s a Catholic sufficiently lapsed, I keep an eye on what the Roman Church is doing in that neck of the woods while asking myself: why this Roman hangover from 2,000 years ago? Don’t those guys in the Vatican know that Rome was about Empire and empires are out of fashion except for the British version that has no power, muscle or well-traveled legions?
I’ve been meaning to write to Pope Francis and tell him about a dream I had of the late John Paul II sinking into the earth, looking and sounding very maternal and feminine. I wrote a poem about this called “Chanting the Feminine Down” and haven’t mailed that to Francis either. It’s just hard to figure out what’s going on in the Vatican these days. I have heard from friends in Italy that this tiny kingdom employs letter-sniffing dogs to weed out anti-Papal remarks or prose that is too purple and thereby clashes with the vestments.
Pope Francis just told us that evolution does not contradict Catholic teaching. We all breathed a sigh of relief because who could remember that Pope Pious XII said the same thing way back in 1950. So did Popes after him. But none of these Popes acknowledged that they were not in a position to judge gays. And Francis tweets a lot. I should know; I follow him devoutly.
The recent synod on the family in Rome went a long way to prove the decision makers in the Vatican are medieval, confused or both. The attendees picked by the Pope suggested a rethinking of matters that have kept the lapsed like me outside of ecclesiastical circles. I’ve managed. Knock on enough church doors and absolution will find you. But seriously, I thought Pope Francis was putting his stamp on the place in a fundamental way. My suit was pressed, my tie ready; my heart squeaky clean. But then, in the wonderful words of Ross Douthat at the New York Times, “there was a kind of chaos. Reports from inside the synod have a medieval appeal—churchmen berating each other, accusations of manipulation flying, rebellions bubbling up.” So the final document was changed. The title of Douthat’s piece, “The Pope and the Precipice,” tells the tale, almost. After all, theology is something like cliffhanging or dancing on the head of a pin.
I think the tale of feuding cardinals, leaked documents and—who knows, poison in the soup—provide a wonderful narrative that seems consistent with many synods in the past that were full of back-biting and unchristian behavior. Back in the day when I spent much of my weekends in and out of church, I learned from a very angry Father Bede the straight line narrative from St. Peter’s mouth to my virgin ears. The priest’s thick British accent had, as I found out later, a hint of infallibility. This is the way things become gospel truth. And to think I was thinking about becoming a priest. But the itch always requires scratching.
I wrote my PhD dissertation on the Catholic novelist, chased the gods of war in “That Kingdom Coming Business,” and looked for the goddesses in “Set Pieces of the Feminine.” No one showed up or I wasn’t looking in all the right places. I know, I was taking the easy path. Theology dictated another way; I should actual learn the bits and pieces of church history I hadn’t found during my poetic and wayward indulgences.
This poet does protest too much. He has been in and out of synods and other church alleyways much of his adult life. His memory, not what it used to be, remembers Inquisitions, Crusades and lots of Popes who, considering how they behaved, must have been infallible. But I am older and wiser now, not as likely to shoot from the hip and tear down statues. That was done remarkably well during the Protestant Reformation in England, and I have no desire to walk in those shoes.
I have successfully used editions of the massive works of St. Augustine and Aquinas as bookends to my ecclesiastic library and wasn’t ready to dislodge these pillars of Catholicism again. As it stands, they have been well-read and now serve a vital role in holding that abstract universe together. Instead, I consulted a modest book, “The Catholic Church: A Short History” by Hans Kung, a priest and a theologian who has had his run-ins with the Vatican. The author must have known I would be picking up his book because he reminds us how little Catholic knows about the history of their church. Most of the institutions and constitutions of the Church and especially the papacy are man-made, and therefore can be changed and reformed. That might sound revolutionary in some parishes and also at the Vatican.
Kung suggests four conditions that need to be met if the church is to have a future in the third millennium. First, it must not turn backwards and fall in love with the Middle Ages, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment. It should be rooted in its Christian origin and its present tasks.
Second, it must not be patriarchal with stereotypical images of women, exclusively male language, and predetermined gender roles but accept women in all church ministries.
Third, it must not be “narrowly confessional” with the presumption of officialdom but be an ecumenically open church with the abolishment of all excommunication.
Fourth, it must not show a Roman imperialism “but be a tolerant universal church which has respect for the truth that is always greater” and learn from other religions.
This book was written more than a decade ago but little has changed in the church until the appointment of Pope Francis. The central message—and reminder for me—was that much of current Catholic doctrine was made by the hands of man and often for political, personal, and provincial reasons. I do wonder about the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
In his NYT article, Ross Douthat writes that Pope Francis is different from his predecessors when talking about matters of faith and doctrine. “In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life—sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.”
Douthat, who know his subject well, thinks this could lead to chaos in the church. I hope so.
A coda: recently Cardinal Dolan indicated that fifty parishes could be closed or consolidated in the greater New York area due to declining membership. He said that people weren’t leaving the church; they were just moving elsewhere.
That is precisely what’s wrong with the Roman Church: the Optics.