The question may seem ridiculous, and I would certainly agree that the answer is almost certainly no. “Almost certainly,” I say – and then I stop. For something very interesting happened on Friday when Pope Benedict addressed a group of American bishops who had come to Rome to consult with him. In his remarks, according to The Wall Street Journal, he
denounced what he called the failure of priests and bishops to instruct Catholics in core church teachings on human sexuality, saying many Catholics seem unaware that living together outside of marriage was "gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society."
The entire Christian community, he said, must recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity.
"Young people need to encounter the church's teaching in all its integrity, challenging and countercultural as that teaching may be; more importantly they need to see it embodied by faithful married couples who bear convincing witness to truth," he said.
Pope Benedict said a weakened appreciation for traditional marriage and the widespread rejection of responsible sexuality had led to "grave social problems bearing an immense human and economic cost."
In all likelihood, the Pope was responding to the same events that caused me to write American Catholicism’s Pact with the Devil and American Catholicism: A Call to Arms a month ago. In all likelihood, the similarity between my concerns and his stem solely from the fact that his understanding of the dereliction of duty on the part of the bishops, priests, and nuns in the American Church overlaps considerably with my own.
It is nonetheless conceivable that these blogposts were drawn to his attention. On and after 13 February, when Rush Limbaugh devoted two hours of his radio show to reading out and commenting on the first of the two, it drew more than one hundred thousand readers, and in the weeks that have passed since that time I have been deluged with telephone calls, e-mails, and letters from seminarians, clergymen, and lay people – nearly all of them congratulatory. Many of those who wrote had stories of their own to tell that dovetailed with my experience. Most of them expressed gratitude that someone finally had spoken up.
I have no doubt that all over the United States parishioners have inflicted my ruminations on their parish priests and bishops. I clearly struck a nerve, and I would not be surprised to learn that someone in the Vatican took note. I think that I might even be able to put a name on that someone.
I am not especially well connected, but I know a handful of figures of some prominence – and almost a decade ago I had a leisurely lunch with an official high in the Vatican bureaucracy. The subject of our conversation was the state of the American Church, and you can imagine what I said. My interlocutor was in wholehearted agreement with my assessment of the situation, and he told me that help was on the way.
We have not had much contact since. But every once in a while I have heard from him – usually in response to something I wrote or was involved in (e.g., the History Channel series on ancient Sparta). If my post came to his attention, as it might well have done, I can easily imagine his seeing to it that it circulated within the Vatican. I am confident that, for a very long time, the Pope and his advisors have been thinking about the crisis of the American Church, the role played by the sexual revolution in engendering that crisis, and how and when that crisis might be addressed. It is not likely that my blogpost played any role in their deliberations, but it is by no means out of the question.
One thing is clear. The Pope and his advisors are thinking strategically. They regard Barack Obama’s HHS mandate rightly as a catastrophe; and, instead of wringing their hands, they asked themselves what good could be elicited from this catastrophe. And with that end in mind, they have decided to take the challenge posed to the Church as an opportunity to set the American Church on a new course. Though long overdue, this decision is most welcome.
This morning, for the first time since the early 1960s I heard a sermon from a Catholic pulpit on the subject of chastity. Our pastor here in Hillsdale, Michigan prefaced his remarks by observing that those who had issued the HHS mandate had done so on the presumption that, in the United States, the Catholic clergy and laity did not take seriously the teaching of the Church concerning chastity and that the time had come to prove them wrong. It was as moving a sermon as I have ever heard.