For the second time within less than two months our television screens are showing us the burial of one pope and the election of another. The consequences of allowing the modern world to see these proceedings twice in such a short span of time may be that they will have to be drastically changed.
Without relying on one of those tiresome public opinion polls, it's still safe to say the last time around ticked off a great many women. Day after day of ceremony, both mournful and joyous, and never a woman not one to be seen doing anything at all. "All those rows and rows of men in their funny peaked hats," is the way one Texas woman expressed her reaction to the completely male rites of Rome.
No more graphic way could be found to signal more than half the population of the world that they have not, do not and will not have any significant role to play in the conduct and governance of the largest of the Christian churches. The idea of women priests or priestesses may be too farfetched for either the Roman or the Greek churches of ancient orthodoxy. After all, the very word priestess smacks of moon worship, Isis and pagan ritual at midnight.
On the other hand, there ought to be some position between lady bishops and the relegation of females to a powerless skittering around of the sort we once associated with the way old-time pastors used to bully and badger the nuns who taught the kids in our parochial schools. If Gloria Steinem could be invited to speak from a Catholic pulpit in Minnesota the other day, it's reasonable to suppose some Catholic women seek the possibility of a different role in religion for themselves.
As the church stands now, it looks half-changed. It's true that the changes that were promulgated as a consequence of Vatican II have caused disruption, dispute and discord within the church ever since. Even for giving up Latin, the Catholic Church has had to pay no inconsiderable price in shaken loyalties and threatened securities.
But once the Catholic Church did change itself, once it had shown that it wasn't an immutable institution, then people inside the faith and out began to measure it against certain kinds of contemporary values and perspective. Pope John Paul apparently had some sense of this, for the National Catholic Reporter notes in its current issue. "He abandoned the extravagant titles criticized by theologians as unscriptural of even pagan - Vicar of Christ, Head of the Church, Supreme Pontiff - and preferred to be known as Pope, Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pastor. Instead of being crowned with the tiara, oriental symbol of regal power, he simply 'inaugurated his ministry as supreme pastor' and had the pallium, the yoke of lamb's wool, placed on his shoulder . . . He was a bishop among bishops, not their lord and master. There will be no going back on this relaxed and modest style and no future pope would dare restore the tiara and the ostrich feathers."
But if there will be no reversion to triumphalism as that sort of Roman pope has been called, will there be a further movement toward redesigning an institution that hasn't looked contemporary in form since the monarchical absolutism of the 18th century? Will steps be taken, for instance, to have laymen and women take part in the election for a pope?
Further changes involve further risks. But doffing the triple crown and other regal symbols doesn't go quite far enough to obliterate the impression the Vatican remains an anachronistic monarchy, tied to the forms and shapes of societies which had completely disappeared by the end of the Second World War. For many who visited St. Peter's, the palace of the popes is already a museum, a place to inspect ineffably valuable works of art.
The church's words can't be heard by people like the non-Catholic woman who saw the televised smoke signals from the Sistine Chapel and, instead of being impressed by the antiquity of tradition, exclaimed. It's like the Shoshone making smoke signals at the Sioux."