pastoral studies programs at Catholic colleges thrive.

In Catholic parishes in Oak Park, the sick are visited by lay people. The kids are educated by lay people. In parishes without regular assigned priests, almost everything is done by lay people. In fact, the shortage of priests may be the best thing that could have happened to liberal and moderate Catholics.

The new Pope's hope that the "dictatorship of relativism" will be superceded by an ecclesiastical dictatorship of the "truth" as defined by him is a pipe dream. Despite the anti-democratic values of the Church, most American Catholics are too well schooled in the political principle of "we the people" to take silly prescriptions like those against contraception seriously. To Ratzinger's suggestion last fall that a vote for a pro-choice candidate like John Kerry for political office is sinful, many American Catholics shrugged and said, "So what?"

Lucky for me, I am not running for public office and there is no official interdict?#34;as Pope Benedict would have it?#34;on my taking communion notwithstanding my relativist heresies. Unless the new Pope sets up theological metal detectors at the front doors of local parishes, in America at least, the cafeteria remains open.

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