Count me as one of those not lining the streets of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. trying to get a glimpse of the pope. This may have something to do with me not being a Catholic.
Of course, I understand Pope Benedict heads the Roman Catholic Church. To those vested in the faith I am sure his visit is a big deal. Even if I were inclined, it would be devilishly hard to even get a glimpse of the man. Getting a ticket to the mass he held today at the new Washington Nationals Stadium was challenging even for devout local Catholics. Most area Catholics will have to be contented watching him on TV. The good news for Pope Benedict XVI is that he picked a wonderful time to pay a visit to Washington. You could arguable that the weather was heavenly inspired: clear blue skies, abundant sunshine, mild winds with flowering trees everywhere.
Yet I find nothing particularly holy about Pope Benedict or the institution he heads. Like most large institutional religions, Catholicism has had big ups and downs. Unless you measure success in souls saved, it is hard to make the case that Catholicism’s pluses have outweighed its minuses. As much as the Catholic Church would like to pretend otherwise, I see it as an institution of men, not of God. It suffers from being guided by men whose lives are so warped from reality they have lost perspective. As a result, they needlessly lead billions down treacherous spiritual paths. It may be true that God’s agenda is very different from that of mans’. However, it appears to this observer that there is a causal relationship between priestly celibacy and priest abuse scandals here in America. It is easy to applaud Pope Benedict’s 25 minutes spent today with victims of priestly pedophilia. Nonetheless, I would feel the contrition were more genuine if the pope required that all priests were bonded by insurance companies. That way if there are any future victims they at least will not have to wait decades and file lawsuits to be reimbursed for the mental health expenses.
I suspect that for every indigent person helped by Catholic Charities there is another soul who was one of its victims. I count myself among its victims. Thankfully, I was never abused by a priest. However, I was abused and witnessed regular physical and emotional abuse from its sisters during nine years of parochial school. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy over the years in part trying to come to terms with the abuse I witnessed. Somehow, I doubt the Vatican will be cutting me any checks.
Catholicism is hardly unique for instilling its values in the young, but few religions are so aggressive cementing a faith. You are baptized as a baby before you can babble a word and without your consent. You are typically confirmed when you are just entering adolescence, and sometimes a little before. This typically occurs at your parents’ prodding and long before you have an adult perspective of whether Catholicism is really a lifelong calling. You learn that even you, a sweet and innocent baby, was born with the stain of original sin. You learn that Jesus is forgiving, but except for a few asterisks, you must depend on your parish priest to act as your intercessor. God may be full of grace, but grace is largely earned by jumping through the hoops of its various sacraments. Your head is filled with beliefs that amount to nonsense, such as the consecrated host is the real body of Jesus and that Mary was immaculately conceived.
It is no wonder then that a church full of such cognitive dissonance is capable of soaring to great heights and falling to such great depths, sometimes at the same time. In many ways, the Vatican embodies humanity in all its highs and lows. For relatively benign and holy popes like John Paul II, there are execrable popes, like Pope Gregory XIII. When French Catholics in 1572 killed somewhere between ten and a hundred thousand French Protestants (Huguenots) on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Pope Gregory was giddy in joy. He took it as proof that God was wreaking vengeance on what he saw as the apostasy of Protestantism. In his glee, he ordered a special Thanksgiving where a Te Deum was sung. To this day, the Catholic Church has not fully apologized for inciting this massacre, although some claim that Pope John Paul II’s 1997 statement amounted to an apology.
I realize my own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is figuratively an ant next to the institution called the Catholic Church. It too has suffered its share of sins. One of our interim ministers some years ago scandalized the denomination by faking some references so he could get a permanent ministry. I heard that some UU youth groups decades ago amounted to free love communities. However, our denomination never caused any wars, or tried to exterminate people who did not share their beliefs. On the contrary, the Unitarians experienced oppression by the early Christian church, which would not tolerate the Unitarian belief that there was no trinity. It is unlikely any of our heroes would qualify as Catholic saints, but had she bothered to twiddle a rosary Clara Barton could give Mother Teresa a run for the money. At least our denomination, rather than indoctrinate someone into a faith, is creedless. Our salvation may feel more ephemeral than eternal, but at least we make no claim to understand the mind of God. We realize that beliefs evolve just as people evolve because beliefs are a human manifestation. Consequently, what suits us today may not suit the changing world of tomorrow.
Pope Benedict of course sees truth like Prudential Insurance sees the Rock of Gibraltar. The same ideas that Jesus preached 2000 years ago remain wholly applicable today. The splintering of religion, and indeed the splintering of Christianity into innumerable denominations, is proof that Pope Benedict should take to heart: that no religion, not even Catholicism, can fit all souls.
The Catholic Church will always appeal to those who value constancy. Increasingly though constancy no longer works in a world that seems to reinvent itself with every generation. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is proof that the square peg of Catholicism no longer fits into the round hole that is modern man. I find it hard to believe there would have been a sex abuse scandal at all had Catholic priests had the privilege of marriage, as they in fact had until about five hundred years ago.
It is a good thing I am not the President of the United States. I would not pander to Pope Benedict the way our president is doing. I would treat him as an honored guest of our country. I would never assert that he is any holier than any of us, only that he is holy to most of the Catholics in our country.
Instead, I might be tempted to preach to the pope. I would preach that the diversity and tolerance, which is built into the fabric of our country is a blessing. I would point out that the diversity of faiths in our country makes us a stronger country and a stronger people. I would celebrate our separation of church and state, one of the most enlightened and brilliant ideas ever practiced by a country, and the secret of our two hundred plus year union. I would show him our version of holy writ, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. These too are solid moorings on how people can be happy and live in harmony. Our political faith is a pragmatic one that works with our natural weaknesses, rather than against them.
I have no doubt that the Pope would be unmoved. He spent too many years learning that the reason the Catholic Church survives today is because of its constancy. Constancy though is actually the faith’s Achilles heel. Because of the constant pruning by its clerics, the faith has become surreal and moribund. It is like a bonsai, always alive, but constantly pruned and propped up so that it can never grow naturally. In the end, it makes it weird and surreal, giving the illusion of wonder but leaving it nonetheless ultimately spiritually bereft.