It was a statement of fear and ignorance by humans who could not see over their horizon. The unseen and unknown acted itself out in various irrational allegories that were characterized by fantasies, sometimes the fantasy of dragons.
While we have discovered that dragons are not real, we still hold fast to what we know, and in a real sense often cling to a “flat world” of ideas. It is safer. That way, we get to hold to what we know and believe. Unencumbered by new ideas, challenges and choice, we do not have to risk a questioning glance at the horizon.
Fortunately for us and for our history, there were always those who wondered what was around the bend, or just beyond the trees. Excited by what was beyond their grasp, they pushed toward the unknown horizon, seeking that which might be new.
We called them explorers or pathfinders, glorified their initiative, and declared them leaders in history. Lewis and Clark sought a northwest passage, Jonas Salk wanted a vaccine for polio, Edmund Hillary needed to climb Everest, and John Kennedy challenged a nation to go to the moon. This is the stuff of Nobel Prizes and historical immortality.
We have finally experienced an African American man, yes he was born here, becoming president, and now a woman is running for the same position… the frontier on our horizon keeps getting pushed outward.
Regularly, Pope Francis looks to a different horizon. Not the one of exploration and discovery, but the horizon of faith, the horizon which is God. As disconcerting as it may be at times for those who hold to a “flat world” of faith, Francis reaches out past the curve of what we supposed to be truth, to see what God has for us if we are willing to explore His horizon.
Recently he moved toward that horizon by appointing 12 persons to the Study Commission on the Woman’s Diaconate. This is the second modern discussion on the issue. In 2002, the International Theological Commission glanced toward this horizon, blinked and left the question open. Perhaps they were influenced by St. John Paul II’s 1994 work, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which closed the door to women being ordained to the priesthood … at least for now.
This new commission will be headed by the Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria, second-in-command of the Vatican doctrinal congregation, and will be staffed by five other distinguished priests and six women. All are teachers or theologians, experts in patristic theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality … each with impeccable credentials.
How long will it take them, and what might they decide? Who knows. Remember it took months for Lewis and Clark to find their way to the Pacific Ocean, years in labs for Jonas Salk, a decade for Kennedy’s ideal to be realized, and multiple attempts by Hillary. It also took almost 150 years after the Civil War to elect a black man as president, and if we choose a woman this election, it will be almost 100 years since women, granted suffrage in a Constitutional Amendment, gained the vote. I don’t expect the results to be imminent. But then Francis has a keen imagination and a curious mind, as I said … who knows?
The horizon always holds a surprise, so cling tight to your “flat world.”
Ted Furlow recently retired as Director of Pastoral Planning and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.