Leaving Rome

When I began this blog, it was without the intention of commenting upon recent news stories, poking my expository finger at the latest Fox News outrage rather like Sister Wendy pointing critically at some classical statue’s genitalia: “I daresay that it was rather cold in the studio that day.” Instead, when I comment upon some political development, I prefer the not-so-recent, that which I have had time to think upon and form a relatively developed view. Thoughtfulness is not something which can be cued as quickly as blustering outrage, but I like to think that it’s my particular forte.

However, the selection of Pope Francis as Time magazine’s Person of the Year does rather compel me to violate my unwritten rule about commentary and current events, though not for reasons of supporting or rejecting the selection. I find Time’s Person of the Year about as significant as I find Pulitzer Prizes in fiction or the Academy Awards, more representative of a general consensus, safe in all things, rather than a genuine signifier of innovation or great storytelling. Of course, there was a time when Time chose its Person of the Year not as an opportunity to engage in a collective belly rub but rather to indicate the person who arguably had the greatest effect upon that particular year, either for good or ill: Adolf Hitler received the nod in 1938, Joseph Stalin in 1939 and 1942, and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. (Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were dually selected in 1972, though not to acknowledge the evils they had perpetrated thus far.) After 1979, it seems, Time decided to accentuate the positive in favor of all else–yet another victim of the Reagan years. You may disagree, but tell me truthfully, who had a greater impact upon the world in 2001, Osama bin Laden or Rudolph Gulliani?

Person of the Year is a fairly meaningless designation, not even a journalistic convenience but rather like the Best Salesperson award handed out during a stale luncheon at your business’s yearly conference in some Holiday Inn in Nebraska–not designed to provoke thought or discussion but rather to give fodder for applause. And in that respect, Pope Francis is as good a recipient as any, though Time errs in imagining him all that different from his predecessor, the famously stodgy Benedict XVI. As Michael Tracey has written for Al Jazeera, the current pope differs more in public relations strategies than he does in actual substance; after all, popes since Leo XIII have criticized the excesses of capitalism (though, admittedly, for poor Leo, still a prisoner in the Vatican, papal approbation of unions was largely a means of forestalling the working poor’s embrace of socialist or anarchist ideologies, then very much in currency throughout Europe). Lost in the image of John Paul II as the ultimate Cold Warrior was his support for unions in his native Poland and his criticisms of both communism and capitalism, criticisms repeated by Joseph Ratzinger when he took office in 2005. But Francis bought himself a used car, and so seems to practice what he preaches, which is enough to bring down upon him the adoration of a media always seeking a genuine good guy when it’s not busy fabricating villains.

Anecdotal evidence offered by the media holds that lapsed Catholics are heading back to mass once again now that it seems there is a Pope of the People living in the Vatican. However, most people stop going to church because they do not feel any real connection with their fellow parishioners, and what national scandals or clueless leaders allow is a means for those lapsed faithful to justify their decisions in a somewhat rational manner. It’s not the fully integrated, the Sunday School teachers and the OCIA leaders and the parish council members, who fall away when some pedophilia scandal hits the airwaves, not unless they were personally affected; no, it’s those who have to drag themselves to mass as if it were a chore to be checked off–moreover, a chore that has to be done on this perfectly beautiful Sunday morning when all you want to do is stretch out on the couch and read that latest Terry Pratchett novel or perhaps go for a hike.

I wonder whether or not I would have fallen away from Rome as precipitously as I had did I not end up moving to another city in 2005. That was the year I was wrapping up a bachelor’s degree in theology through an extension program offered by the local diocese (even while working on a Ph.D. in Heritage Studies at the same time, because I was a crazy person). I liked some of the theology classes: scripture studies was like some combination of English and history, and ethics and morality constituted simply a philosophy class with a Christian bent. But I hated the third and final year of the program, covering pastoral ministry and parish leadership, in part because so many of our exercises were group projects which entailed discussions of spiritual crises we had experienced and how we were guided through these in prayer. I hate discussing personal matters at a prompt, and even when I was trying my best to be a good Catholic, I could not shake a singular aversion to personal or small-group prayer–mouthing some words collectively during the mass was fine, but don’t ask me to spit platitudes of my own fashioning here and now. (Hell, that was part of the reason I left the Baptist church!)

