Brief Thoughts on a New Pope

Catholics of the world have a new pope. He is the first pope with the name Francis, the first Jesuit (an order that was on the Church’s bad list in the past), and the first from outside Europe. While these seem significant, they probably are not. They may even seem significant to the institution itself, but to the outside world, little will change.

If there is anything I could be encouraged by, it’s the connotations that the name Francis has for poorer socio-economic classes. It would be significant if the Catholic Church invested more effort in aiding the poor from the top-down. Latin and South American Catholicism in particular has been known in since the latter half of the twentieth century for a commitment to the poor, sometimes becoming the sole voice of resistance against capitalist exploitation that was often ignored by the official Church. It would not be new for Catholics to fight against economic exploitation, then, but it would be new for it to extend beyond words for the Catholic hierarchy. The institution cannot help but perpetuate itself, and this has meant an accumulation of wealth in the upper echelons of the church. There have been rumors that the papal transition was in part due to the potential loss of wealth because of impending prosecution.

It’s interesting to me, though, that we are so enamored by the whole process while holding, at the same time, that the pope really doesn’t matter and that we don’t really care what happens. Is it because we enjoy seeing the ceremonies and trappings of power? Is it only because we think that the pope doesn’t matter that we can enjoy watching people who obviously think he does? Or is it because we are worried that he may matter more than we let on? I am interested in the process, particularly because I can still remember when it took place less than a decade ago. I hold very little hope, however, for this pope being a harbinger for major changes either in the institution or the world.

What do you think? Does a new pope mean anything? Why are we so interested?


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.


Religion and Science: Which is Oil and Which is Water?

Religion and science are domains that don’t mix well. The reasons these continue to be the parameters of the debate on religion in the public forum is baffling to me. I suppose one practical reason for this is that it brings out the extremes on both sides. Creationists  (many of whom believe Earth is only six thousand years old) use Neo-atheist denials of religion as proof that they are blinded to Truth, and Neo-atheists often use Creationists’ refusal to believe facts as evidence of their ignorance. It’s not surprising that warning scientists of damnation does no more to convince them than does browbeating Creationist Christians with archaeological evidence does to persuade them. The rest of us in the middle are led to believe we must choose one or the other.

There’s a clip I often show in religion classes when I’m talking about textual interpretation that usually segues nicely into a nuanced discussion about ways to interpret text, but it also addresses the religion versus science debate:

Religulous is a funny movie, but it is also a painful movie. Since those segments of the population who are the subjects of the film are not going to be watching it in any large numbers, we who watch are either already convinced of the insufficiency of religion, or consider ourselves more religiously enlightened than those depicted in the film. The juxtaposition of the Catholic scientist and Biblical Creationist Ken Ham sets us up to root for the scientist. His agreeable nature seems refreshing. A Catholic priest in another portion of the film even scoffs at the idea that other Bible stories such as the virgin birth might be literally true.Yet for hundreds of years it was the Catholic Church that denied evidence of material reality when it contradicted Scripture, so they are relatively new to this role.

One can see a certain systemic logic to Ham’s approach. If one accepts the premise that the Bible must all be true to be at all true, then it seems one must advocate for the creation story in a literal sense. It provides a good example of the logical consequence of holding strictly to one method of interpretation to find truth. Of course, no holds a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, or else we would still be wringing birds’ necks for atonement and making women sleep outside every month to avoid contamination. Biblical literalism is, so far as I know, nonexistent. (On the other hand, the word “literal” in common speech has become essentially its opposite. If I hear, “Whoa. I literally almost died” while walking on a college campus, what I am to understand is “I almost died in the most figurative sense of the word.” But I digress…) Reading Ken Ham’s blog, though, you will notice quickly that the motivating factor behind his claims is fear of the complete loss of morality without God giving us moral standards. As we know, this is a common reason for a normative interpretation of Christianity. Until I left the church and my standards didn’t disappear, I thought that their primary support was my Christianity too. The idea simply ignores history, not to mention the millions around us who live moral lives.

If one were to make the claim that it is better for the church to adapt to a scientific culture, as Catholicism and some other mainline denominations have, rather than insist upon direct contradiction of the evidence of the scientific community, I might agree with you. These organizations have been around long enough to see that certain advancements in science will not be going away anytime soon, and have adjusted to accommodate them. However, there are other areas where they are as intransigent as they have ever been (homosexuality, gender roles, abortion, etc.).

I understand that there are some political decisions involved when one sees discrepancies with religion. I went through phases from questioning believer to disgruntled believer to cool, on-the-fringe, not-like-you believer, to non-practicing believer, to cool enlightened agnostic, to unbeliever (at least so far as the dogma of Christianity is concerned). However, I know of others who have taken the role of reforming-from-within. One example would be Roy Bourgeois, a recently defrocked Catholic priest who has long advocated against the US training of foreign soldiers to commit massacres against their own populations. The Church did not speak out on this, but when he in recent years showed his support for women in the priesthood, it began a process that ended in his removal from a position of authority in the Church. He continues to push for reform. I know of other theologians who are attempting to radicalize Christianity theologically and philosophically while remaining firmly within its bounds. The question we have had to answer is, “What is the best way to get my message out and make change?” There is not a correct answer to that question.

The point I am trying to make is that I am concerned about those who use (or advocate use of) science as an exit point from religion. The domains have some overlap, but are largely exclusive. Each reigns supreme within its bounds; the problems come when they try to legislate outside their borders. When, for example, religion claims to have the last word on global warming, we should be as concerned as when science discovers the key to happiness. (Yes, I know religion doesn’t have the keys to happiness, but neither is science presenting a unified front on global warming.) I don’t know of many converts from science to religion, but I know of some who cite a form of scientific knowledge as a motivating reason for deconversion. If held loosely as a method of skeptically examining reality and choosing the best (not right) course of action, the scientific method is a valuable tool, but used as the hermeneutic key to reality with the optimistic hope that it will someday unlock all the world’s secrets, science functions much the same as religion. Neither is the Wal-Mart Super Store of answers.