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Recent news item: Cardinal Timothy Dolan responds to those (the majority of Americans) who think the Catholic Church is out of touch. Of course, he says. The Church deals with eternals; it is bound to be out of step with our ever-changing, fad-driven world.

Only one problem: No one is asking the Church to hand down a dictate on skirt hemlines this season, or whether pink is the new black. (It isn’t, is it?) There are eternals, and then there are those things thought to be eternal — like the Earth being the center of the solar system — that we learn are simply wrong. Knowledge must not be shunned because it is new. Just ask poor Galileo.

But Dolan’s right about one thing: The Catholic Church is likely to be at odds with Americans because it is not very American. America is all about racing to the finish line and getting there first; the Church concerns itself with shepherding the entire flock to its destination. Americans focus on individual success; the Church with sharing. In many ways, America can be boiled down to its mythologized icons, both real and imagined: We are Daniel Boone, forging the way West, doing just what we want to do — gollblamit! — rugged individualists to the core.

That’s not how the Church works. Take the sacrament of Reconciliation, for example. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but it only takes one person to do it. Reconciliation is different in that it insists on mutuality. And not just between a person and her God, but between the sinner and her Church — the body of Christ. It emphasizes the notion that what we do we do not do in a vacuum: Our actions affect others. And to be truly forgiven demands that both sides are reconciled to one another. This notion hasn’t much place in an America that accepts half-hearted “apologies” from sports figures, musicians and others for their bad behavior but does not demand from them any real action to promote healing. Saying “I’m sorry” is considered enough. And for a minor slip-up, maybe it is. But for ongoing, unrepentant, ingrained proclivities to violence, abuse, prejudice, or hatred, it falls short.

One more funny thing about the American Catholic Church: Most of us tend to be conservatives. I’m hoping Pope Francis will get us to expand our thinking on that front by promoting social justice — which includes working for the poor, immigrants and marginalized among us. Me, I’ve never much understood the correlation between Catholics and conservative thinking. I tend to agree with the great and wise Graham Greene:  “Conservatism and Catholicism should make…impossible bedfellows.” There’s nothing conservative about love. And shouldn’t that be the heart of any religion?

No, I’m not going to go all Chris Crocker on you. It’s just that there’s been a fair amount of flak kicked up around The Pope’s recent announcement that he’s decided to retire. “Retire?” Some query, “I thought the job was for life!” I’ve even heard someone accuse Benedict XVI of betraying St. Peter. Seriously?

At 85, Pope Benedict is no spring chicken. He’s had heart surgery and walks with a cane. He no longer feels that his health is strong enough for him to effectively lead The Church. I think it’s admirable of him to call it quits. The Church needs a strong hand at the wheel, and if he no longer feels up to it, why make him wait out the clock, sick and feeble, unable to be more than a figurehead?

As to St. Peter, yes, he set the precedent of serving as Pope for life. However, our best guess is that he was about 65 when he was martyred, and that’s a long way from 85. He could not have guessed how lifespans would be stretched out in our time, or how much the role of Pope would change.

What’s more, Jesus said nothing about how long The Pope must serve. Our basis for this tradition comes from the idea of apostolic succession. A little flexibility is in order here, as traditions can and do change. When in doubt, the Bible tells us, go with what the Bible says. And since it says nothing about this particular instance, the Pope seems well within his rights.

I, of course, hope that our new pontiff will bring with him a wind of change to reinvigorate and reenergize our Church. It is unlikely. Cardinals tend to be old, conservative and resistant to change, and they vote based on these attributes. I’ve not much to say about any of the names being bandied about by the press; it is too early to judge. But I will say this about America’s “great white hope,” Cardinal Dolan. I hope he is not considered. I find him gleefully dismissive of women, the poor and gays at a time when The Church can no longer afford to alienate these groups. I’ll go further: I don’t think he is a kind person, or a humble one. And if the Catholic Church is to be a beacon of hope to the world, we need the kindest, most humble person we can find at the helm. Our credibility has slipped far enough, thank you very much.

The month to come will reveal much. I find it ironic — or perhaps providential — that this time coincides with Lent. What better time than now, this period of reflection and repentance, to consider what we need in a new head of the Catholic Church? I can only hope the College of Cardinals take their responsibility seriously.

I also hope that we can come together to thank Pope Benedict for his service and wish him well in retirement. I may disagree with some of his beliefs, but I honestly think he did the best job he could do. We cannot ask for more.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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