Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I want my daddy

A pope can be challenged.  He makes claims to being infallible, but few people these days actually believe that.  In the first place, the doctrine of infallibility is only intended to apply to times when the pope speaks officially on doctrine, “ex cathedra.”  And only twice has it been invoked.  The first time was in 1854, when Pius IX declared that Mary was born without having inherited the sin of Adam – the notion of so-called “immaculate conception,” frequently misunderstood to refer to Christ’s conception.  The second time was in 1950, when Pius XII declared that Mary entered Heaven in bodily form. Whether she died first is left open to question.

Popes can and do make mistakes at other times, but if you are a catholic you are required to believe without question that these two events took place.  Pius XII, labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by his detractors for his decision to go easy on Hitler rather than risk the loss of church property and authority, was quite specific on the doctrine of infallibility.  “(I)f anyone,” he declared, “which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We (sic - capital letter) have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.” 

Times change.  Here we are in 2016 and Francis, the current pope, issues a book length guideline on family life under the title, Amoris Laetitia.  We all know people have been leaving the church in droves, not over doctrinal conflicts, which most people seem to be able to leave to their “betters” in the hierarchy.  But over what is roundly perceived to be unrealistic demands on their behavior.  In an age when half the marriages end in divorce in many modern nations, being told you can no longer have access to the sacraments because you've divorced and remarried strikes many as cruel.  Traditionalists insist rules are rules and the church’s truth cannot be made subject to the ebb and flow of cultural norms.  Modernists, on the other hand, argue we learn as we live, and while some things cannot change (the divinity of Christ and his resurrection, for example, or the importance of charity and compassion), common practices which do not affect one’s faith may.  And here is where Pope Francis has tuned in.  Many traditionalist bishops have urged that communion be denied to legislators who support candidates who support a woman’s right to an abortion, for example.  But in Amoris Laetitia, footnote 351, Francis writes, “I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'.” 

Cardinal Burke (center, in red)

This move on Francis’ part has many conservatives in the church and traditionalists in the hierarchy up in arms.   In June of this year a group of Catholic scholars, 45 of them, addressed a letter to the cardinals asking them to help get the pope to backpedal on these efforts to reform the church from within.  Four Cardinals: Burke, Caffara, Brandmüller and Meisner responded by addressing the pope with what is called a dubia, or a request for clarification. Five dubia, actually. They are listed here.  Basically, they ask for clarification on the old questions of whether divorce is to be allowed, and whether a person who divorces is not committing adultery when remarrying and how one is supposed to reconcile the teachings of the church with one’s individual conscience.

Francis has chosen, so far at least, not to reply.  To put a positive spin on his silence, the cardinals are suggesting it is a signal that the issue should be reflected upon some more before proceeding.

Those who want to celebrate this pope as a liberal or a modernizer seize on his welcome focus on pastoral care over the rigidity of doctrine and the policing of the people in the pews.  But what you find in reading Amoris Laetitia is unmistakeably a restating of the old rules – marriage is forever, sex is for the purpose of reproduction, and one does not mess with Mother Nature.  In other words, no sex outside of marriage, no gay sex, no gay marriage, and put a stop to sex changes right now.

What’s a progressive to do?  We're in the same boat with Hillary Clinton supporters, who wish she had won out against von Clownstick, knowing all the while it would only have meant more corporate control, more military solutions, more of the same old same old.  With the pope, you get these wonderful moments when he expresses personal humility, like that moment in the plane when he mused, “Who am I to judge?”  But then you get this rehashing of the medieval notion that sex is the basis of morality, women are ultimately subordinate to men, and homosexuality is “inherently evil.”  One is admonished to love the sinner, but hate the sin, and your protestations that your love is not sin fall on deaf ears.

“Progressive” as he may at first appear relative to the likes of Cardinal Burke, famous for his silks and satins, and his embrace of the good old days when the mass was in Latin, performed by an elitist clique of men with special access to the deity, Francis is still the head of a ruthlessly authoritarian institution.  Ironically, because he is pope, there are people in the church farther to the right than Attila the Hun who would punish these four cardinals for even questioning the authority of the pope in the first place.  Sort that all out, I dare you.

But to the point.  How, I ask you, does one go through life hating the good within you without falling apart, knowing in your heart of hearts that homosexual love, like any other form of love, is a beautiful thing, that it enhances and does not detract from the inclination to charity and compassion, generosity and caring?  And how does one get through life undamaged if, after marrying badly out of youthful ignorance and inexperience, you know you will never be able to use that experience to give yourself a second chance at companionship and family?

The Roman Catholic Church has had a number of times in its history when it revealed its stunning imperfections for all to see.  The selling of indulgences to build St. Peter’s led to the Reformation.  The hypocrisy of the church’s support for the powers that be in the slave-owning societies of Brazil and the United States, among other places, and for tyrannies in Latin America and elsewhere help to explain the appeal of Marxism and “godless communism.”

And today?  This apparently lovely decent man I take Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be, who expends great effort trying to get the church to spend less time on ritual and ceremony and finger-pointing and shaming and more on pastoral care and embracing the poor and the outlier, tries an end-run around the traditionalists with Amoris Laetitia.  It’s basically an appeal for flexibility, for making the church a bigger, more inclusive port in the storm. But the conservatives seize upon his strategy of using ambiguity, and call him on it.  In forcing him into a corner, they reveal he was doing little more than adjusting the deck chairs on the Titanic in the first place.  This is not the pope speaking ex cathedra. It's the pope speaking as a man, fallible and seeking.  What the cardinals are clearly longing for is the good old days when the pope had no doubts.  They want their daddy back the way he was when he had all the answers.

How very much a matter of the zeitgeist.  America wants its Boss-Man - never mind his imperfections and limitations.  Hungary and Austria are moving toward fascism and the rest of Europe circles the wagons as well against the imagined Muslim invader.  And the church wants this pope of theirs to cut it out with all that uncertainty of his.  Get with the drill.

I’d love to be able to like the Roman Catholic Church.  When she’s good, she’s very very good.  A source for schools and hospitals and countless numbers of caring priests and other religious doing their best to relieve pain and suffering.  We feminize her.  Call her "Mother Church." See her as warm and embracing.

But when she’s bad, she’s worse than horrid.  And not feminine at all.  She's more like daddy at his pig-headed best, driving down the road too proud to ask directions. 

I remember how I used to pepper my mother with questions and hear her say, "Ask your father."  I did.  And he always had all the answers.

I also remember the time when I came across an old Model T in an empty field not far from my house.  I used to pretend to drive it, but for years my legs were too short to reach the pedals.   And by the time they did, the engine was missing.

Eventually, somebody came and towed her away.

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