Recriminations abound. At Immaculate Conception down on First Avenue and 14th Street, where I say Mass regularly, I was this morning required to adjudicate a near-violent dispute between a young black man and an elderly Irish regular at daily Mass. Did or did not George Steinbrenner betray the Yankees by trading Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Jose Contreras, all of whom now loom large in the series between the Astros and White Sox? I was tempted to quote Our Lord, "Who made me a judge between you?" But they would not be satisfied with that. Taking the side of Steinbrenner on anything is a losing proposition in New York. So I opined that 20/20 hindsight is too easy. At the time it may have seemed a smart decision to let them go, but, after what they've done this season, it looks stupid. "The Church is always standing up for the bad guys," responded the young man. I assured him the Church had no official position on George Steinbrenner, but he did not even try to disguise his skepticism. It's not easy being a parish priest. Nor did either of these gentlemen take any consolation from the prospect of the White Sox winning on Tuesday evening, although the elderly regular said he had been to Chicago once and it was "a nice enough town."
Peter Wehner is puzzled, as are others, by the 2005 report of "The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America." The report is issued by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, two of the best scholars tracking marriage and family matters. The divorce rate continues to decline, as do teen birthrates. (But how many are aborting their babies?) On the other hand, the annual number of women marrying has declined 14 percent since 2000, while the number of couples cohabitating has increased 1,200 percent since 1960. Wehner notes that the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when asked what was the biggest change he had seen his lifetime, answered, "The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world." This, he added, took place in "a historical instant. Something that was not imaginable forty years ago has happened." The puzzlement is that, while births to unwed mothers and cohabitation are at an all-time high, other problems are in sharp decline: crime, welfare dependency, drug use, teen sexual activity, and binge drinking, for examples. If there is such progress on these fronts at the same time that the family structure is collapsing, maybe the family is not so necessary as was thought? Wehner suggests a number of sociological ways of addressing that question, all of them more or less plausible. Whatever the possible explanations, however, we should not overlook the obvious fact that cohabitation reflects a declining readiness to make long-term commitments, and surely that has a bearing on human flourishing. And the burgeoning increase in unwed motherhood means that millions of children will never know what it means to have a father. While interesting questions are raised about correlations and causes, none of them bear on the importance of fidelity and fatherhood, which are goods in themselves.
John Allen has done, as usual, a fine job of reporting on the just-concluded Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. The "propositions" approved by the bishops are strong on continuity: reaffirming celibacy as the norm for priesthood, insisting on the indissolubility of marriage, and calling on bishops to be both firm and prudent in dealing with politicians who defy church teaching on the sanctity of life. The Eastern Rite bishops, who do have married priests, strongly underscored the many problems posed by tensions between priestly and familial responsibilities.
Allen thinks there is more flexibility than the propositions suggest when it comes to the possibility of ordaining viri probatolder married men who are tried and testedin situations such as those in Latin America where Catholics sometimes have to go for months without a priest, and therefore without the Mass. The connection between the propositions approved by the bishops and the final exhortation issued by the pope is not always clear. When John Paul the Great appointed me a delegate to the synod on the Americas, it was regularly said in the corridors that "We say what we want to say in the propositions, and then the pope says what he wants to say in the exhortation." I expect Benedict's exhortation will be a major theological statement on the Eucharist, going far beyond, and far deeper than, the practical and pastoral problems addressed by the bishops in synod.
In his first six months, Benedict has been much more accessible than any of the modern popes. He has engaged in extended question and answer sessions with various groups, all of it on the public record. He did a lengthy interview that was broadcast on Polish television on October 16, marking the election of John Paul II in 1978. In the interview he said, "I consider it my essential and personal mission not so much to produce many new documents but to see to it that [John Paul's] documents are assimilated, because they are a very rich treasure, the authentic interpretation of Vatican II."
For all his many accomplishments, history may judge that John Paul's most long-lasting achievement was to provide the hermeneutical key for understanding the Second Vatican Council. It will take a little time to disappear entirely, but chatter about the "pre-Vatican II Church" and the "post-Vatican II Church," as though they are two different churches, is now antiquated. From Our Lord's words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi to the present, there is but one Church, which, for all the controversies and conflicts, is still, in the words of Chesterton, "reeling but erect."
Several readers protest that I was too hard on George Will in my comment on his Sunday column attacking the Harriet Miers nomination. I take their point. I was irritated by his crude references to those whom he described as "crudely obsessed with abortion." The question of whether Mr. Will opposes Roe v Wade was intended to be rhetorical. I know he does.