Right now, I’m listening to Professor Thomas Madden’s Modern Scholar lectures on the Medieval Church. In one lecture, he talks about how difficult it was for Pope Leo IX to make the necessary reforms to the Church. At the time, secular lords were appointing bishops not because of their qualifications as clergy, but because of their relationships to the lord. In other words, lords put bishops in place that they felt would “go along” with whatever they wanted to do with and in their lands. This led to a rash of corruption, of bishops uninterested in the position for its pastoral significance, who thus disregarded many of the religious rules that were supposed to govern their lives. Pope Leo IX told them that the bishops must stop practicing simony (buying their holy offices) and that they must return to the requirement for celibacy (as many of them kept wives).
Pope Leo’s calls for reform met with great resistance, and Professor Madden cites the illiteracy of the general population as significantly contributing to this resistance. In illiterate societies, traditions and customs become paramount sources of authority. This makes sense to me; if a population cannot read, the best way to maintain order is to keep things the same, so that it’s easy for everyone to retain in memory “the way things are.” Once literacy enters the picture, things understandably change. A written record means that, if laws or customs change, the population has a place to reference these changes; they no longer need to keep all the requirements of their culture within their own minds, and thus a more complex, nuanced society can emerge.
I could relate to Pope Leo’s frustration as the primary reason he encountered for the bishops’ refusal to accept his reforms was, “But this is the way we’ve always done it around here.”
One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is its rich, long history (although that history is not always glorious). But now that so many Catholics are literate, the same, tired response of, “This is the way it’s done” loses its power–and the Catholic church loses its adherents. We can read the Bible ourselves and see that there’s no good Biblical justification for barring women from ordination; we can read theologians and scholars who help us understand Biblical context, and the likelihood that passages about homosexuality have little to say about same-sex love as we understand it today. We can read St. Augustine, and his understanding, still so relevant, that if science contradicts the Bible, we must read those contradictory Biblical passages as metaphor, not as fact. This is especially important as it relates to our GLBTQ sisters and brothers, as science has shown us time and again that same-sex attraction and behavior are not “unnatural” or “intrinsically disordered.”
Ironically, it’s because of the Catholic Church that many of our European ancestors became literate, as the Church is responsible for setting up universities in Europe, and many private tutors were clergy. This is one of the things our church has given us of which we can be truly proud. And largely thanks to the Church, we are no longer illiterate. We can handle change. We’re ready for change, or we’re poised to leave. We’re no longer satisfied to retain tradition merely for the sake of tradition. We need better reasons now for traditions that are unjust, reasons that go beyond “Jesus was a man,” or “Men care about leaking roofs.”
The Church helped us become literate, and for that we can thank them. Now, it’s time for them to finish the job and welcome us more fully to the conversation and the examination of our traditions, and what they mean for us today.