Just hours after Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement that he would abdicate the papacy, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that “at some point the church will accept contraception and female and non-celibate priests. Could it be in the next papacy?” For years, both those within and outside of the Catholic Church have believed that they are just one pope away from a perfect Church. Similar sentiments were expressed after the death of John Paul II in 2005 and they are already being touted again in discussions over Benedict’s successor.
In a 2005 essay, “Liberal Catholicism Reexamined,” journalist Peter Steinfels wrote that “one definition of liberal Catholicism is simply papal teaching a hundred years too soon.” Such a definition is promulgated by dissidents within the Church that advocate for women’s ordination, reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage.
Yet, more than a decade ago, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George gave a homily that startled many by pronouncing liberal Catholicism “an exhausted project…parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.” Declaring that Catholics are at a “turning point” in the life of the Church in this Country, the Cardinal concluded that liberal Catholicism had shown itself “unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate to foster the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood.” Cardinal George concluded that liberal Catholicism “no longer gives life.”
The Catholic Church, like all institutions, is constantly being reshaped. But for faithful Catholics, this must be guided by the ultimate authority—the Pope, and then the bishops and cardinals, who are responsible for Church teaching on matters of faith and morals. In his almost eight year pontificate, Pope Benedict has appointed 90 cardinals and named many more bishops. These cardinals and bishops, while reflective of the changing demographics within the Church, were not just selected based on their geographical origins, but also because of their courage in defending the traditional teachings of the Church in areas where they are most needed.
Here in America this certainly has proven true. Consider, for instance, his 2009 appointment of charismatic leader Cardinal Timothy Dolan as Archbishop of New York—the face of the American Church who understands the power of using the press and news media to the Church’s benefit. Or the careful appointment of Archbishop Charles Chaput, known for his capable administrative skills and firm defense of Catholic identity, to Philadelphia—an archdiocese devastated by sexual abuses scandals and in desperate financial straits. And most recently, the appointment of Archbishop Cordileone to San Francisco, a bishop best known for his defense of traditional marriage now appointed to city that is least likely to be receptive to his message.
Rather than bowing to dissident theologians and liberal lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful and the George Soros funded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good who are desperate to alter Church teaching, Pope Benedict will leave a legacy of a Church hierarchy that is more united than ever in its commitment to the truths of Catholicism. This commitment is reciprocated by what Catholic commentator George Weigel has labeled as “evangelical Catholicism,”—a faith that is united in its call to lived out holiness, as is evidenced by the current twenty year high in ordination rates to the priesthood, a continued growing Catholic population, and a laity committed to this call. Like his predecessor John Paul II, Pope Benedict will be remembered for his contribution to this renewal—one that will continue long after his papacy comes to a close.
Christopher White and Anne Hendershott are co-authors of Beyond the Catholic Culture Wars, forthcoming from Encounter Books in Fall 2013.