Monday, February 3, 2014

Is the Pope Catholic?

It’s a joke really, not even a real question. It’s one of those things we ask to mock people who fail to recognize something painfully obvious. It's like "is it cold in Alaska?" or "are basketball players tall?" or "are the NY Giants from NY?" In other words, it's not supposed to be a real question.

The way I’m asking it at this moment in history might sound like an echo of concerns from some questioning whether the pope is Catholic enough. Indeed, this pope has done some remarkable things, and some of these remarkable things have met with a reaction. Many on both sides of the political divide, however, correctly point out that Pope Francis's revolution is not likely to overturn much core doctrine. Still, the change in tone has caught the attention of the world, and so it's worth discussing the discussion.

The pope isn't the first Catholic to be litmus tested for Catholic enough. Politicians have faced this question when their own views conflict with those of the Church. It's something I've dealt with myself.

Observe: I’m a Catholic, and not just in regards to my Capitalization Style, in which most Important Words are Capitalized. I mean that I’m catholic by way of the Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion, which counts itself as part of the catholic Church (or Catholic Church, or catholic church), though not under the authority of the pope. In matters of religion (and love, and race, and gender, and sexual orientation, etc.), it seems most reasonable to accept a person’s own self-identity, without making judgment regarding whether this faith is sufficient in your own view. I am not obtuse enough, however, to think that this is the word that others would apply to my demographic. See also: here.

I lived the first half of my life as a "real" Catholic, though. Leaving was a complicated and fairly painful process, the repercussions of which are still felt in my extended family. Simplified,  it was the result of the Church tightening it's grip at a time when I was having more and more trouble reconciling my own views with those of the Vatican.

Less simplified, it was more than just the normal youthful chafing against the authority of an organized religion. Don't get me wrong, I had that too. My Catholic School girlfriends and I knowingly committed an array of venial (and a few mortal) sins. It's possible that my Catholic Schoolmates and I knowingly committed some others--particularly those regarding the fruit of the vine and work of human hands, and what earth has given and human hands have made. Heck, this is the Slacker’s Guide to School—sloth is constantly lurking as the near occasion of sin.

Less simplified still, I took issue with the Church's Doctrine, and the tightening of controls over that Doctrine. For example, I knew many girls who were smarter than I, and more devout. The fact that I could become pope someday and they couldn't solely based on our gender was a problem for me. Also, I knew many priests not nearly as suitable for Ordination as my father would have been. The fact that they were priests and he would never be just because he chose to have a wife and a family was a problem for me. Lots of Catholics wrestle with these things too, and somehow get through. One way to do this is to take a cafeteria approach to the whole thing. For example, consider issues such as birth control, in which Catholic women statistically match non-Catholic women very closely, despite the Church's take on the subject. 

For the record, I didn’t just leave, I went somewhere. Coincidentally, near this time my wife and I attended a wedding of friends of ours. The groom's mother was the priest who performed the Sacrament. I found that throughout the weekend this seemed less and less strange to me. Also at the wedding my wife and I were able to receive Communion together for the first time. These two elements had a profound effect on me. It wasn’t an easy decision-- it caused a rift in my family that may never completely heal, but having a Church that I can constantly be proud of, and that I can share with my wife, is enormously important to me. 

Given this history, I'm definitely not questioning whether the pope is Catholic enough. Besides, in his particular circumstance, that would be stupid. The calculation for the Holy Father is very different than it is for anyone else considering this questions (or having having it considered for him/her). The truth is, as the pope goes, so goes the Church. If you have previously resided in the desperately homophobic or 1% branch of the Church, you’re no longer in the mainstream. The pope is the mainstream. There are several churches that are Catholic in style, but do not accept the authority of the pope--The Holy Roman Catholic Church is not one of them.

Note: I’m not talking about Infallibility here. Infallibility doesn’t apply unless the pope invokes it. This has only happened a couple of times, and interestingly on what might be seen as some of the most fallible of Doctrine (see: here and here). This limitation ensures that the Church is protected from a crisis of faith resulting from circumstances in which the Holy See chooses the fish, and really should have gone with the beef. Even without Infallibility, however, as the pope goes, so goes the church. Francis has adopted a more loving and accepting tone, and it has given others in the church the courage to do the same. See a beautiful example: here.

So, is the pope Catholic? Not just a Catholic, but the very essence of Catholicism embodied?  In other words, is it possible to have Catholicism that is out of sync with its pope? Does the pope being a different kind of Catholic mean that we now have a different kind of Catholic Church? 

This depends on yet one more important question: what’s next? I was pretty sure that there was a permanent lock on the Vatican--that we would never see a different kind of pope in our lifetimes. I also  believed it was to be the same with Karl Rove’s Permanent Majority, as legislative power led to re-districting power, led to financial advantage, led to legislative seats, which led back to legislative power. Similarly, the Vatican was always going to remain constant, as each pope effectively installed his successor from the grave.

Then came Benedict XVI. Though initially a perfect example of the papacy’s trend toward increasingly reactionary succession, Benedict's nearly unprecedented abdication changed everything. No one is exactly sure why he became the first pope in 600 years to resign his papacy, but I suspect (as do many) that he was unprepared for the comparatively uninsulated reality of the position, and did not feel cut out for having his every word, thought, and deed put under such scrutiny. Whatever it was, doing so resulted in the one thing I thought we'd never see: real change.

The direction of the One True Church is an important one for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Cardinal O'Malley (who, as I mentioned, I'm inclined to listen to, as a result of this) recently stated that he doesn't think the church actually is obsessed with issues such as abortion, gay rights, and contraception--that this fixation comes from the New York Times. I'm not sure that he's visited Catholic news sites lately, but his inclination to see this preoccupation as the work of outside forces may mean that it's not first and foremost in his own mind. If his analysis is a correct reading of where the Church is heading, it will be a very big thing indeed.

The pope can affect population and AIDS rates and he can affect corruption and wealth inequality. The Catholic Church is a very large butterfly flapping its wings, and the head of this creature affects us all. If Pope Francis really does change what it means to be Catholic in a substantial way, Vatican II may one day look to us like light housework.

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