The Big Cheese


Pope Benedict in 2006 – Wikimedia Commons

The big news in religion over the last couple days is the planned retirement of the pope at the end of the month. It’s a windfall for the religious press because they can spin variants of the same stories until at least the end of the month, and probably through mid-March. I particularly enjoy the stories that explore the reason behind the pope’s retirement, even though he stated it was because of age and ill health. Yes, indeed, he could be lying, but he is old, and he probably will die soon, so I’ll take him at his word. Why give up a job that’s given for life? Unless it’s a conspiracy…

The transition process to elect a new pope is not quick, either, so we will have jokes about creative pope names and smoke colors for some months. We enjoy the somewhat mysterious process by which the new pope is elected, but our interest betrays a attachment we have with singular, visible sources of authority and the work we can do with them.

Blame, for example, is much easier with one visible figure at the top. Our presidents rise and fall based on personal charisma and promises to singlehandedly turn the country in a different direction. Yet we have repeatedly seen change fail to take place at the promised speed, if at all. Rather than lose faith in the rhetoric that promises much and delivers little, however, instead we locate the failure in the man himself and think, “Well, the next one will get it done.” It is easier to blame a single person at the top than take on the distributed bureaucracy that is the hallmark of large institutions or assess our own possible responsibilities for making change.

On the institutional note, there also seems to be significant organizational envy of Catholicism, particularly from the Protestant community, from which many of the barbs about the papacy originate. Catholicism is established on an old model, also seen, for example, in the Roman Empire. Despite accusations of rigidity and inflexibility, the system is designed to accommodate a notable amount of diversity and dissent while still maintaining its structure. In other words, a genuine (or even feigned) loyalty to the structure covers a multitude of other sins. Whereas the hallmark of Protestantism has been factionalism, splitting into separate sects over large and small issues, the Catholic Church has maintained largely a singular identity, much to the chagrin of the thousands of Protestant denominations whose structure doesn’t allow for such cohesion. While many have expressed the waning power of the church in the latter half of the twentieth century, it still commands a more globally distributed following than any other religious tradition. Its hierarchy also effectively mirrors the supposed supernatural hierarchy and the way governments have been structured for centuries. The idea of the big man at the top who lays out the rules and may enact punishment if you don’t follow them is more coherent than the idea of your best bud that wants to talk and hang out with you, and wants you to follows the rules but loves you even if you don’t. This sounds more appealing but may create weaker bonds of loyalty.

Problems such as the sex abuse scandals of the last several decades have plagued the Catholic Church. These have destroyed lives and should be taken very seriously. However, I think the demonization of the institution as an evil organization, or the pope as an evil individual, is a cheap and easy way out of a problem. For Protestants, there is a certain hypocrisy that comes with demonization of Catholicism, as it carried the mantle of Christianity for over a millennia. Without the Catholic Church it is safe to say there would be no Christianity. Consequently, the conclusion that they got it wrong all those years before Luther came along and fixed things up is ignorant. For secularists or atheists, I see a great deal of opportunism that rears its head whenever someone in the church makes an error. The vehemence with which many decry Catholicism is an expression of the very same alienation that originally caused many of them to leave the church.

Why not demonize your fellow Catholic for participating in an institution that allows sex abuse to take place? “It’s not their fault,” you might say. Whose fault is it, then? Is it the fault of those priests who take advantage of their position of power? If that is the case, then it is not just the institution at fault. If the institution is partly at fault, for not taking a more aggressive stance against abuse (a statement with which I agree), then there is a shared responsibility—albeit unequal—by all who call themselves its members.

I’ve never been Catholic. However, I did attend Catholic school through the sixth grade and I’ve attended my fair share of masses along the way. (I may have gotten away with one Communion before they found out I wasn’t Catholic. If we were good in mass, though, we got ten minutes extra recess. The motivating power of that promise was huge.) I enjoy the strong emphasis on ritual and the rich symbolism that is part of a long-standing tradition in contrast to the paucity of ritual in evangelical traditions. A couple summers ago while in Nice I visited several churches during my walks around town and was astonished at the beauty and majesty of the architecture, both inside and out. Few Protestant structures can compete with such grandeur, which adds to the believer’s experience in the same way other rituals do.

I am not a proponent of supporting the Catholic or any other church, necessarily, although I’m invested in the complicated history of Christianity and the effect it has had on Western society. I guess I’m arguing in part for more civility in discourse. Mockery, debasement, and generalizations are comparatively ineffective in coercing change, and for most of us who are indirectly connected to the issues at hand, it would be better to approach religion more even-handedly. It’s something I often have difficulty with, but try my best to do. In addition, we should be willing to confront our own share in the institutional structures in our social world and either be at peace with them or see our shared responsibility to change them.

2 thoughts on “The Big Cheese

  1. I enjoy Catholic services, particularly after growing up A of G. There was a certain terror of someone fainting in the middle of church (being “slain in the spirit”) or an altar call that might last well beyond lunch. The lack of ritual, too, created a kind of anxiety, because if things must be made anew every year, how stressful is that? I loved attending Catholic services at Gonzaga, and have flirted with joining the church just because I enjoy the tradition and solidity of it and not because of belief. I suppose it is my respect for those that believe so fervently that I don’t join and continue to view from afar; however, I do love to slip into a midnight mass before Christmas day, and I frequently feel a bit jealous when people wander around with ashes on the forehead. A nice solid patriarchal tradition along with a helping of absolutism can be really comforting on a cold, wet Sunday.

    • Hi Missy,

      I agree with you about the solidarity of belonging. It kept me in a church community for at least a year when I had little remaining theological commitment to it. While I can also relate to your sentiment about respecting sincerity of belief, I think that the majority of members fall far short of sincerity or fervency. It is the more charitable position. In more self-righteous moods, I cited to myself Paul’s comment that while eating sacrificial meat was fine for him, it might bother other Christians, so he didn’t do it around them. In the end, though, I found that others in the community needed to know that I affirmed their theological beliefs as well, and when they couldn’t understand my position, they no longer really “knew” me.

Leave a Reply