Off the Cuff

I write this just as a conclave of cardinals is set to begin selecting the new pope, a process that will provide an important answer for all of us. But let’s begin with the question: In which way are we all headed? I’m referring not just to the Catholic Church, but to society as a whole. One of the legacies of Pope John Paul II was the line he drew in the sand on certain standards: No, there cannot be women priests. Homosexuality is a sin. Priests must remain celibate. The pope took a great deal of heat for being out of step with the times, which of course he was, and pointedly so. That is exactly the dilemma the Catholic Church now faces: whether to cave in and become more modern, more flexible, timely, or to remain an important moral force standing against a society where anything goes.

It is common for columnists like me — especially ones who grew up in another time — to wring their hands over how we’re going to hell in a handbasket. It has been hard to witness, and to put up with, the erosion of ethics in business, the coarsening of public comportment, even the loss of simple etiquette. But what truly frightens people of my generation — of that era when men did not go out in public without a hat — is how we’ve lost the standards for how we, as a society, should act. What moral underpinnings do we live our lives by? The answer, too often, is not church teachings or an ethical philosophy. The answer, too often, is none at all.

This is why Pope John Paul’s seemingly hard-line stance on doctrine was so important not only for Catholics, but for all of us: If you give in on the basic moral structure of your beliefs, you have nothing, the pope seemed to be saying. Whenever he was challenged, say, to let priests marry — or at least to open up the possibility to discussion — the answer was always an unequivocal no. It’s true that many Catholics bend church rules on birth control and other matters to fit modern life. And it would seem to make practical sense for a new pope to make some accommodations, such as giving Catholic women more recognition. (In America, 82 percent of parish jobs are held by women.) But we know what will happen if the church starts to give in to 21st-century realities of sexuality and other questionable behaviors: It would be one more sign of moral relativism, one more message that the lowest common denominator of our culture is dictating how we should all act.

The point is not just developing rules that make everyone happy; the point is that a strong moral framework is necessary to promote acceptable conduct. I understand why atheists think that the 10 Commandments should not adorn courthouse walls. But abolishing the Commandments as a guide because a tiny minority finds references to God offensive is yet another instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; in order to offend no one, we bend over backwards to do away with almost all accepted wisdom.

So this is why I’m very interested in seeing how the Catholic Church selects a new pope. How far do the cardinals give in, in picking a leader who will address the current demands of women, gays and others? Does a modern church mean one that tries to please everyone, or is it possible that age-old standards, even ones that don’t seem to fit our current anything-goes world, will still be adhered to? The answers aren’t just for Catholics. They’re for all of us who are becoming increasingly concerned at our growing reluctance to toe any moral line at all.