Abortion: Should a Man’s Wallet Be More Private, Free, and Unregulated than a Woman’s Womb?

Chittister 2

My recent post, “Face It: Donald Trump Is Right about Abortion” drew many responses. (You can read more than 100 of them here.) One comment characterized my position there as “radically pro-choice.” Someone else called it “pro-abortion.”

However, it was not my intention (especially as a Catholic moral theologian) to write a piece that might be interpreted in those ways.

No, I was simply attempting to show that Republican position that “abortion is murder” can be quickly reduced to the absurd.

It was ironic, I suggested, that someone as clueless as Donald Trump should end up being the agent of moral clarity. He did so by verbalizing what the standard Republican position on abortion implies, Viz. that if abortion is murder, those involved should be charged and punished accordingly.

My point was that the immediate vilification of Trump’s impolitic assertion indicated that the judgment that “abortion is murder” is untenable.

What’s not untenable however is the fact that responses to The Donald’s Trumpian logic show that the abortions debate in the public sphere needs a dose of straight talk. So let’s try that out. In the end, it pits women’s sovereignty over their wombs against men’s control of their wallets.

Begin with the fact that few people (if any) are actually pro-abortion. Invariably, it is a painful and regrettable decision usually taken with the utmost seriousness.

From there admit two other facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened after 80 days. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. This means that in a world where as many as 50% of  pregnancies end in miscarriage, half of all “people” are “aborted” spontaneously usually before the mother even knows she is pregnant.

Such facts about miscarriage have led many to conclude that personal life begins well after the moment of conception.  They locate it, for instance, at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

Given such differences, it seems counterproductive to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such imposition from the Taliban. But it has no place in a democracy characterized by separation of church and state.

Instead in a country like our own some compromise is necessary. And that is what happened in Roe v. Wade. There it was determined that in the first two trimesters, the pregnant woman can make a decision on her own and in consultation with her physician. In the third trimester, the state asserts its interest and can make laws restricting abortion to protect the woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.

However a Roe v. Wade approach can never be sufficient for genuine pro-life advocates. Abortion law must be complemented by social programs. These include pregnancy prevention measures – sex education in our public schools along with easy access to contraceptives.

Nonetheless when unplanned pregnancies occur, programs discouraging abortion needs to kick in. These would provide free counselling and pre- natal care for pregnant mothers along with post-natal services for their newborns. Job provisions would be available for new mothers along with free daycare for their pre-school children. Programs would also include low cost housing and (where necessary) help paying grocery bills.

All such measures are genuinely pro-life. They create a welcoming environment for new life.

But this is where the real debate about abortion’s relation to privacy enters the picture. Simply put the question is: which should be more vigorously protected from state intervention – a woman’s womb or a man’s wallet?

Put otherwise, the debate about life-friendly social programs pits on the one hand mostly well-to-do male legislators (in the U.S. Congress and in the Catholic Church) against poor women who cannot obtain abortions abroad. The patriarchs are quite willing to have their laws invade the privacy of a woman’s womb while defending invasion of their wallets to provide a welcoming atmosphere for all the unborn.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has called such typically male attempts to evade responsibility by its true name. She wrote:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Contributing to that broader conversation is what my controversial blog post was about. So is this one.

Tell me what you think.

Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis’ Recent Publication is a Real Cliff-Hanger

Amoris Laetitia

It was like a cliff-hanger novel that had me on the edge of my seat. I’m talking about Pope Francis’ latest publication – his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (AL). In it the pope purposed to gather the contributions of bishops at their extended Episcopal Synod which met over the last two years. The meetings were tasked with responding to the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages (AL 4).

The Exhortation read as if it were the plot of a Wild West thriller:

A backward town has been taken over by a gang of crooks, frauds and perverts. They’re well-entrenched. And the Black Hats have all the locals cowering behind locked doors. Unexpectedly however, a new sheriff shows up with his shiny star and white hat. The gangsters try to bribe him to join up with them. Sheriff Frank is clearly tempted throughout most of the book. But then in the final chapter, without warning he shows his true and familiar colors. In concluding scenes reminiscent of “OK Corral,” the sheriff utterly defeats the Black Hats calling on a secret weapon no one foresaw.

