It is an age-old temptation for popes and their bureaucracies to edge across the line between interpreting God and playing God. The Almighty is so darned aloof, so circumspect — who can blame humans for speaking on God’s behalf?
But here’s what it means to believe in a force of infinite scope and power, a self-defining Creator who makes all things and knows all things: God can do whatever God feels like doing. A God contained in a book, or a system, or an orthodoxy, is but a force harnessed by humans — no God at all. God cannot be harnessed; that’s built into the definition. Humans, even exalted humans in magnificent palaces shaped by the glory of Michelangelo, see through a glass darkly, while God sees face to face.
An implication of this unharnessed truth is that God is free to go in new directions, or in directions that seem new only to us, while being entirely consistent. Here’s God speaking to the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it?”
I don’t know if God is doing a new thing and those German priests have gotten the message, or if the Vatican is correct about what God wants. But I’m pretty sure the statement “God cannot [fill in the blank]” is just the sort of thing a powerful group of humans might say before God cuts them down to size. A humbler Christian, the apostle Paul, was more cautious when he observed of God: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
The writer Annie Dillard has a proper sense of infinite force. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes of humans at our prayers. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
God “cannot bless sin.” The statement makes sense in terms of human theology, but it begs all the larger questions. For only God fully knows God. Only God can say what God cannot do. And only God knows the boundaries of grace and sin. Blithely invoking so much authority, maybe the Vatican should invest in crash helmets.
Meanwhile, history would say, keep an eye on those Germans. It was a defiant, protesting German priest, after all, who touched off the Reformation some 500 years ago. Martin Luther took exception in his own day to this same Roman heresy: that humans — even a pope — can define God’s power to punish or forgive. The pugnacious monk in 1517 formally rejected the selling of so-called indulgences, by which, for a fee, believers acquired tickets to heaven.
Luther went viral thanks to a new technology called the printing press. Within a few years (lightning speed in the 1520s), Luther’s critique had reached more than 300,000 readers across Europe, sparking over a century of religious wars. In the 1530s, England broke away from Rome to form its own church. A French emigre to Switzerland, John Calvin, launched Protestantism 2.0 in the mid-1500s. And in 1564, the year Calvin died, a child was born in Pisa, Galileo Galilei, whose genius would define the scientific method and further shrink the claimed authority of churches.
Catholic hard-liners are criticizing Pope Francis for extending a hand of healing to Lutherans and tacitly acknowledging that the Vatican was out of line 500 years ago. But will some future pope have to do the same to close the rifts being created today?
A proper attitude of humility would lead to more searching and fewer diktats. Families today are not formed in one way only, through the intercourse of a man and a woman. Families welcome children through adoption, surrogacy and reproductive technology. Maybe God is not as obsessed with sex as humans are, and cares more about mutual love and respect. Maybe God is doing a new thing.