Friday, March 9, 2012
If the Vatican Were Run Like A.A.
Bill Wilson was the principal founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that, among other things, calls for turning your will and your life over to God as you understand Him. Curiously, after finding God and sobriety, he never found a church he could belong to.
As a believer without a church, he was in good company: Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and John Wayne come to mind. (The Duke once said, “I believe in God, but not religion. If God wanted us to have religion, he’d have just made one.”) Bill was apparently taken with the Roman Catholic Church and flirted with it, but the deal-breaker at the end was the concept of the infallibility of the pope.
Having grown up in a small town in Vermont, where matters were settled democratically at town meetings at which everyone could be heard and could vote, he simply couldn’t go along with the idea of following the dictate of one man who claimed to be channeling God. That’s why a critical element of A.A. is that decisions are made by “group conscience;” everyone who comes to the meeting gets a say and a vote, and God is presumed to speak through the group as a whole.
Applied to life and institutions in general, I think Bill’s philosophy is the right one, and not just for spiritual reasons. The more people who are involved in a decision, the better it’s likely to be. If nothing else happens, a larger and more diverse participation increases the odds of the key questions being asked. Most bad decisions are the result of not thinking of something that becomes a glaringly obvious problem down the road.
It’s a messy process, to be sure, and sometimes a wrong-headed person or sub-group can hijack the process and lead it down the wrong path. Even when it works, it takes time and compromise, which frustrates those who are absolutely convinced of their righteousness. But over time the right thing happens a lot more often than not.
Bill’s issue came to mind recently during the uproar over the new health care law requiring Catholic secular institutions such as universities and hospitals to provide birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Birth control being against church policy (though widely practiced by actual church members, if you believe the polls), the issue turned into a religious-freedom donnybrook that I won’t go into here.
Buried deep in an article about that controversy was an illuminating point. In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII created a Vatican Council considering reforms within the church. One of the matters on the agenda was ending or relaxing the Church’s outright rejection of birth control. For a variety of reasons, the idea had broad support and was recommended to the pope.
By the time the matter reached the Pontiff’s desk, John had died and Pope Paul VI had taken over. On July 25, 1968 he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which rejected the majority report and upheld the Church’s traditional ban on artificial contraception. In Paul’s remaining ten years as pope, he never wrote another encyclical.
It’s possible that if John had lived long enough to make the decision, it would have been different, and of course every religion gets to decide how it hears God. But if the Vatican were run like Alcoholics Anonymous, and decisions were made by group conscience, the Catholic position on birth control would in all likelihood be far different than it is today. Considering how that would have gone down makes for one of history’s greatest what-ifs.