That’s roughly the tale of Pope Francis, his Vatican adversaries, the Episcopal Synod, and Amoris Laetitia.

Beforehand, observers knew that many of the Synod’s participants comprised a dark gang – patriarchal traditionalists stubbornly opposed to any changes in church doctrine. They would surely uphold moralist positions which Nancy Reagan expressed so well: “Just say No!” Reaffirm tradition and law, and expect the faithful meekly to obey.

At the same time, everyone was also aware that Pope Francis’ leanings were in the opposite direction. As new sheriff in town he had won the hearts of the world from the moment he uttered his first papal words identifying him with St. Francis of Assisi — the 13th century friar whose humble simplicity has rendered him the most beloved saint in all of Christian history.

The early chapters of Amoris Laetitia are like listening to the backroom argument between Sheriff Frank and those tempting him to cross over to their dark side. It’s a back-and-forth that has readers wondering which side the pope is really on.

The Black Hat Gang insists on doing things “the way they’ve always been done around here, Sheriff.” This means:

  • No change in the church’s position on contraception (AL 68, 80, 82, 222).
  • Same with abortion (42, 83).
  • Ditto for extra-marital sex (125)
  • And trans gender identifications (56)
  • “Marriage” between same sex partners has absolutely nothing to do with marriage as intended by God (52, 251,292).
  • The divorced and remarried are objectively living in conditions of sin (292).
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden (48, 83).

Sheriff Frank seems confused at first. He retorts:

  • Remember, we’re all just wounded human beings prone to mistakes and recovering within the Church’s field hospital (291).
  • Poverty, immaturity and lack of education force people into apparently “sinful” choices only they can understand (201, 294, 295, 302).
  • Women in particular have a tough time in this “man’s world” (54, 156). Men need to listen to them (203).
  • And if we’re truly reject abortion and euthanasia, we must also firmly reject the death penalty (83).
  • Moreover, objectively speaking, second marriages following divorce are often more loving and healthier than first. The divorced and remarried are not living in sin (301).
  • As for same sex attractions and sexual transformations, remember we’re all male and female to some extent; it’s not simply a matter of biology (56, 286).
  • And none of us needs to answer everyone’s problem (2, 38). That’s what consciences are for (37).
  • Above all, remember square everything with the example of Jesus, his universal love and his prohibition about judging others (58, 79, and 250,296,308).

There’s much more to the argument. But you get the flavor.

What’s important is where the new sheriff comes down – how he defeats the Black Hat Gang in Amoris Laetitia’s happy ending. In short, he fires his “silver bullet” – MERCY. He makes an argument that can only be called a species of  “Situation Ethics.” In the end, he says, mercy dictates that:

  • Although the Black Hat Gang is correct that the objective demands of God’s law must be recognized as applying to everyone without exception (295),
  • Human beings only gradually integrate the law’s requirements over the course of their entire lives (295).
  • This means that circumstances such as immaturity, pace of moral development, lack of knowledge, appreciation of the law, along with a whole host of mitigating circumstances (302) often excuse subjects from the law’s requirements, at least temporarily (295).
  • In the end, conscience, love, and mercy [recognition of life’s “wonderful complications” (308)] are the most reliable guides we humans have (295).

That’s the pope’s final word on the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages.

That, after all, is about as much as Sheriff Frank or anyone can do for Catholics. The rest, as he says, is up to us – and the sovereignty of our consciences.

Face It: Donald Trump Is Right about Abortion!

Trump Abortion

Let me get this straight. Republicans in general argue that abortion is MURDER. Isn’t that so?

In fact, don’t Tea Party extremists sometimes rationalize attacking and even killing abortion providers because the latter are murderers pure and simple? Or have I been somehow misreading those pro-life posters along Interstate 75?  “ABORTION IS MURDER,” the signs announce all the way to Florida.

Yet, when Donald Trump argues that such criminality should be punished in the usual ways, the entire Republican establishment is suddenly shocked and appalled.  Of course (they’re now saying) abortion shouldn’t be treated as murder. Who could possibly make such an insensitive misogynist argument?

Say what? Am I hearing that correctly? Or is there an acoustical problem in here?  Doesn’t all of that sound suspiciously “pro-choice?”  Have Republicans suddenly found Feminist Religion?

