I felt a certain admiration for Pope Benedict as I listened to his final address to the public in St. Peter’s Square. He seemed remarkably honest about the problems in the Vatican which he felt he no longer had the energy to deal with. I’ve watched a lot of high-achievers unable to recognize that they have passed their peak, that it is time to step down, and I thought there was a courageous honesty in that shy smile.
At the same time, something else bothered me. Benedict kept talking about his following the voice of God, and urging his listeners to do the same.
But the age-old question remained un-addressed. The RC Church teaches that we must follow our conscience, no matter how isolated it may make us, no matter what authorities may say, no matter what the cost. So it is no defense that some action may have been legal, if at the same time it was immoral. It was not a defense to say that one was ordered to shove 14 million people into gas chambers during World War II. Or ordered by one’s husband to beat one’s one child to death. It is not a defense simply to follow custom, even if it is a religious custom.
The question, though, is how one knows if what one is listening to is the voice of God. Cromwell was convinced he was listening to the voice of God. The man who shot President Reagan believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to do it. Men and women put to death by the Inquisition of the Church died because they believed they had heard the voice of God. Today thousands of terrorists believe they are being called by God to be martyrs. Our own military personnel often believe that they are doing the work of God.
I can understand saying that I hope I am responding to the voice of God. But that’s not what the pope said. He said he was responding to the voice of God. That sounds like a kind of arrogance to me that makes me very nervous.
It’s that attitude that makes it possible for Church officials to exercise power by decreeing that disagreeing with them is to disagree with God. It’s the grounds on which even today priests and nuns have been silenced or excommunicated for disagreeing with the Vatican about married priests, or the ordination of women, or the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, or the right of divorced people who have remarried to receive the sacraments.