This week's major news story was the election of a new pope. That's all anyone is talking about right now.
Everywhere I look Catholics are rejoicing, celebrating, and expressing their well wishes as Pope Francis takes office.
You know what's weird? Catholics are still complaining about church policy and the church's role in their lives.
How many Catholics wholeheartedly embrace the denial of gay rights, the denial of women's reproductive freedom, the denial of women in positions of power, the wisdom of priestly celibacy, and the belief that the pope is the unquestionable and infallible word of God? How many Catholics are disgusted with the way the Church has handled sex abuse cases over the decades?
While we're at it, how many Catholics truly believe without question the Virgin Birth, transubstantiation, and the belief that only Jesus-centered beliefs will win you a reward when you die?
Do you ever think it's time to give this up? Does it serve a real purpose in your life now, or is it just something you have always done?
There are people who do take that hard line, who claim to believe in everything the church teaches. I find most of the hard-liners still pick and choose their beliefs. Think of someone like Rick Santorum. I'm sure he believes in all of the religious teachings and certainly agrees with the church about the roles of gays and women in society. He also seems to disagree with the Catholic stand on the death penalty, poverty, and social justice issues. That seems pretty typical for your average conservative Catholic.
It seems to me that no matter where you stand on an issue, the Catholic Church does not seem to represent the beliefs and values of many of its members, no matter where they stand on various social issues.
The church is a medieval institution. It's a vestige of the dying Roman Empire, and it's proud of it. The church has no desire to change. It wants to always be recalling the glory of Rome. It maintains rituals that often predate it. It speaks a dead language. It covers itself in pomp and wealth. The pope is like an emperor. It is one of the few institutions in this world where power belongs only in the hands of men. What applications can this institution truly have to modern life? Whenever someone tries to reform it, reforms are met with opposition from both the clergy and the more conservative members of the congregations. Ever since the day that true reforms were made by one pope over forty years ago, every pope since then has tried to overturn them.
I almost understand why some Catholics fight reform. Older Catholics who lived through the days before Vatican 2 are seeing those days through the eyes of childhood memory. They associate the Latin mass and strict food regulations with the halcyon days of youth. All of us perceive the days of our childhood as simpler and happier. We think that's because the world was somehow better and simpler, but it was only that way because we were children and children's lives are not all that complicated. Young conservative Catholics who never lived through this era see this time through the lens of television and false nostalgia. Thanks to television we all see earlier eras as simple and perfect. If we return the world to pre-Vatican 2 times, all women will be forced to remain virtuous, will marry good Catholic men, will stay home with their children, and will never divorce. Other people who have demanded their rights in the past fifty years will stop asking for more than they deserve and fade into the woodwork and not bother good Catholics. The world will be a 50s sitcom.
There isn't much I can say to change the mind of a truly hard line Catholic, but for the rest of you, I want you to consider something.
You don't have to believe in this.
You say you know that, but do you really? Most Americans are indoctrinated into religion at a young age before we learn critical thinking. We come to accept it as true because everyone around us believes it. If you live in the United States and hold Christian beliefs, most people around you will confirm those beliefs and not think them odd. They will likely believe in the same or similar truths.
Imagine if you lived in Saudi Arabia or India or Sub-Saharan Africa, or Japan. You wouldn't find so many people confirming your beliefs. Your beliefs would be considered rather odd. Had you been raised in one of those cultures, you wouldn't likely suddenly decide Catholicism is the only truth. You would likely find your truth from the culture around you, which would not be Christian. If you lived in a non-Christian culture, Christianity would sound as odd and implausible to you as animism or Hinduism sounds to you now. In other words, we accept certain truths because the society around us confirms them.
One problem with religion is that society so closely associates religion with morality. It's almost as if we as a society feel that all would be chaos if it weren't for religion, and more specifically, Christianity. Is religion really the only thing that keeps us all from killing each other? How come there is such a small percentage of professed atheists in American prisons?
Rather than see "morality" as something that is defined by your religion (and likely has much to do with sex), I suggest you look at it the way Sam Harris does. See morality as how much harm you do (although Harris is a bit of a hypocrite himself with his belief in racial profiling and unearned discrimination). Why are you so concerned with who can have birth control when there are children going to be hungry in this country? It does far less harm to allow women reproductive autonomy, which in turn can alleviate much of the poverty in this world. Why deny condoms in African countries when they can prevent people from dying of AIDS? Does your gas-guzzling vehicle pollute our air and water and contribute to greenhouse gases? How much of our natural resources does it use up? Isn't it best not to harm the planet to make it liveable for our children? Should we get rid of this idea that we have dominion over the earth and God wants us to rape it? Is it so immoral to allow gays to marry, or do you really think it's more immoral to deny the same security and spousal rights to a partner someone loves? So many of beliefs we think of as "moral" do far more harm than good to others. Perhaps it's best not to look to the church for your morals.
I realize that tradition is one of the main reason Catholics cling to the church. Catholics center so much of their lives and rites of passage around Catholic ritual: weddings, communions, confirmations, and even funerals. Even regular holidays take on certain familial meanings for members of the Catholic Church. To let go of the church is to let go of the rituals and traditions that shaped your entire life.
I say that tradition is one of society's biggest impediments to progress. How often do you avoid trying something new or thinking a new way because something is "traditional". Maybe it's time to start a new tradition. Weddings can be secular. Family dinners don't have to center around religious rites of passage. Have an annual family picnic, or game, or hike, or bike ride. Do something completely different for the next big holiday. If you need some kind of religious excuse to see family members and celebrate, then maybe those family members weren't all that close to you to begin with. It is possible to shake off tradition. Even if you need something to help you feel peaceful and grounded on Sunday, you can do activities that aren't going to church. Meditate. Take a walk in nature. Take a yoga class. Get together with a group of friends and sing.
I know the next part. You don't have to tell me. I've felt this too. You have that nagging voice in your head. That voice has been in your head all of your life. It tells us that we have to believe this on some level or else, after we have enjoyed our "immoral" lives, no matter how good of a person we tried to be, that we will spend eternity in Hell. If you were brought up in a Christian denomination of any kind, you were told that this would be your fate without Jesus. Society confirms this on many levels. Most Americans of Christian extraction believe in Hell and don't want to go there. You think that maybe religion is bunk, that it has no place in your life, that the whole idea is silly, and then you start thinking along the lines of Pascal's Wager. What if they're right? I don't want to go to Hell.
It's a hard concept to wrestle with. Religion, all religions and not just Christianity, rule in some part by fear. What goes around comes around. That's the principle behind just about every religion. In some ways it is a very comforting idea. It lets us believe that there is some sort of justice in the universe.
I can't tell you how to find that path out of fear. Everyone has to find it for himself in his or her own way. It is possible though.
Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There is a fascinating movie contesting the very existence of Jesus. Although a little weak showcasing the facts*, the movie also documents Flemming's own journey out of belief. He was raised in a strict evangelical environment. He was "saved" numerous times in case the previous time didn't stick. In the beginning it was because it was expected of him. As time went on, he felt the same fears that many of us felt. He can tell you every passage in the Bible that speaks of divine retribution and the threat of Hell. Flemming came to realize that fear is a very crappy reason to hold a belief system.
At the end of the movie, he comes out from behind the camera and stands in front of it. Facing the camera, he directly tells, the audience. "I deny the spirit."
The screen fades to black and the words, "I am not afraid," are all that's left.
Do not be afraid.
*If such a thing interests you, I suggest you read this book.