To give my questions a finer point: Donald Trump seems merely to be drawing the logical conclusion from the continuously reiterated Republican position on abortion. Though no one (not even The Donald) is crazy enough to say it like this, the argument’s syllogism runs as follows: (1) Abortion is murder, (2).But all murders are capital crimes;  deserving capital punishment; (3) Therefore abortion should be punished by execution or life imprisonment.

Though an inevitable conclusion from the standard Republican position, such logic is scary as hell. So even crazies like Ted Cruz are running away from it.

What is the justification for the Establishment’s sudden shift?

Here’s why: the Republican Party leadership doesn’t want Donald Trump to be the GOP standard bearer next fall. He’s not electable, they think. And he’s not orthodox enough on signature Tea Party issues like well . . . abortion. (Historically, he has waffled on the topic.) So they’ll do anything to prevent his advance – even if it means fudging on one of their signature positions. They evidently hope no one will notice the hypocrisy.

However, the fact that no Republican (except for Mr. Trump) is daring or logical enough to say out loud what Republicans have insinuated all along tells us that something is drastically wrong with not with The Donald, but with the “pro-life” position itself.

In Logic the sequence is called a reductio ad absurdum – a method of proving the falsity of an argument (for instance that abortion is murder) by demonstrating that its conclusion is absurd or untenable.

In other words, when you put words to it and draw the logical conclusion, the contention of the pro-lifers that abortion is murder sounds absolutely crazy to everyone.  Few in the electorate – especially women — will support it. Case closed.

In theology, we call such agreement the “sensus fidelium.” It refers to people’s conclusions about matters of faith and morals (such as abortion) based on common sense rather than the arguments of the experts. Catholic doctrine regards such agreement as infallible.

So Mr. Trump has done it again. Until his arrival, the electorate simply hasn’t heard the absurdity of Republican positions expressed so clearly.

As with other matters (immigration, racism, free speech, torture) Donald Trump in no way deviates from standard Republican craziness. His sin (and contribution) is to expose its absolute insanity for all to see.

Thank God for Donald Trump’s logic and candor! Somehow he’s a better thinker than many of us thought.

Why Male Clerics Promote Papal Teaching on Abortion & Contraception But Not on Climate Change

Patriarchy climate change

Why is it that under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI Roman Catholics heard no end of sermons about the evils of contraception and abortion? And yet today we’ve heard hardly a pulpit peep about Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change – published fully nine months ago. On the contrary, chanceries throughout the country (including the Lexington diocese) have been scrambling to sweep Laudato Si’ under the sanctuary carpet.

Could it be that Pope Francis has touched on an issue that lays moral burdens on men, their businesses and pocketbooks, and not primarily on women? The latter, of course, bear the main burden of unwanted pregnancies. So the all-male clergy has found itself courageously outspoken in defending human life, the “personhood” of fetuses (based on medieval science), and in prohibiting contraception rationalized on a similarly grounded morality of “natural law.” So, papal pronouncements about such questions are definitive, infallible, and universally binding (on women!).

Meanwhile, Laudato Si’ challenges the patriarchal economic system of capitalism, the coal and oil industries, Wall Street, and the one percent. Good Catholic men are up to their necks in all of that. So are bishops and the clergy in general.

So, the “pro-life” hierarchy hastens to distance itself from its infallible leader. They do so even though Francis claims to defend life in ways that far surpass concerns about sperm, eggs, zygotes, fetuses, and stem cell research. He’s defending the future of the planet and the human race!

An example of such double-standard is provided by the Lexington diocese’s Discovering Laudato Si’: a Small Group Discussion Guide. It not only softens Pope Francis’ teaching about climate; it actually contradicts them. For instance:

  • Pope Francis says that the issue of human caused climate change has been settled by the vast majority of climate scientists. The diocesan guide says “The debate will probably not be resolved anytime soon.”
  • Pope Francis writes that addressing the issue is “urgent” and must be confronted “here and now.” The diocesan booklet affirms that we are not called to “rush headlong into the fray. . . We have been given time to reflect, to absorb, to be transformed.” The Church’s slow response, it says, has precedent and purpose.
  • Pope Francis spends the preponderance of his encyclical addressing the structural causes of climate chaos including the unbridled market, the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and even specific issues such as carbon trading. Yet the diocesan booklet says that it is not yet time for “larger responses.” In the meantime, we are told, “Pope Francis has given us many little tasks we can begin right away.” Basically they are to reduce, recycle, reuse.
  • Pope Francis celebrates climate change activists and their organizations. He quotes approvingly from their Earth Charter, recommends boycotts, and employs the language of “climate debt” borrowed from those resisting mining operations in Latin America. Yet Discovering Laudato Si’ discourages such organizing. “Fortunately,” it says, “the Pope is not calling us to ecological crusade.” Joining movements, it adds, is worse than doing nothing.

