Columnists > Voices

Papal pruning?

A smaller but purer church may actually have more influence

Issue: "Senate wars over judges," May 14, 2005

Spain used to be one of the most culturally conservative, devoutly Roman Catholic countries in Europe. Now Spain is about to pass a law legalizing homosexual marriage and adoption.

When equally Catholic Belgium legalized gay marriage and adoptions, the Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, opposed the action with words. But Pope Benedict XVI, in the first policy test of his papacy, is going much further.

A Vatican official told Spaniards that if the measure passes, they must defy it. Officials should refuse to marry same-sex couples or even process the paperwork if they try to adopt a child. Bureaucrats and others who find themselves complicit in gay marriage or adoption should refuse to obey the law, even if it means losing their jobs.

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"A law as deeply inequitable as this one is not an obligation," said Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia, the head of the Pontifical Council on the Family. "One cannot say that a law is right simply because it is a law." To tell citizens that they should not obey the laws of their country is a very unusual and aggressive action. Said a history professor at a Spanish university, "I had never heard of such a direct call to civil disobedience."

American evangelicals, for all of their political activism, have not gone so far as to tell file clerks in Massachusetts to misplace the marriage records of gay couples, or a worker in an adoption agency to lose the application of homosexuals. And it is not clear that they should. It is a tough call on where to draw the line between Romans 13 ("be subject to the governing authorities") and Acts 5 ("we must obey God rather than men"). It may be easier under Roman Catholicism, with its ancient-and unbiblical-teaching that the church has temporal authority over the state.

Still, if the new pope is going to be this assertive on cultural issues, evangelicals should pay attention. Evangelicals and Catholics have huge-and important-theological differences, but when it comes to pro-life issues, sexual morality, and resistance to militant secularism, they find themselves on the same side of the culture wars.

Some critics say that a hard line from the pope will only increase the secularization of Europe. Eighty percent of Spaniards are Catholic, but only a third of them go to church and follow its teachings. Won't threatening the file clerks just drive them away? If the file clerks disobey and process the marriage licenses and adoption forms despite what the pope tells them to do, will the church excommunicate them? Whether the hard line makes the nominal Catholics quit or if the church expels them, either way the result will be fewer Catholics.

But this brings up the other part of the pope's strategy, one that is even more radical. Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the church needs to get smaller so that it can become purer.

Some observers are interpreting this in institutional forms. "If it's true Pope Benedict XVI prefers a leaner, smaller, purer church as he has spoken of before," said Notre Dame professor R. Scott Appleby, "we could see a withering of certain Catholic institutions because they're not considered fully Catholic. This might include Catholic colleges, hospitals, and other Catholic institutions."

But surely it is precisely the nominal Catholics-those who claim membership but hardly ever go to church and ignore its teachings-that the new pope would be glad to be rid of.

The problem of secularism is not just with the outside culture thinking it can do without God. The deeper problem is that the church itself has become secularized. A smaller but purer church may well have more impact than the diffuse cultural Christianity that has lost its saltiness and its savor.

This is a challenge that evangelicals need to consider. With our megachurch, church-growth mindset, we often assume that bigger is better, and a church with lots of members is a strong church. Is this always true? In our efforts to reach the secular culture, is the secular culture instead sometimes reaching us?

The ideal would be to have both size and purity. But might there come a time when American evangelicalism too will need to be winnowed?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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