Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Lapsed Catholic to the New Pope: You're Not Helping

Today, there is a new pope in the Vatican. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year old cardinal from Germany, was elected on the second day of the conclave.

Read the news article from the Associated Press.
Also, read this biography from the somwhat liberal National Catholic Reporter.
Lastly, read the official biography at the website of the Holy See.

Where does the choice of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, leave the church and the world? I must agree with some of the analysis in the media that is calling him a transitional figure. I mean, the man is 78 years old. He will be lucky to be around on the tenth anniversary of his accession. We must be careful in these assumptions, for Pope John XXIII was seen as a transitional figure and he called the Second Vatican Council, changing forever the relation of the laity to the larger hierarchy of the faith.

I don't really think that this will be a concern with the new pope. He is, without a doubt, a brilliant theologian and masterful politician in the Vatican. He also understands the pressing issues of the day, both those facing the church and otherwise. Unfortunately, he has taken a rather less-than-enlightened view of a lot of these issues. The church is ripe for a change and I fear that this is not the man to do it.

What are the implications for the office itself and the place of the church in the modern world? I see this as a move on the part of the church to continue to hide from the modern world and its problems. I could enumerate them here, but they are so well known. In the area of its greatest expansion, Africa, the church must become a positive force for social and political change. It cannot become a servant of the state. We saw the last pope, as Archbishop of Krakow, as a real rallying point for the Solidarity movement. This was, by the same token, the same pope who opposed liberation theology in Latin America.

The church, now more than ever, needs to speak to these social concerns and political realities. It must take an active part in the world and in the lives of the faithful. The world is ever changing, and this puts an institution such as an organized religion in a hard spot. Can doctrine be separated from social practice? Can the sine qua non of Catholicism be maintained while remaining responsive to the needs of a varied and needy congregation? These are questions that Catholics must answer as a community.

Oh, if it were that easy. For it is not the church as a community that makes these decisions. The Catholic Church, in case you missed it, is not a democracy and never will be. It pronounces on matters of faith, doctrine and morals. You can question this as an individual, but your soul may be in peril if you do. There is very little room for individual decision making or the local churches of the rules adapting to the needs of their constituencies. Granted, there are few organizations that succeed without some form of organization and, yes, even hierarchy. When the bases of this hierarchy are coercion, unwavering pronouncements and doctrine, it leads to a separated and disconnected leadership and a congregation who is increasingly alienated from the core of the faith.

Where does my opinion come from? I guess you could call me a "lapsed Catholic." I was raised Catholic, but by parents who were not really dedicated to the faith. They were occasional mass participants, but they both took issue with the petty nature of parish politics. I took up the faith a bit more when I was in high school and college for a number of reasons, some I don't fully understand. When I graduated from college (a small, Catholic college), I began to wonder about the place of religion in my life. I wondered what the purpose of religion was to humankind. It seemed to me that what I was doing was trying to make myself better while all the while, I felt worse and worse. I knew that I didn't agree with a lot of the social stances of the church, a fact that I ignored for years. I could do so no longer.

If there are those who choose to believe, fine. It just plain stopped making sense to me and I could no longer live a lie. Belief in a religion did nothing more for me than encourage me to not think for myself. Freedom of thought is the brightest star in the constellation of the human experience. No one should ignore it, much less give it away willingly. A complete picture of my views on religion? No, and I don't think there ever will be. Wanna label me for easy argument? I guess I could be called an "ethical humanist," for lack of a better term.

I close with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"I have dedicated my life to the destruction of all tyranny over the mind of man."

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