While all this hesitancy and caution in defense of LIFE writ large? Why the endless chatter about moral obligations primarily directed at women?

Might it be that a pope has finally said something that threatens patriarchy?

As they say, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be the eighth sacrament.

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!

How to Be Pro-Life and Not Just Pro-Birth

Joan Chittister

Recently, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, grabbed some headlines when she took on the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” crowd.

She wrote,

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Sister Chittister’s point is well-taken. Being truly pro-life means joining reluctant mothers in the sacrifices they routinely make to see that their children are fed, properly housed and educated. So claiming to be pro-life while campaigning against food stamps, universal health care, Head Start, and subsidized housing is disingenuous to say the least. It also seems incompatible with defunding Planned Parenthood, our nation’s largest provider of sex education – probably the most effective, non-intrusive birth control measure of all.

And it’s significant that such reminders come from a woman. Women after all are the ones who primarily bear the burden imposed by the narrow pro-birth demands made mostly by men. Women alone are capable of bringing unwanted pregnancies to term. They are the ones who usually end up raising children as single parents.

Meanwhile, it is primarily men who insist that women fulfill responsibilities men themselves cannot fulfill on the one hand, and can easily evade on the other. The men include most prominently celibate Catholic clergy and an overwhelmingly male U.S. Congress. In biblical terms they are (to use Jesus’ words) “experts in the law” who “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and which the “experts” themselves “will not lift one finger” to lighten (LK 11:46). It’s no wonder so many women see pro-birthers as militants in a war against women.

But it’s even worse than that. If abortion is the crime they allege, pro-birthers are criminal accessories. They are co-abortionists. This is because their anti-life policies which deny reluctant mothers sex education, good jobs, decent wages, maternity leave, free child care, programs like Head Start, and subsidized food and housing create an anti-life culture. And that in turn drives desperate women to terminate unwanted pregnancies that will effectively impoverish them.

If lawmakers and religious leaders really care about life and want fewer abortions, they need to create a pro-life culture that invites bringing pregnancies to term. Most obviously, this means that it’s unjust for women to be left holding the bag. In particular it means:

  • Recognizing that the absolute prohibition of abortion endorsed by many Christians is not universally accepted.
  • Realizing that abortion as already restricted (to the first two trimesters) by the Roe v. Wade decision is about as much restriction as possible in such a pluralistic context.
  • In that light, having Christians adopt a prophetic, persuasive approach to limiting abortions rather than a legal coercive one.
  • This means that committed Christians would themselves refuse to abort unwanted fetuses, that they would support others in following suit, and (above all) that they’d promote pro-life measures across the board including anti-poverty legislation, but also advocating war resistance, elimination of capital punishment, and strict environmental protection legislation.
  • Supporting sex education programs like those offered by Planned Parenthood.
  • Changing the patriarchal teaching of the Catholic Church about birth control.

Five Issues for the New Pope to Address — and to guide in his selection

cardinals

So the cardinals of the church are meeting to elect the next pope. Who cares? The media obviously do. The Catholic Church is getting a lot of air time and ink. But some of us might be caught yawning.

The yawn issues from the fact that the last two disastrous papacies (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have so tightly packed the College of Cardinals with reactionary clones of themselves that any hope of rescuing the Romans from their deepest crisis since the Reformation seems remote at the very best.

But if there is hope of such rescue it resides in electing a pontiff who will directly address five issues: (1) summoning an Ecumenical Council, (2) opening priestly ordination to women, (3) abolition of mandatory celibacy for priests, (4) retraction of the prohibition of artificial contraception, and (5) practical adoption of liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor.

