Non-Catholics, and some Catholics too, have been wondering out loud (a lot) about Pope John Paul II's relation to his "subjects" who no longer agree with him on a vast range of issues.
Most of this talk has circled, warily, around the subject of sex, because the pope himself makes so much of such matters. The disagreements here are very salient, and touch clerical celibacy, clerical pederasty, the ban on women priests, contraception, divorce, abortion, premarital sex, masturbation, artificial conception, and so on.
But the pope and the bishops' conferences around the world have taken positions on other subjects about which Catholics disagree -- the evils of nationalism, nuclear weapons, economic maldistribution, racism, and so on. Some Catholics who denounce those who oppose the pope's sexual teaching feel at ease disagreeing with him on some or all these political and economic matters.
Underlying these discussions is an assumption that Catholics are supposed to obey the pope, agree with the pope, submit to the pope. The sight of Catholics resisting their leader is considered something new or unusual -- the result, perhaps, of a licentious modern age or a democratic and individualist America.
But Catholics have often felt that the pope's views were an embarrassment to the faith, something to be put up with or lived down.
In the 19th century, for instance, Pius IX condemned democracy and the supremacy of the individual conscience -- positions only slowly abandoned by Rome in this century, and not definitely renounced until the 1960s.
Does that mean that all Catholics gave up their consciences in the 19th century and opposed every motion toward democracy? No. Many Catholics worked very energetically for such movements. They ignored or evaded the papal thunderings -- the laity especially, but even some of the priests.
In the 16th century, the papal response to the Protestant Reformation was often dunderheaded. Pius V, for instance, excommunicated Queen Elizabeth of England, though the queen was seeking accommodation with Catholic powers abroad and Catholic subjects at home. Her efforts were made difficult by a Parliament heavily Puritan in its makeup, but they were made impossible by the pope's action.
Most Catholics in England knew the papal policy was wrong and stupid, and they worked out ways to maintain loyalty to the queen, even though the pope was prodding them into rebellion. (Some did rebel, subjecting even the loyal Catholics to persecution.)
Why, it may be asked, do Catholics continue to recognize the role of the pope when he has so often been a scandal to the faith? Looked at historically, the present pope is far more benign than past ones have been. Now, we have the odd scandal in the off parish about some pederast priest's activities being covered up. During the Renaissance, pederasty was an open function of the papal court itself. Papal concubines, bastards, procurers were blatant in their activity. There were saintly Catholics then who were far more aggrieved by such sin in high places than we can be at the well-meaning obtuseness of the present pope.
Why, then, do Catholics stay Catholics though the pope is a sign of contradiction? Because the pope is not the church. He is one part of the church, the retentive and administrative part, maintaining continuity and stressing tradition.
Besides, the pope is a symbol of family unity, underlining the fact that Christianity is a people, not a disembodied doctrine. He is father to one of the largest groups in that people. Like most fathers, he is often wrong. But people do not disown their fathers for being wrong; if so, there would be no fathers left.
We hear about the parable of the prodigal son. Dickens claimed that we should pay equal attention to an equally important part of life -- the need to forgive a prodigal father.
Gary Wills is a syndicated columnist.