But I soldiered through that final, dreadful year and received my diploma, only to be offered a job in another city and thus separated from the church which had perhaps hoped to take advantage of some of my theological learning. So, once I was all settled in the new place, I started going to a different parish. I never really met anyone there, and nothing ever inspired my continual attendance. Eventually, I found that Sunday mornings without that lingering over me were much more satisfying.

However, I did not simply drift away like so many. I remember clearly three points in time in which I consciously took a step away from the church, the last one completely away, never to return:

  • It was 2006, and in the lead-up to the mid-term elections, bishops and archbishops and cardinals around the country were proclaiming the need to vote in line with the morals of the church. The priest at the church I occasionally attended made clear what was meant about this in yet another sermon on the evils of artificial contraception. I personally wondered what had happened to that war in the Middle East that was so roundly condemned as unjust by John Paul II. My brother, a newly minted Marine, had just received orders sending him to Iraq.
  • My friend Ed, with whom I had attended the theology program, was keeping a blog or MySpace page on which he voiced thoughts both theological and personal. He and his wife had recently announced that she was pregnant, but that something happened which caused her body to reabsorb the fetus back into her system, thus ending the pregnancy. It’s one of those things which just happens, and on a more regular basis than might otherwise be imagined. Soon thereafter, Ed announced that he had recently prayed to his recently “departed” offspring. It was perfectly in keeping with Catholic doctrine: every human being has a soul; human beings begin at the moment of conception; human souls ultimately end up in either heaven or hell; unbaptized babies are heaven-bound, no longer destined for Limbo; those in heaven are called saints; one can pray to saints to intercede for us before the Lord our God; therefore, Ed could rightly pray to that agglomeration of cells. The image of a grown man praying to something barely a fetus revolted me. I wanted to throw up.
  • Karl Keating, who runs a website called Catholic Answers, issued one of his regular invectives against liberals in the church, reminding them that the church’s stance on such issues as female ordination and homosexuality and contraception would never change and that those who wished otherwise would be doing themselves a service if they simply left the church altogether. And I realized that I agreed with him completely.

Pope Francis emphasizing the plight of the poor and making some noise about corruption within the Vatican walls is more a PR strategy than a substantive shift. It equivalent is Wal-Mart openly embracing a “green” strategy, promising to lower the footprint of its individual stores–it ignores the fact that Wal-Mart, because of what it is, simply cannot practice any real environmentalism due to the fact that it is an international corporation whose low prices, the source and summit of its profit margin, depends upon the outsourcing of manufacturing to third-world nations, and shipping slave-made goods halfway around the world is the very opposite of a green strategy. (In fact, the analogy between the Roman Catholic Church and Wal-Mart holds in many ways, for the “universal” church was perhaps the first franchise out there, especially when Latin was the language employed in the liturgy, as everything was standardized so that the person traveling would be sure to get the same service in one place as he would in his native village.)

Pope Francis can wax eloquent about those in poverty, but his words elide the fact that poverty is often reinforced by unpredictability, such as the surprise pregnancies which pile on when one adheres to Natural Family Planning. (I have discussed before some of the irrational assumptions underlying the church’s opposition to contraception.) I predict that if Francis lingers on the Chair of St. Peter long enough, we will see him, ever mourning the poor, damning those who attempt to bring the poor some modicum of justice or security, something other than pity and charity, just as Leo XIII and others after him damned the radicals of a secular stripe who were often the only ones interested in correcting the problem of class in our world. Why light a candle when you can curse the darkness? Why undertake the heavy lifting of destroying financial inequality when you can direct your prayers to some unformed fetus in heaven?

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