To begin with, an Ecumenical Council seems required not only to overcome the impression that the Roman Curia operating in its bubble has become hopelessly corrupt. It is necessary as well to bolster the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about collegiality after the twin papacies just mentioned did all they could to undermine cooperation with rather than dictating to local bishops.

An Ecumenical Council would also demonstrate serious intent to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia which is global in nature and requires global input to solve. Additionally, a general meeting of the world’s bishops would elicit input from theologian-advisers whose creative thought has been devalued over the last 35 years (dumbing-down the church in the process) and whose collective intellectual power transcends the capacity of any new pope who might be elected.

Secondly, the new pope and his Council must address the issue of women’s ordination. Opening the ranks of the priesthood in this way would have a twofold effect. Above all, it would be an act of restorative justice. It would incorporate into roles of church leadership its single most effective and committed constituents – whose contributions have been especially attacked, belittled and denigrated over the final year of Benedict XVI’s reign.

Admitting women to the priesthood would also have the effect of putting into proper perspective papal claims of infallibility. After all, John Paul II recklessly invoked those claims to bolster his untenable position against women’s ordination. By reversing John Paul’s error, any new pope would implicitly abandon the papacy’s indefensible claim to infallibility – and its attendant inability simply to admit error and reverse other mistakes connected with priestly celibacy, contraception, and the handling of priestly pedophiles.

Priestly celibacy is the third issue crying out for attention. To pretend there is no connection between sexual deviance and mandatory celibacy represents a monumental act of denial. Common sense would dictate that suppression of the most basic of evolutionary drives is a recipe for disaster. It is not only connected with pedophilia and misogyny, but with the loneliness that is endemic to the celibate priesthood and central to the ineffectiveness of celibates preaching to congregations overwhelmingly composed of married couples and young people anticipating marriage.

Along with the opening of the priesthood to women, removal of the celibacy requirement would immediately remedy the priest-shortage of the Catholic Church. Simultaneously it would presumably allow the many who have abandoned their calling in favor of marriage to resume the work for which they were trained all those many years. There’s simply no denying that following Vatican II, the cream of the crop was lost to this senseless and counterproductive prerequisite to ordination. It’s time to welcome back the former priests who wish to return.

Equally senseless has been the top-down decision outlawing artificial contraception made by Pope Paul VI and expressed in his 1969 Encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” That document took the decision about contraception out of the hands of the very commission the pope had then appointed to review the church’s traditional teaching. In doing so, Paul VI backed away from Vatican II’s emphasis on episcopal collegiality, and set the stage for the full retreat embraced by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Reversing “Humanae Vitae” would not only rectify a highly questionable teaching on contraception that obviously undermines the Vatican’s teaching on abortion; it would also move the church back on the track towards the democracy portended by Vatican II, but resisted by Rome since the end of the 18th century.

Finally, and most importantly in terms of relevance to the post-modern world, the new pope and the Council he summons must embrace liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. I say “most importantly” because this item unlike the others goes directly to the heart of the Christian faith. Even the inveterate enemy of liberation theology, Benedict XVI in his days as Cardinal Ratzinger, recognized that liberation theology’s commitment to the poor is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And with the majority of church members now located in the developing world, it is indispensable to the church’s relevance to insist that global economic and social policy be made on a percolate-up rather than a trickle-down basis.

Correlatively, a church siding with the poor must insist in no uncertain terms that current military expenditure (especially on the part of the United States) represents robbery from the world’s poor. It is also high time for the Vatican to get out of the banking business and its attendant ties to money laundering, the Italian mafia, and banking system’s inevitable preferential option for the rich.

The retreat from Vatican II represented by nearly 35 years of Ratzinger’s overweening influence as right-hand man of John Paul II and as Benedict XVI was premised on a false hope. Evidently the last two popes imagined that a restoration of a vaguely remembered halcyon past would somehow fill pews and restore order to a church irrelevantly led by a hierarchy of out-of-touch old men. So the two popes doubled down on the old order instead of following through on the promise and risks of Vatican II. The disasters of recent years have shown the foolishness of their wager.

It’s now up to the cardinals and the pope they will select to get the church back on track. The unacceptable alternative is to continue along a path that will inevitably lead to further disaster and continued irrelevance.