The Benefits of Benedict's Fretting

by Ken Briggs

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Having driven ourselves into a societal frenzy, America in its infinite capacity for seizing opportunity has created an industry for stress reduction. The ideal is to avoid worry. Alfred E. Newman "What Me Worry" is our stiff-upper-lip aim.

But worry has its uses, as Pope Benedict has illustrated in his whatever-it-means statements about condom use. It shows that the pope is worried about a cluster of issues around sexuality, issues that have presumably been as unbudgeable as items in a vault.

That speaks to the humanity and sweeping intelligence of Benedict. Perhaps the same kind of fretting has troubled previous popes in secret, but he has made his quandary public and therefore opened a window into a sanctuary that has seemed so immutable and impervious to change.

The reality of that worry -- and the implication it carries that settled doctrine isn't so settled after all -- provides encouragement to the recently sainted Cardinal Newman who believed that doctrine developed over time through an agency that was subject to error and distortion.

The pope is worried and that gives me hope. It won't please absolutists who will regard this as a dangerous crack in a rock-solid fortress. And it will further call authority into question.

Worry and change are, of course, related only formally, not by necessity. Admitting inadequacies or lack of fuller understanding runs contrary to modern papal practice. The infallibility declaration more than a century ago reinforced that tendency. Actual change may be far off -- or never as apologists defend the pope's condom statements only as a nuanced analysis of what has been traditionally taught.

But because the pope gives signs that he is worrying, it could just happen in a century or so.

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