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I have faith that the pope reads my On Faith blogs because he followed my advice in a column in 2010. “Popes sometimes choose the name of a previous pope whose reign they wish to emulate. Whether coincidental or not, Pope Benedict XVI can take the same action as a morally challenged namesake. In 1045, Pope Benedict IX resigned.”
However, since the pope has never taken any of my other advice, perhaps I shouldn’t rely on faith to justify a conclusion devoid of evidence.
How much faith do I have that the next pope will be significantly better than the current one? Not much, because Benedict appointed more than 57 percent of the cardinals who will choose his successor. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic, but only because the papal improvement bar is set so low.
Why should I even care who the next very fallible pope is? Thanks to the HBO documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, and other revelations, the world is finally paying attention to pedophilia within the church, and the next pope won’t have as much cover-up freedom as previous popes.
If Catholics choose to be counseled about marital or sexual difficulties by celibate priests, that’s their right. But I’m amazed by a church that opposes both abortion and condom use that reduces the number of abortions; that requires celibacy before marriage, yet opposes masturbation, which makes it easier to remain celibate; that requires married women to be fruitful and multiply regardless of circumstances, but prevents church leaders from being fruitful and multiplying; that encourages monogamous marriage to avoid promiscuity, yet opposes monogamous marriage for committed gays.
I especially worry about an increasingly politically engaged Church that tries to impose its religious prohibitions (contraception, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc.) on non-Catholics. If a pope can ignore the evidence and argue that condom use increases the risk of AIDS spreading, I can argue against a church that is helping to spread a virus that infects the rest of the world, not just its faithful sheep. I wish Catholics would ignore the pontiff when he pontificates theologically, and even more so when he pontificates politically.
Liberalizing any of these prohibitions by a new pope would be an improvement, but I must admit that part of me wants the next pope to be even more severe, and not because I’m a sadist. The scandals, cover-ups, and misogynistic views of the church have significantly damaged its reputation and reduced the ranks of those who adhere to Church doctrine. What if the next pope were the Catholic equivalent of Pastor Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church, whose views make the current pope seem like a gay rights activist? Fortunately, Phelps has a tiny following. Not so, the pope.
My concerns about Catholic Church doctrine affecting the world are mostly sex-related. Morality should not be viewed through the narrow prism of sexual conduct. Although sex is an important part of life, there is much more to life than sex, and much more to morality than sex. Ethical and moral behavior is about treating others with respect, dignity, and compassion.
A lot has already been written about what the next pope should do, and probably won’t do. While I don’t expect “miracles,” I hope for a modest papal change on a position that hasn’t received much attention: the church’s opposition to the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS adopted by the UN General Assembly—“The Holy See does not accept so-called ‘harm reduction’ efforts related to drug use.”
There is conclusive evidence that needle exchange programs are a valuable component in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. I challenge the church to produce even a mustard seed worth of evidence that addicts would stop using drugs if they lacked clean needles. Further, some who enroll in needle-exchange programs develop relationships with their providers, who sometimes assist them in giving up drugs.
If the next pope really wants to help the least among us, he could begin by revising policies that endanger drug-addicted people without the wherewithal to obtain clean needles. The church might choose to believe that telling gays and drug addicts to repent for their sins has been effective, but health professionals who live in the real world recognize drug addiction as a health issue that requires realistic preventive and treatment programs.
The church can cry “abstinence only” until the sperm come home, but lives are being destroyed by this faith-based approach. Drug addicts have been burning while Nero-like popes have fiddled in Rome. It’s time for a change, of popes and of at least a few of the damaging policies that place more emphasis on abstract doctrines than on suffering humans.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.